1929 - | VIC | Cartoonist, filmmaker
Bruce Petty's bold 'scribbles' are as at home on the screen as on the page. His work in several media is characterised by his depiction of multiple interconnected concepts rather than a single idea. Although best known for his political cartoons in The Age for more than three decades, Petty was an Oscar-winning animated film maker, an etcher, an AFI award-winning documentary maker and a creator of 'machine sculptures', one of which was exhibited in the Australian Pavilion at World Expo '85.
A Petty cartoon has tendrils of thought that can reach across the entire political landscape.
Bruce was born in Melbourne in 1929 and distinguished himself as one of the great political satirists of any generation. You don’t have to agree with his political views all the time but his satirical ideas were all informed by a fierce desire to champion the underdog, the oppressed or the dispossessed.
Bruce has worked for The New Yorker, Esquire, Punch, The Bulletin, The Australian and The Age. He also won an Oscar for his animated film called Leisure in 1976. He has made many films since then including Global Haywire which won an AFI award for Best Director.
His love of the “contraption” also drew him to make a three dimensional sculpture called “Man Environment Machine,” exhibited at the World Expo in 1985 in the Australian Pavilion.
His early political cartoon book, Australia Fair was an inspiration for every Australian young cartoonist. His liberated freewheeling line work (inspired by Thurber and Topolski) influenced many young cartoonists who yearned for a style that did not depend on conventional draughtsmanship.
You could argue that Bruce’s greatest achievement was to aggressively tangle his thin, strong line around the tragic giant of the Vietnam War. Bruce’s brilliant cartoons pilloried the double speak and euphemism of that disturbing period.
His other great achievement was in a sense journalistic. He imagined a visual approximation of economics, a Newtonian world of levers and pulleys. The pseudo-scientific jargon of economics is easy meat for a satirist. Bruce’s wild thicket of lines is ideally suited to the chaotic reality of modern economics in the era of the Global Financial Crisis.
For years, Bruce has attended Federal Government budget lock-ups. For about five hours Bruce would be locked in a room full of reporters, sub-editors and other cartoonists and a mountain of budget papers. His job was to find a humorous or ironic comment on as many budgetary categories that he could. Faced with this task, most other cartoonists would struggle to invent more than a handful of ideas. Within an hour of reading the budgetary summaries, Bruce’s desk would be littered with dozens of brilliant, miniature cartoon ideas. Each cartoon was a marvel of dexterity and insight. They were also very funny.
Bruce never had a regular designated Petty-desk at The Age. He would float into town and just settle on a vacant desk in the cartoonists’ area. You could always tell that Bruce had been there by the pile of words and scraps of imagery scattered across the desk. He didn’t use inkwells or nibs. His favourite tool was a simple felt tipped pen. His favorite paper seemed to be plain layout pads. Bruce never seemed to worry about his archival legacy. In the past decade he has produced a series of beautiful intaglio etchings and drypoints for the Chrysalis Gallery but he has always returned to the weekly cartoon in The Age.
Like all human activists, Bruce sees ruined lives behind the cold statistics of laissez-faire theory. Bruce is a journalistic fighter for what he considered to be a sense of fairness in public life.
Bruce is still going strong. He sometimes thinks of retirement but is dumbfounded by the alternative to work.
It is notable that Bruce’s style has never been copied. Every major cartoonist has spawned a number of imitators. This has not happened to Bruce. He is, indeed, unique.
John Spooner has been a cartoonist/illustrator at The Age since 1974. He won the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award in 2002.
Courtesy of Bruce Petty.
Courtesy of Fairfax.
Courtesy of Bruce Petty
The World According to Petty, multimedia presentation and interview with John Spooner on The Age website.
Petty’s Parallel Worlds, Bruce Petty, High Horse Publishing, 2008.
Petty’s Australia – And How it Works, Bruce Petty, Penguin, 1976.