Abstract Australis
Abstract Australis
Brighton, Victoria 3186 Australia
Ph: 0407 501 808
ABN: 66 086 690 771

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Clifton Ernest PUGH A.O. (b.1924; d.1990)

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Clifton Ernest Pugh was born on 17 December 1924 in Richmond, Victoria. He was the youngest of three sons. After attending a variety of public primary schools in Victoria and Queensland as the family moved about, he then attended Ivanhoe Grammar School in Melbourne. Both Pugh’s parents were amateur painters and encouraged his interest in drawing. In 1937, during the Depression, Pugh’s father died. As a result, Pugh left school at 14 and worked as a junior in a newspaper office and at an aircraft factory. He took evening classes in cartoon drawing at Swinburne Technical College in 1940 and then, after moving to Adelaide, took evening classes in life-drawing at the Australian School of Arts and Crafts in 1942. * At 18, Pugh enlisted in the Army, becoming a draughtsman for Infantry Intelligence. He painted when he could, and as a forward scout, drew indigenous birds for ornithologist Captain Jock Marshall. ** His experiences while posted to Kure, near Hiroshima, with the occupying forces saw him become a staunch pacificist.

On returning to Australia in 1947, he attended the National Gallery of Victoria Art School from 1947 to 1949 under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. He was influenced by his teacher there, the Meldrum School portraitist (Sir) William Dargie, who taught tonal impressionism. **

In 1951, he bought a tract of bush near Cottles Bridge, about 50km outside Melbourne, where he based himself as an artist, depicting indigenous flora and fauna in an interpretive, figurative style. He built a house out of mud bricks and recycled materials on the land and called it ‘Dunmoochin’ (a pun on the Australian slang phrase “done with moochin’ around”) ***. It was notable for its quirky architecture, objets d’art and paintings by those he knew and admired. He established the Dunmoochin Artists’ Society, a community comprising potters and painters, in the early 1950s, to further conservation, as well as art and craft issues. He attracted much media attention, for his outspoken comments on political issues, his bohemian lifestyle and unconventional bush home. *

Pugh became a vocal member of the Antipodeans, a group established in 1959 to defend figurative art. Other members were his artist friends, John Brack, Bob Dickerson, Arthur Boyd, David Boyd, Charles Blackman, John Perceval, and the art historian, Bernard Smith. * He thrived on the political scene becoming noted for his portraits of politicians, artists, writers and academics. Other portrait subjects ranged from his family to Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. * However, Pugh was equally acclaimed for pictures of the bush, one of his best relating to Ivan Smith's radio feature, The Death of a Wombat, published in 1972.

As Chairman of the Victorian Australian Labor Party arts advisory committee in 1972, Pugh played a major role in the development of the party’s arts policy. Pugh was also appointed to the Australia Council for the Arts in 1973, but resigned after a year.

With Brian Westwood, Pugh was the Australian War Memorial's official artist at the 75th Anniversary of the Gallipoli landing at Anzac Cove in 1990. Also in 1990, he set up the Dunmoochin Foundation to ensure future access to the bush studios by other artists.

Pugh married three times: to June Byford, Marlene Harvey, with whom he had two sons, and Judith Ley; and had a long-term de facto relationship with Adriane Strampp. He died in October 1990 in Melbourne.

Pugh’s first solo exhibition was at the Victorian Artists’ Society Gallery in 1957. It featured landscape and portraiture and was a huge success. He was part of the Antipodeans exhibition, also at the Victorian Artists’ Society Gallery, in 1959, which inspired several later reconstructions of the original show. In 1961, Pugh received leading coverage in British newspapers in an exhibition of prominent Australian artists at the Whitechapel Gallery in London* and was also included in the 1963 exhibition of Australian artists at the Tate Gallery. From then, Pugh held numerous solo and group exhibitions, including successful solo exhibitions in the U.K. and the USA. The British Council staged a retrospective of his work in London in 1970.**

Pugh won numerous art prizes including the Archibald Prize three times, with his portraits of newspaper executive R.A.G. Henderson in 1965, Country Party boss Sir John McEwan in 1971 and Labor leader Gough Whitlam in 1972. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1985 for service to Australian art.

Pugh was heavily influenced by German Expressionism. He read Sheldon Cheney's The Story of Modern Art (1941) while recuperating in hospital in New Guinea during World War II, but his primary influence was Wassily Kandinsky: “I can see Kandinsky in everything I do.”****

Following journeys across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth in 1954 and then the Kimberley in 1956, Pugh 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.** Pugh encountered indigenous Australian art for the first time and began utilizing incision, cross-hatching and collage. The work inspired by these journeys was part of the Group of Four Exhibits in 1955 and 1956. In 1959, Pugh wrote to Bernard Smith: “Art must be indigenous...arising out of the environment and background of a particular place and time. This could be nationalistic but I prefer to call it geographical art. ... I therefore believe very much in the development of an Australian art – it is the only truth for us to express to the rest of the world.” *****

Pugh’s bush scenes struck a dramatic contrast with other landscapes of the day, particularly with those of the Heidelberg School, for their denial of the sentimental in favour of harsh realism. His landscapes were innovative for their employment of a relatively loose brushstroke and layering of paint that imitated the disordered character of the Australian bush. Fellow artist and art critic, Elwyn Lynn, once described Pugh’s landscapes as “a theatre of the savage encounter” and, as James Gleeson suggests, Pugh’s approach is part of his conception that “the bush is a battlefield … with a “feeling of tension and conflict”. *** Pugh became known as both a landscape and portrait artist, yet it was Pugh's portrait painting that drew consistent attention, with his innate knack of capturing the character of a sitter.**

Pugh’s works are represented in Collections across Australia, including the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Queensland Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and many other state and regional galleries, corporate, university and significant private Collections throughout Australia and in the UK.

* Biography of Clifton Ernest Pugh, Traudi Allen, published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012 ** A Sketch for some Portraits: Judith Pugh reflects on Clifton Pugh’s approach to portrait-making, Judith Pugh, National Portrait Gallery, Australia, 2005 *** Clifton Pugh’s engagement with landscape extended further than most artists, Panorama: A question of perspective, Culture Victoria **** Australian landscape painter Clifton Pugh cites the painters who have influenced him, Australian National Film and Sound Archive, 1988 ***** Imagining the Antipodes: Culture, Theory and the Visual in the Work of Bernard Smith, Peter Beilharz, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 113-114


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