Ron Tandberg and his pen take on cancer

Ron Tandberg, normally the most straightforward of newspaper artists, drew a perplexing cartoon a couple of weeks ago.

It depicts a trio of his familiar, guileless little everyperson figures attending an art gallery.

On the wall hangs an elaborate self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), another by Van Gogh (1853-1890) and one by Rembrandt (1606-1669).

But it is a fourth portrait that has won the interest of the gallery-goers.

It is a simple line drawing of a little man in polka-dot pyjamas clutching a hospital IV pole. The date on this piece of artwork is open: 1943-.

"This guy is still alive," cries one of the viewers to the other two.

"This guy is still alive": Last Tandberg cartoon for Insight story December 2017, featuring Leonardo, Van Gogh and Rembrandt

"This guy is still alive": Last Tandberg cartoon for Insight story December 2017, featuring Leonardo, Van Gogh and Rembrandt

And there, in a single cartoon of the blackest humour, are the essential ingredients of Ron Tandberg's past, present and uncertain future.

The fellow in the polka-dot pyjamas is Tandberg himself.

He has spent the past month undergoing intensive radiation treatment for oesophageal cancer.

And being Tandberg, he has done a series of cartoons, all of them unpublished until now, about his contest with mortality.

11 x Tandberg cartoons about his cancer for Insight story December 2017

11 x Tandberg cartoons about his cancer for Insight story December 2017

There is one portraying him as a small figure standing helplessly as a giant wave approaches, threatening to sweep him away. And another from within an MRI scanning machine. "Take a deep breath," the machine instructs the small man inside. "Breathe normally". "Are you going to find a cure for cancer?" inquires the patient. "Don't hold your breath," says the machine.

There are more, but the cartoon depicting the scene in the art gallery is a puzzle. Tandberg himself needs to explain it, at which point it becomes illuminating.

The self-portraits by Da Vinci, Van Gogh and Rembrandt symbolise Tandberg's awakening to great art.

At the age of 16, a working-class boy with not much more than Year 10 of secondary school to his name, he enrolled among better educated, richer kids in art school at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Nearby, housed those days in the State Library of Victoria in Swanston Street, was the art collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.

Tandberg took to spending his free hours wandering the gallery, and he became transfixed by a self-portrait painted by one of the greatest visual artists in history, the Dutch master Rembrandt.

"The honesty of it," Tandberg enthuses of the painting. The absence of vanity. And the immense work involved. All these decades later he remains awestruck.

Rembrandt seemed to have laboured forever to make every brush stroke an illumination, yet Tandberg himself found he could draw with great intensity for not much more than half an hour.

In quest of personal artistic honesty, Tandberg decided to pursue his strength.

11 x Tandberg cartoons about his cancer for Insight story December 2017

11 x Tandberg cartoons about his cancer for Insight story December 2017

"I went for simplicity and minimalism," he says. "I'd try to capture the essence of something with that abstract little line, almost defying reality to create a new reality."

And here, after a half century of labouring at getting his own style and his abstract little line just so, is Ron Tandberg's self-portrait: a cartoon.

It is of a man bewildered to find himself, at 73, under treatment for one of the more insidious of cancers, and bemused to find he is still alive.

No vanity here. It is the most honest work he can offer. The great artists who inspired him are long gone from the Earth, their work ageless, but Tandberg, who has reduced his art to a few near perfect lines on a page, clings on.

It is what he does, day after day, often - like most artists - consumed by doubt.

Tandberg has been submitting "pocket cartoons" to the pages of The Age since 1972.

He has won 11 Walkley Awards, two of them gold.

He has won admirers everywhere for his refusal to let the powerful, particularly those in the political world, get away with conceit.

It is almost impossible to visualise an edition of The Age without a Tandberg distilling the big issue of the day into a tiny drawing and forcing a snort of laughter out of it, and doing so with the fewest possible strokes of his artist's pen and a brief caption.

