Clifton Pugh: beyond the tonal method

When Clifton Pugh first saw Nolan’s Ned Kelly series while still an art student, it provided him with a clear sense of where he wanted his own art to go.

Clifton Pugh’s interview reproduced in Geoffrey Dutton’s 1992 Artists’ Portraits begins with an unfortunate error. The text reads “I was a Dargie student doing internal painting.” The remark implies that the technique was some kind of individual emotional exploration. It should have said “tonal painting”.

The tonal method, taught by William “Bill” Dargie at the National Gallery School in Melbourne could not have been a less emotional, nor less intellectual, approach to painting. It offers a way to reproduce exactly what the artist sees: landscape, a still life, a person, without the intrusion of ideas as to the meaning of the image, or the reaction of the artist to the image, or for that matter the notion of painting as a discipline with its own history within a culture. A reader who does not know Pugh said “tonal” painting would find the next section of the interview quite confusing.

This is a pity, because at the beginning of the interview Pugh is discussing Nolan’s first Ned Kelly series and, in doing so, describing how seeing the Nolans made him seek a technique beyond the tonal method.

Pugh isn’t interested in the legend or the narrative. He sees the Kelly mask and the child-like figures and buildings: “The shapes across it somehow or other tell you more about landscape, a two-dimensional object against a third-dimensional long distance, something to do with Australia, something to do with the light.”

He goes on: “It’s also black and white, operative colours in Australian landscape.” European books about art say that black and white are not colours, he says, but “In Australia black and white are colours, they are positive colours. Then you have infinite distance.”

In 1947 Pugh was a Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme (CRTS) student at the Gallery School. The scheme paid a wage to ex-soldiers: the income was crucial for Pugh, who was buying an area of bush where he had built studio and house, the base where he would paint and live for the rest of his life.

In the interview, he describes getting Dargie to the Nolan exhibition, but that Dargie did not see the significance of Nolan’s work. Dargie said the work was “decadent”. Pugh decided he had to leave the school, to give up the CRTS money, that he had learned all Dargie could teach him. When he went to explain his decision, Dargie said: “Yes, I thought you’d want to leave”. Dargie had Pugh sign a blank piece of paper, and practised Pugh’s signature until he could forge it perfectly. He then signed Pugh in and out each day, so his ex-student could still get the CRTS money.

The post-war period, and indeed Dargie and the art establishment of the time, are characterised as conservative, dull and rigid. How many current Art School Directors would risk prosecution to support a pupil, especially one who was rejecting not only their methods but their understanding of art itself?

Pugh’s description of the Kelly paintings might lead the reader to expect his early work to be luminous explorations of light and distance, but this was not the case. In the interview he talks about being an innocent, knowing nothing about the art world, just wanting to paint. In the army he’d carried a book about Kandinsky, and then arrived in the ordered, absolute 19th-century world of tonal painting. The tension between the ease of the tonalist technique and the constraints imposed by its theoretical position are revealed as his work develops. One can see him thinking about abstraction while his hand and eye relate the actuality he observes. The interest is in the integration of training, influential style, and purpose.

Pugh spoke often of roaming around, of lying in the bush “almost fucking it” before he began to paint. His home was not a place of vista. Exploring, you look through a pattern of white and yellow box, branches with pale grey leaves, delicate understorey bushes with pale pink and yellow blossoms, and long grasses. You sense, but don’t see, the distance. The ideas Pugh wanted to explore also derived from close observation of his gentle hilly place.

In this pretty country he observed cats killing birds, birds eating carrion, and was reminded of his wartime experiences, the savagery of humans. He used the delicacy of the bush as a background, almost a stage set, to express his despair about human behaviour. ‘Dance of Crows’ 1960, the crows feasting on a dead beast, recalls the abstract black lines and the energy of Kandinsky. Distance is only sensed, at ground level, through a dense and possibly endless problem of grass and trunks. ‘Bush with Bats’ 1958 also only implies distance; abstracted bats, bare branches, even the wattle, restrict passage through the picture and the place.

In 1964 Pugh drove across to Western Australia. ‘Chinatown, Broome’ 1964 makes his argument about white and black being “operative” colours in Australia, and their relationship to space and isolation in the infinite landscape. The tonal technique places the buildings firmly on the salmon-coloured earth, but with blacks and whites of many varieties. The paper fish, also black and white, perhaps salmon in both meanings of the word, float insouciantly across the picture like Nolan’s policemen.

The patterns on the ‘Chinatown, Broome’ fish begin a series of references to Indigenous imagery that appear constantly, but unremarked by critics, in Pugh’s work. In ‘Spring: Wrens’ 1976 these are integrated with abstracted up-close fire-blackened branches and a pattern of grey-green leaves floating about, in front of blue sky and blue hills. The picture is playing with blue, perhaps as a reference to Gainsborough’s ‘Blue Boy’: the only warm blue in Pugh’s painting is on the tiny wrens. Distance is present, but not crucial to the problem, neither unobtainable nor infinite.

This article has been led by Pugh’s own remarks to examine the tension between his training, technique, and the influences that shaped his work. He would have been amused. He went along with interviewers and writers, but knew, and always said “It’s the work itself that matters”.

Courtesy the artist, Deutscher and Hackett, Mossgreen Auctions and Savill Galleries