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Clifton Pugh: Flight of Birds

The Artist

Clifton Earnest Pugh was born on the 17th December 1924 in Richmond. According to the Australian National Portrait  Gallery, after leaving school at fourteen during the depression when his father died, Clifton had worked as a draughtsman. Joining the army in 1942, he fought in terrible conditions in New Guinea, killed in hand to hand combat, was wounded by a grenade, contracted malaria and dengue fever. But Clif painted when he could, and as a forward scout, drew indigenous birds for ornithologist Captain Jock Marshall. He was posted to Kure, near Hiroshima, with the occupying forces. What he saw in Hiroshima and elsewhere in post-war Japan, together with his wartime experiences, not only informed his ideas about humanity but drove him to express them through art.

His post war study at the school at the National Gallery of Victoria was funded by the Commonwealth Reconstruction Scheme. There, Sir William Dargie taught tonal impressionism. This technique, as often as not producing portraits which Geoffrey Dutton wonderfully describes as “still life with human features” Clif found constraining for portraiture and landscape. He had come to the gallery inspired by the ideas of Kandinsky and the expressionists; to learn about materials and method, and to ground his drawing skills, formerly turned to draughting and science, not expression of artistic ideas.

When Clif left the school in 1951, the European pilgrimage did not appeal. His first marriage had ended; he wanted stability, to find his way in painting. He settled twenty miles north of Melbourne, near the valley where he’d spent contented early teenage years, building a mud brick house and studio. He spent a year hardly painting, just wandering through the delicate bush, learning how its greys are made of subtle gradations of blues, pinks, and yellows: how the intricate pattern of life of tiny insects, of birds and animals, mimics our own. The harsh memories of the war and the ordeal of the Japanese people, the embodiment of these experiences through injury and illness and direct observation, he had understood through the words of artists and poets. Now these memories wove into the subtle lacy texture of Dunmoochin bushland, and the vivid imported patterns and colours of its surrounding pastures.

In 1954 he travelled across the Nullarbor. His friend Noel Macainsh, painted as “A Poet in a Landscape” accompanied Clif to the desert on more than one occasion. “…the sense of sheer immensity, the boundless extent of a land, paradoxically both harsh and delicate, together with the illimitable space above it”. Responding to the desert, Clif found a way to express his ideas about humanity, spirituality, and art. He could now place his experiences into time, into more than history, and, through this, objectify and share them.

He began to develop a distinctive style, combining expressionism with the tonal impressionism with which he’d been burdened, introducing abstract elements both in portraiture and landscape. Only on rare occasions did he bring the human figure into the landscapes. The first was a series of paintings of St Francis in the Australian desert, responding to the place of aboriginal people the outback; and, after a time in Mexico with his second wife Marlene and their sons Shane and Dailan, the Penitents series.

Pat Tozer, Portrait of a Painter (Kevin Meynell), Kate Hattam, The Muse and Ourselves, The World of Shane & Dailan. These paintings are of companions and of family: the ‘50s and early 1960’s were a time before fame, not only for Clif but his friends. Tom Sanders, Barry Humphries, Margot Knox, Peter O’Shaughnessy, David Armstrong, Noel Macainsh, would become known in their various fields. Then, they lent their images to experimentation in portraiture. Gaining confidence in his capacity to get a likeness, Clif practised the balance between personality and physical characteristic, between art and representation. He began to use elongated forms, curves encircling the body, shapes and patterns that imply forces outside the sitters, to form their personalities.

The artworld was about class, then: bohemia meeting money old and new. Clif’s father had been a working gentleman, his maternal grandfather was government astronomer in Perth and Sydney. Active army service of itself would have paved the way in that world, and Clif was extraordinarily astute at judging and responding to people. He was involved briefly in The Contemporary Arts Society, but was not in artworld politics, on boards or lobbying for particular people to be appointed to positions of influence. However, his hatred of war meant that when Clyde Holding, leader of the opposition in the Victorian Parliament, asked him to chair a policy committee on the arts for the ALP, Clif agreed, hoping it might help elect Labor and hasten the end of Australian Vietnam involvement.

Although he won the 1965 Archibald Prize, the landscapes as much as his portraits made his reputation in the artworld, through group shows with the Group of Four and the Antipodeans, annual solo shows in Melbourne, at the Johnstone Gallery in Brisbane and with Sydney’s Rudy Komon. He had considerable support from the Australian art establishment. He won the Maude Vizard-Wholohan, and The Crouch Prize, and was included in prizes such as the Rubinstein, the Georges and official exhibitions which travelled to New Zealand, Japan, to the Whitechapel Gallery and the Tate in London, to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and St Louis, USA, to Montreal, Canada. By 1970 his work was in all State galleries, Regional Galleries, and the National Collection.

Clifton Pugh Flight of Birds

The Work of Art

Clifton  Pugh's Flight of Birds was his addition to the Druckma Press portfolio in 1978. It is a lithograph print , 193 of 300. This work was included into a portfolio of 8 prominent artists in 1978 that included John Olsen, Leonard French and George Baldesinni.  The  work  of art portrays a group of birds, crows, just taking flight. In this picture, there is a beautiful flow of movement as the birds take flight in a semi circular manner to the left. The work follows  Clif's particular style as shown by the  depiction of the eagle below. Clif  distills the basic elements of the bird down to its essence without losing any of the subject's character.

Clifton Pugh Eagle