Clifton Pugh’s engagement with landscape extended further than most artists.
A deep-seated concern for the natural environment and native flora and fauna not only formed a major preoccupation of his artistic practice, it saw him become an early and devoted environmental activist. In 1951, the artist purchased a fifteen acre block of land at Cottles Bridge, forty kilometres north-east of Melbourne, the site on which a new artist’s community dubbed ‘Dunmoochin’ (a pun on the Australian slang phrase ‘done with moochin’ around’) was formed. As Christopher Heathcote observes, ‘the early roots of Australia’s conservation movement weave firmly through the loose dry soils of Dunmoochin’, whereby an active environmentalist group worked to regenerate this patch of bushland, pulling up weeds, trapping feral animals, and setting up a wildlife shelter. Living and working in this landscape, Pugh observed up close the devastating impact and invasiveness of introduced species, and this understanding soon translated into an ongoing series of paintings which confront the viewer with their stark imagery of a compromised ecology.
Fellow artist and art critic, Elwyn Lynn, once described Pugh’s landscapes as ‘a theatre of the savage encounter’. This description is clearly apposite for the painting Memory of a feral cat (1960), in which the artist vividly recreates his direct experience of sighting such creatures in the bush. As the artist was well aware, left to fend for itself in the wild, the strayed or abandoned domestic cat quickly adapts to its new environment where it becomes an adept predator who wreaks havoc on populations of small native mammals, birds and reptiles. Appearing front and centre in a close up view of a tract of scrub typical of Pugh’s compositions, the lean, angular form of the striped feline stands poised with its sharp claws extended, while its wide, nonchalant gaze points directly back at the viewer, as if we have intruded on its territory. The slightly exaggerated scale and features and somewhat awkward modelling of the cat are at odds with the simplified, abstract sculptural forms of the red rocks, which also stand out from the richly detailed textures describing the surrounding environment. As James Gleeson suggests, Pugh’s approach is part of his conception that ‘the bush is a battlefield’ whereby his ‘different stylistic treatments in the one painting’ are designed to heighten the sense of incongruity and antagonism and build on ‘the feeling of tension and conflict’. The artist was unflinching and uncompromising in his endeavour to present his firsthand experience of the landscape awry.
- Christopher Heathcote, ‘Reconstruction Culture 1945–1962’ in Encounters with Australian Modern Art, (ed. Maudie Palmer), Melbourne: Macmillan Art Publishing, 2008, p. 22.
- Elwyn Lynn, The Australian landscape and its artists, Sydney: Bay Books, 1977, p. 128.
- James Gleeson, Modern Painters 1931-1970, Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1971, p. 96.