Cartoon / toon / Illustration / Illo by Ron Tandberg
1979 Walkley Award winning cartoon
Malcolm Fraser
The real Malcolm Fraser and the public image of Malcolm Fraser
Image used; The Age - Reflections : 150 Years of History, pg 79, upper left.

Cartoon / toon / Illustration / Illo by Ron Tandberg 1979 Walkley Award winning cartoon Malcolm Fraser The real Malcolm Fraser and the public image of Malcolm Fraser Image used; The Age - Reflections : 150 Years of History, pg 79, upper left.

His targets over the decades have been unmistakeable and unforgettable: Malcolm Fraser as an Easter Island statue, Jeff Kennett with his mouth perpetually open wide, Tony Abbott as a pair of ears in lycra, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in infants' highchairs.

Tandberg's portrayal of Malcolm Fraser won him the 1979 Walkley Award.

Tandberg's most fraught relationship with any of his subjects was with former Victorian premier Kennett.

One night, at a big public event hosted by Fairfax, Tandberg was speaking and sketching on stage when Kennett pointedly turned his back. Tandberg, merrily sketching the premier with his mouth wide as Port Phillip Bay, ventured a few verbal jabs about how Kennett had "opened up" Melbourne and Victoria.

Eventually the premier shouted from the floor that Tandberg had "offended half the population" because he'd made a quip about ex-prime minister Malcolm Fraser. Tandberg responded by telling Kennett that judging from the last election results, he'd offended half the population of Victoria. Kennett stormed out.

Fairfax's CEO of the time, Fred Hilmer, later told staff he'd never been so embarrassed, and Tandberg was told by another senior executive that Fairfax wanted to sack him.

Tandberg takes some contentment from the fact that Kennett hasn't been premier for decades, Hilmer left Fairfax 12 years ago - and he, Tandberg, remains employed as one of Fairfax's most revered cartoonists.

But the heroes of Tandberg's little pockets on a page have always been anonymous bystanders.

They are diminutive people prepared to ask the silly question or to point out the screamingly obvious; those who stand mute and unimpressed as the most dumbfounding absurdity unfolds before them, or those who watch with droll interest or innocent enthusiasm as the mighty crumble before their eyes.

They are you and me ... but most of all, they are Tandberg himself; the little bloke who stands on the side of all the other little people.

Having been beaten unmercifully by the Christian Brothers at primary school and by bigger boys at Coburg Tech, he says, he cannot abide bullies.

Amid his current trials, Tandberg is about to publish a new book of his cartoons, all of them from 2017 - and none of them from his personal "cancer" series.

A Year of Madness, it is titled.

The idea came out of discussions with Michael Wilkinson, of Wilkinson Publishing, a former Melbourne journalist who understands Tandberg's importance to Victorians, and to readers far beyond.

Tandberg has documented a lot of mad years, but none of them comes close to 2017, he says.

"Trump, Pauline Hanson, Abbott, chaos in the government, the continuing asylum seeker tragedy ... there's quite a lot of madness around, really," he says, dry as one of his works.

The collection begins and ends with classic Tandberg takes on the personification of madness in the 21st century, Donald Trump.

Tandberg, however, does not altogether subscribe to the cliche that Trump is a great gift to cartoonists.

"Sometimes he gets too far from reality to make a good cartoon - he is very childlike; an undeveloped spoilt child," he says of the President. "It's all about him."

There is a series of character sketches at the end of the new book that offers less familiar but privileged access to Tandberg's depths as an artist.

It is a collection of drawings that catch Melburnians relaxing in pubs, coffee shops and simply sitting about reading the paper.

"We all need a distraction and strange as it may seem, I love to draw people in my spare time," Tandberg explains in the book.

7x Tandberg sketches of people in pubs for Insight story December 2017?? "Lawrence and Tony", The Drunken Poet, October 5, 2017

7x Tandberg sketches of people in pubs for Insight story December 2017?? "Lawrence and Tony", The Drunken Poet, October 5, 2017

"The drawings are an end in themselves. People cherish their moments of freedom, and in cafes and pubs they can often sit with friends and chat with that wonderful sense of losing awareness of time. When they are in that state they are often unaware of the people around them, including the bloke at the other table scribbling away in his little sketchbook.

