1943 - 2018 | VIC | Cartoonist
Tandberg has been front and centre of Australia's national life for more than half a century. Since he joined The Age in 1972, his cartoons on its front pages, and in those of the Sydney Morning Herald and Herald Sun, have uniquely combined the best elements of portraiture and graphic art to provide compelling insight, dissection and humour. Credited with reinventing the pocket cartoon, Tandberg's work has been recognised with a record 10 Walkley awards, including two Gold Walkleys, and in numerous exhibitions and collections, including the National Museum of Australia. His memorable 1980s anti-AIDS campaign poster drawing underscored a remarkable capacity to impact public consciousness.
Among all the words and pictures cataloguing Australian politics and life in the past 50 years, the public take-out has arguably had more to do with the pocket cartoons of Ron Tandberg than anyone else.
When one thinks of “Honest” John Howard, Malcolm Fraser’s Easter Island aloofness, Sir John Kerr’s tipsy Melbourne Cup performance, the Bob Hawke and Paul Keating Kirribilli rivalry, Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s rustic folksiness, Jeff Kennett’s open-mouthed struggles with silence, Joan Kirner’s gender challenges, Kevin Rudd’s selfie nerdiness, the mental imagery is invariably drawn from the caricatures and cutting captions of Tandberg cartoons on the front page.
When one thinks of the social issues of Aids, asylum seekers, Aboriginal affairs, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, big business and social justice, the public mood is frequently encapsulated, informed or challenged by a Tandberg cartoon.
His deceptively simple cartoons are unique time capsules of our lives, the work of a man of external affability but on a serious mission of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.
For a man who did not think much of his own Catholic primary school and Coburg Technical School education, and who wasn’t overly successful as an art teacher, Tandberg became a leading analyst, commentator and educator for decades.
He was always drawn to draw, always with a disinclination for those of power and influence, always with his own individual thinking.
He says: “My traditional education was pretty ordinary, but I think it helped because I didn’t have a structured way of looking at things, I had to have my own way of thinking about them. And being brought up a Catholic taught me about what was right and wrong, good and evil, and to question things and I always had that lack of respect for authority.”
Tandberg says such things with a grin of sincerity that masks a hard-edged intent.
“My aim is to do something that looks sweet and lovely but has a very sharp edge,” he explained. “ If I can pick out something that shows up the stupidity, the arrogance or the nastiness of people I’m happy to do it. With a smile on my face.”
Four years of graphic design at RMIT after leaving school gave him the key early insights of simplicity of illustration, and the impact of well-written advertising messages.
He started work in the art department at Leader suburban group in 1963, but he was dismissed for impersonating his boss, the start of a lifelong struggle with having respect for any management.
He developed a strip, “Fred and Others”, which was published in The Herald, Adelaide Advertiser, and overseas papers including the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Graham Perkin, then editor of The Age, declined to take the strip, and was disappointed when Tandberg told him he wasn’t particularly interested in politics. But as an art teacher, Tandberg did become political as teacher unions fought education management, and he began doing “filler” cartoons for the union magazine.
The magazine dropped the cartoons because, they said, they didn’t relate directly enough to the content. Tandberg’s typically direct challenge was to change his life. “I was a bit angry so I said show me the stories then!”, he says. “And they did. I have a feeling that might have been a breakthrough moment, to actually draw on the stories. I’m not sure if it was a first in Australia, but it happened almost by accident.”
His cartoons now caught Perkin’s eye in 1972, as he was after a cartoonist in the manner of Mel Calman, whose angst-ridden “little man” cartoons were in the Sunday Times.
Tandberg began two days a week, which became three then four then full-time, and the start of a relationship that would last almost half a century and is still going strong. Tandberg was in a powerful stable of cartoonists and illustrators – Leunig, Nicholson, Tanner, Petty, Horner, Spooner – but he was the cartoonist on Page One every day. Tandberg epitomised the resurgent Age’s more independent and campaigning journalism, and he encapsulated the paper’s personality and values. His unique ability – every day – to make the cut-through insight into complex issues remains his distinctive gift almost 50 years later.
“I developed an obsession with simplicity,” Tandberg says. “Drawing very small I have to make sure the shapes work, make sure the portraiture works, to keep it as simple as possible. I don’t want anything in just to fill the space. Although the drawing looks simple in the paper I have to make sure it has the freshness of the original idea, and the best cartoon is when you even surprise yourself.”
After a brief departure to the Herald Sun in the early 1990s, Tandberg returned to The Age sharper than ever, albeit working from his studio on the Bellarine Peninsula, drawing for Page One every day. From his studio he could finesse, fiddle, frustrate, fulminate and torture himself and his wife, Glen, in peace and isolation until he got something that he was happy with, something which “looks gentle and harmless but the message is far from harmless”.
One of his favourites was when a magistrate sentenced a troublesome Aboriginal kid to gaol. Ron had the magistrate saying to the boy: “You are a repeat offender. Your grandfather was black, your father was black, and you are black”. This simple cartoon typically said much, an approach underscored in the explanatory statement he attached to one of his award-winning cartoons, showing two soldiers rushing off to the Iraqi war, one with a US flag and the other an Australian flag, and then returning home in coffins draped with those flags: “Australia’s subservience to US foreign policy became an issue for thinking Australians who would prefer an independent policy. My cartoon reflects this relationship.”
His sharp brain and pen meant that for 50 years in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney a frequent conversation starter to the day was: “Did you see today’s Tandberg?” That’s a big message about a pocket cartoon.
Steve Harris was Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Age 1997-2001, Editor-in-Chief of the Herald Sun 1992-1997, and Founding Editor of The Sunday Age 1989-1992. He is a life member of the Melbourne Press Club.
Courtesy of Fairfax.
Courtesy of Ron Tandberg.
The Age of Tandberg, Ron Tandberg, Edward Arnold, 1981.
Tandberg’s Age of Consensus, Ron Tandberg, Anne O’Donovan, 1984.
The Ageless Tandberg, Ron Tandberg, Wilkinson Books, 1994.
Tandberg Draws the Line: the Second Age of Tandberg, Ron Tandberg, Edward Arnold, 1982.