EUROPA AND THE BULL, 1959

The Gould Collection of Important Australian Art
Sydney
15 March 2017
22

CLIFTON PUGH

(1924 – 1990)
EUROPA AND THE BULL, 1959

oil on composition board

122.0 x 170.0 cm

signed and dated lower right: Clifton/ JULY 59
inscribed with title on stretcher verso: THE RAPE OF EUROPA
bears inscription verso: MR MITCHELSON [sic] / ARTS COUNCIL / CLIFTON PUGH / COTTLES BRIDGE VIC

Estimate: 
$55,000 – 75,000
Sold for $91,500 (inc. BP) in Auction 47 - 15 March 2017, Sydney
Provenance

Lady Naomi Mitchison, Argyle, Scotland
Christie’s, London, 28 November 1991, lot 67 (as ‘The Rape of Europa’)
Gould collection, Melbourne

Exhibited

Antipodeans, Victorian Artists’ Society, Melbourne, 4 – 15 August 1959, cat. 57
Recent Australian Painting 1961, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, June – July 1961, cat. 86 (as ‘The Rape of Europa, 1960’)
on long-term loan to the Museum of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1971 – 1990
Masterpieces of Modern Australian Art from Private Melbourne Collections, Gould Galleries, Melbourne, 28 July – 8 August 1999
The Antipodeans, Gould Galleries, Melbourne, 5 November – 7 December 2003, cat. 20, not for sale

Literature

Pringle, J. D., ‘The Australian painters’, The Observer, London, 4 June 1961
Mullaly, T., ‘Great impact of paintings’, The Daily Telegraph, London, 6 June 1961
Carritt, D., ‘The world of art’, Evening Standard, London, 7 June 1961
Strauss, M., ‘Current and Forthcoming Exhibitions: London’, Burlington Magazine, London, no. 700, vol. 103, July 1961, p. 327
Macainsh, N., Clifton Pugh, Australian Art Monographs, Melbourne, 1962, pl. 29, p. 15 (illus.)
Allen, T., Clifton Pugh: Patterns of a Lifetime, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1981, pl. 17, p. 56 (illus.)

Catalogue text

In August 1959, a group of seven Australian artists and one art historian gathered to create an exhibition and manifesto in support of the figurative image in painting. Calling themselves The Antipodeans, their activities instigated a turbulent time of argument and counter argument to such a degree that the sheer quality of the artworks exhibited tends to get obscured. One of the show-stoppers was Clifton Pugh’s Europa and the Bull, 1959 a powerful tour de force that neatly underpins a key passage within Bernard Smith’s manifesto which references ‘the great black bull of Lascaux … an old beast and a powerful one, who has watched over the arts and many mythologies.’1 The idea of artists articulating Australia’s own mythologies as a route to national self-identity was of great importance to members of the group and in this painting, Pugh has performed a particularly antipodean inversion by featuring an ancient European story placed squarely within an unmistakably Australian landscape.

‘Nature, red tooth and claw’ is how the artist-critic James Gleeson memorably described Pugh’s paintings,2 and Pugh was the first to admit that his ‘skeletal’ imagery was informed by his psychological struggle to come to terms with the savage battles he experienced in New Guinea during World War Two. Felled by malaria and blackwater fever, Pugh turned to art during his convalescence discovering ‘the power of art as … a cathartic portrayal and surmounting of those elemental powers of life and death that he had experienced in such overwhelming confusion during the war.’3 In 1951 he moved to the scrubby natural haven of Cottles Bridge, on the fringes of Melbourne’s north and built a rambling mud-brick house named ‘Dunmoochin.’ Pugh revelled in his new home recognising that ‘Australia isn’t soft, like Europe. It’s hard, dry, yet with a wonderfully delicate balance.’4

In the Greek myth, Europa was the daughter of the King of Phoenicia. Unfortunately, the supreme god Zeus became enamored with her. Taking the form of a bull, his ‘gentle yet majestic’ attitude attracted Europa, and Zeus ‘very gallantly knelt before her’ before suddenly rearing to his feet and abducting her.5 In Europa and the Bull, Pugh chose to depict the very moment of deception. Europa stretches her whole body in supplication as the animal – massive, rounded and boulder-like – consumes the space around her. Pugh’s painterly technique is fascinating to explore with a background composed of ripples, splatters, and agitated brushmarks, an expressive abstraction in its own right. Fragile flowers and grasses around the base of the bull’s torso highlight Pugh’s notion of ‘delicate balance’, contrasting the suppressed violence within the animal’s enigmatic gaze. Subsequent to The Antipodeans, Europa and the Bull was included in the historically important exhibition Recent Australian Painting at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1961, with The Observer’s critic describing it as ‘one of the strongest pictures’ in the show.6 One co-exhibitor was the young Brett Whiteley and it is tempting to consider the impact this work had for him, as Whiteley’s contemporaneous paintings of gentle Italian landscapes were soon to morph into radically sinuous portrayals of his wife and muse Wendy.

Another who was impressed was the remarkable Naomi Mitchison (nee Haldane) (1897-1999), a prolific writer who purchased the painting with her husband, the barrister, G .R. (Dick) Mitchison MP (later Lord Mitchison). She became a tireless political operative and her myriad friends included artists such as Wyndham Lewis who painted a portrait of her in 1938. On an intimate level, she was described as dressing ‘like a woman of ancient Greece. … Her sandals could be regarded equally as emblems of classical Greece or between-the-wars socialism.'7 It is little wonder then that Europa and the Bull attracted the eye of this marvelously independent woman and her husband. Following Lord Mitchison’s death in 1970, she generously loaned the painting to Edinburgh’s Museum of Modern Art where, for the next twenty years, the brooding intensity of Pugh’s imagery would have inevitably challenged many of the artworks that surrounded it.

1. Smith, B, ‘The Antipodean Manifesto’, The Antipodeans (catalogue essay), Victorian Artists’ Society, Melbourne, August 1959
2. Gleeson, J., Modern Painters 1931-1970, Lansdowne, Sydney, 1971, p. 96
3. Macainsh, N., Clifton Pugh, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1962, p. 2
4. Hetherington, J., ‘Clifton Pugh: an ideal in five acres of bushland’, Age, Melbourne, 9 December 1961, p. 18
5. Graves, R., and others, Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, Batchwork Press, London, 1959, pp. 110 – 111
6. Pringle, J. D., ‘The Australian painters’, The Observer, London, 4 June 1961
7. Longford, E., ‘Obituary: Naomi Mitchison’, The Independent, London, 13 January 1999, accessed online:
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-naomi-mitchison...

ANDREW GAYNOR