"Like a good waiter I try not to intrude, quietly sketching the people around me, trying to capture their shape."

Each drawing proves Tandberg's mastery of draughtsmanship. He uses a pen, not a pencil, leaving no chance at invisible revision. He does not need it. These are drawings completed at speed, but they exude the subjects' characters.

"I discovered I could draw when I was very young," he says. "My grandfather loved horses and he took me to the races. I suppose I was about seven. It seemed very glamorous, the lawns at Flemington and all these beautiful horses.

"And I drew a horse. Mum was blown away that I could draw a horse with such accuracy.

"She was right. I can draw with accuracy, but I disguise it with my little cartoons."

The Tandberg family lived in a small house at Pascoe Vale South when Ron was a child. There is a brother, Ken, who is a bit older, and the brothers remain close.

"We had very loving parents," Tandberg says. "Dad worked at William Angliss Meatworks and rode his bicycle across to work at Footscray each day. He didn't get a car till he was 42. Mum worked at the knitting mills.

"Leunig's parents worked at William Angliss, too [referring to fellow artist and long-time cartoonist for The Age, Michael Leunig].

"One day the William Angliss building burnt down, and Leunig and I watched it from the windows of The Age building; this fertile breeding ground of young Age cartoonists going up in flames."

Tandberg recalls that he and his brother Ken took pleasure as children listening to the wireless at home in the evenings.

Ken developed a fine singing voice, but Ron Tandberg got something else, equally treasured, from the music playing on the wireless.

"I loved the lyrics of the songs in the 1940s and 50s," he says.

"How does it go? 'I'm in no hurry for that final disappointment, for I know just as well as I'm standing here talking to you, when that final moment comes and I'm breathing my last breath, I'll be saying to myself: Is that all there is, is that all there is? If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing. Let's break out the booze and have a ball'."

Tandberg takes a breath.

"So, anyway, I grew to love great lyrics, and I try to capture the idea of good lyrics when I write my captions on my cartoons," he says. "Just a few carefully chosen words to sum things up."

Music and Tandberg's art fused on November 11 - his last night out on Melbourne town.

7x Tandberg sketches of people in pubs for Insight story December 2017 "My Brother Ken" November 5, 2017

7x Tandberg sketches of people in pubs for Insight story December 2017 "My Brother Ken" November 5, 2017

Tandberg had attended earlier that night the opening of an exhibition featuring his and other cartoonists' work, Ink in the Blood, and he went on later to the Drunken Poet, a pub in North Melbourne. His brother Ken was singing at the "open mic" night at the Drunken Poet, and Tandberg got out his pen and sketch book and began furiously drawing the patrons and the musicians. Some of the drawings appear in his new book.

All along, wielding his pen in the corner, Tandberg knew something was wrong. He hadn't been able to eat for many days, and he had shed far too much weight.

"I was drawing as if it was my last drawing," he says.

Within a couple of days, he discovered why he couldn't eat. A large tumour was blocking his oesophagus.

"There's a stoicism in the family, and the black humour runs strong," he says. "It helps. I'm not going to roll over, but you have to understand the odds aren't great with these things."

11 x Tandberg cartoons about his cancer for Insight story December 2017

11 x Tandberg cartoons about his cancer for Insight story December 2017

How much influence does he think his work has had over the years?

"I've been drawing for close on 50 years," he says. "And the world is in a worse place now than it was when I started, so I'd have to say my influence has been pretty limited."

He chuckles.

You can almost hear him pondering a suitable cartoon to go with the thought.

A Year of Madness: The Tandberg Collection, www.wilkinsonpublishing.com.au, $34.99.

This story Ron Tandberg and his pen take on cancer first appeared on The Age.