In August 1965, Clifton Pugh travelled to Mexico with his family to attend the opening of an exhibition of his works to commemorate the opening of a new Qantas office in Mexico City. The culture and people of Mexico held a strong fascination for the young artist, and he settled into a home in the old town of San Miguel de Allende.
The impact on Pugh's work was profound, inducing him to spend each day in his studio from 10am - 2am. He took as one of his major inspirations the clash of civilisations, the town of San Miguel having played an important part in the battle for Mexican independence from the Spanish.
The church of Atontonilco, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is less than 20 kilometres from San Miguel. It is an important site of pilgrimage for Catholics, where Father Hidalgo, the Father of Mexican Independence, stopped in 1810 with his band of farmers to take as their revolutionary standard an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The site has become recognised as a shrine for pilgrims seeking to do penance for their sins through pain, crawling through cactus thorns.
Penitents V captures this aspect of Mexican religious life. Two penitent women dominate the centre of the canvas, kneeling amongst the cactus, their heads bowed, arms attenuated and hands exaggerated to emphasise the gestures characteristic of prayer. As Veda Swain and Frank Ford, authors of the monograph on Pugh's Penitence paintings, recognise "Clifton's great achievement is to have been able to distil this physical and spiritual anguish and suffering into these monumental figures of faith. The paintings are icons of a particular aspect of the Mexican ethos. Here is a rare insight that is both specific and peculiar yet it has a resonance that shakes us to our deepest levels of consciousness." (V. Swain & F. Ford, Ecstasy: The Penitents, Adelaide, 1989, p.14).
On his return to Australia, where he viewed the results of this work together for the first time, Pugh observed: "I am seeing, really for the first time, how absolutely important the trip to Mexico was and how it changed my style of painting. My work went from representational to iconographical. You can see that these pictures were the forerunners of all of my dingoes, all of my wild dog pictures." (Ibid, p.10).