Sunday, 18 October 2009

Michael Andrews

Lights III: The Black Balloon 1973
Acrylic on Canvas 160 x 129.5cm
Not Seen

Unfortunately I hot seen this piece, but have seen some of his paintings; the very popular and atypical work "Melanie and Me Swimming" and two of the deer stalking paintings from 1980. Whilst the later are more in keeping with his artistic vision, I have instead selected one of the series of seven “balloon” paintings from 1970 to 1974 called Lights. The title of the series, borrowed from Les Illuminations, a collection of poems by the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, evokes this state of enlightenment: a view of the world seen objectively, undistorted by subjectivity.

In the series, Andrews takes as his motif a helium-filled balloon hovering over the earth, disconnected from the hurly-burly of human contact, detached and serene. It becomes a metaphor for the artist’s own ego, present but disengaged, observant but not intrusive, which is seen on a sort of symbolic journey through life.

Andrews himself is quoted as saying that a balloon would serve as vehicle, a think bubble pursuing the theme of "sudden enlightenment", a spiritual steeplechase, a Zen take on that shining seventeenth century metaphor "the voyage of the soul"(1).  He was inspired by the writings of Alan Watts on Zen Bhuddism, which described 'the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin' and the work of the psychologist R D Laing.

In Lights III, the dark melancholy balloon sinks low over the Thames approaching Waterloo Bridge, passing over the street lamps, hardly airborne. The balloon is like a black sun, and the image speaks of solitude and a sense of isolation, as the balloon follows the river silently and inevitably towards the infinite sea. In the final painting, the balloon drifts out to sea, conveying a sense of a continuing quest.

The images are painted not with a brush, but with a spray gun to achieve the visual equivalent to weightlessness and silence. As Richard Dorment points out in his review of the Andrews retrospective at Tate Britain in 2001, by “removing all traces of the artist's own touch, Andrews brilliantly symbolises the detachment of the artist's ego from the painting process”. The image is taken from photographic sources, possibly collaged from magazine photos as this is how he built up the source image for Lights II and Lights VI (2).

(1) Michael Andrews Tate Publishing 2001 Essay by William Feaver p54 Quotations from conversations between the painter and the author.

(2) Tate Archive

©blackdog 2009


  1. A mysterious, sinister painting full of deep existential thoughts as you explained according the essay by W.Feaver. The dark-a bit saturnical colours might enhance the feeling -despite a lot of light points along the bridge (in London as I assume)- "sounds of silence" in a big city- loneliness- a bit apocalyptic feeling- we cannot recognize any person- but someone is coming/ observing us... I wonder about the perspective (from outside- we have to lift the eyes, a bird perspective ("Ego"- "the voyage of the soul") might be more convincing!
    I remember an interesting painting of Carl Spitzweg, Der Projektenmacher (a balloon voyage), we are very close to a balloon, and a novel by Adalbaert Stifter, Kondor (perspective of the balloon voyagers)- and I think of the film by Bertrand Piccard, La vie est come un voyage en ballon...- a known theme and metaphor but always important and interesting! I will google after the other 'Light'-paintings! A new discovering of this English painter! How many fascinating young painters do live in this country!

  2. Tracy (look at her blog) would say: A voyage by balloon at night ist too dangerous! I never saw hot-air-balloon sailing at night- only during day-time, and my home town is a mekka for balloon travellers (Montgolfiade's)- all that may enhance the mysterious feeling!

  3. Thank you Philine. Unfortunately Michael Andrews (1928-1995) died a few years ago - a contemporary and friend of Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, and Frank Auerbach, he was part of the Colony Room School - named after the bar in Soho where they drank.

    The literary reference I always think of these days with balloons is Enduring Love by Ian McEwan...

    recently made into a film, but not a patch on the novel.

  4. In the Monet exhibition in Wuppertal/Germany I saw some paintings of the Waterloo Bridge in London painted in an impressionistic style- beautiful!- what a difference considering the atmosphere and the colours, but there be also some similarity I cannot explain fully! In any case a very subjective way of perception of reality!