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School III: Butterfly Fish and Damsel Fish

School III: Butterfly Fish and Damsel Fish
acrylic on canvas
60 x 84in. (152.4 x 213.3cm.)
Painted in 1978
Anthony d’Offay and James Kirkman, London.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1979.
London, Anthony d’Offay, Michael Andrews: paintings 1977-78, 1978, no. 3.
London, Hayward Gallery, Michael Andrews, 1980-1981, pp. 22 and 72, no. 118 (illustrated, p. 73). This exhibition later travelled to Edinburgh, Fruitmarket Gallery and Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery.
London, Tate Britain, Michael Andrews, 2001, pp. 26, 28-29 and 162, no. 57 (illustrated in colour, p. 111).
London, Gagosian Gallery, Michael Andrews. Earth Air Water, 2017, pp. 72 and 154, no. 31 (illustrated in colour, p. 73; studies for the present work illustrated in colour, pp. 133 and 140).

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Claudia Schürch
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Lot Essay

A sumptuous, dreamlike vision of life underwater, School III: Butterfly Fish and Damsel Fish (1978) is a rare masterwork by Michael Andrews, one of the most singular and enigmatic artists in post-war Britain. It is the third of his four monumental School paintings, which meditate on collective human behaviour through the depiction of groups of fish. The series was inspired by Andrews’s young daughter starting school, and the family’s recent move to rural Geldeston, on the border between his native Norfolk and Suffolk. With school runs, timetables and uniforms on his mind, Andrews was spurred to explore anew the themes of selfhood and community that had driven his art for the past two decades. Fish, with their shoaling patterns and different ‘uniforms’ of colour, offered a rich metaphor. In the present painting, which spans more than two metres across, yellow butterflyfish and electric blue damselfish cluster in a shadowy reef. Their world is veiled and mottled in tones of blue, umber and verdigris. Cyan light gleams down from the distant surface, catching the branched silhouettes of sponges and starfish. Andrews used a complex combination of stencil, slide projection, spray and hand-painting techniques to build the scene, which shimmers with an atmosphere of profound and luminous mystery.

Held in the same private collection since 1979, School III: Butterfly Fish and Damsel Fish was included in Andrews’s major touring Arts Council retrospective of 1980-1981, and in his landmark posthumous survey at Tate Britain in 2001. It was last seen in public in the only substantial exhibition of his work since then, at London’s Gagosian Gallery in 2017. During his forty-five-year career, Andrews was the subject of only eight solo shows. He worked slowly and in series, producing around two large canvases per year. His works, which range from bustling party scenes to metaphysical landscapes, appear at first glance to have little in common. Publicity-shy, he gained a reputation as an elusive figure: it was once said he was in danger of being mistaken for a rumour rather than a real person. He came of age in the 1960s, however, as one of the well-known group of figurative artists known as ‘School of London’, among such leading lights as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Timothy Behrens. These friends, whose practices all varied widely, held Andrews’s work in the very highest esteem. ‘Mike is so economical’, said Auerbach. ‘He paints only masterpieces’ (F. Auerbach, quoted in Michael Andrews: Lights, exh. cat. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid 2000, p. 9).

‘Identity and community—and identity in community; that’s my prevailing preoccupation—my prevailing idea’, Andrews wrote shortly before embarking on the School series (M. Andrews quoted in P. Moorhouse, ‘“Strange Consolation”: The Art of Michael Andrews’, in Michael Andrews, exh. cat. Tate, London 2001, p. 28). For the first, School I (1977), he painted a troop of neon tetras: small shoaling fish that he had kept in an aquarium in his London studio, admiring their brilliant blue and red livery. School II: Pike and Roach (1977) and School IV: Barracuda under Skipjack Tuna (1978) stage tense face-offs between ‘aggressive’ and ‘peaceful’ species. School III: Butterfly Fish and Damsel Fish, with its contrasting blue and yellow subjects, speaks most vividly to the idea of differentiation through uniform. The works together explore a condition of interdependence, and the constantly shifting relationships between group and individual. For Andrews, they reflected ‘How alike we all are. And our propensity to stick together’ (M. Andrews, quoted in R. Calvocoressi, Michael Andrews: Earth Air Water, exh. cat. Gagosian Gallery, London 2017, p. 67).

Andrews used an elaborate system of spraying, masking and stencilling to create School III: Butterfly Fish and Damsel Fish. He worked on the unprimed reverse of the canvas, whose fibres captured a matt, luscious depth of pigment. Stencils made for sharp, flickering edges and subtle markings: their crosshatched flanks identify the yellow species precisely as the latticed butterflyfish, found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Elsewhere, Andrews used the spray to conjure hazy submarine effects of light and shadow. The reef’s granular dapple was achieved by spraying over aquarium gravel, and the sponges were textured using an actual sponge. These self-reflexive techniques would be reprised in Andrews’s use of grass and red earth from the base of Uluru for his 1980s Australian landscapes, and in the silt and ash he washed through his final, valedictory paintings of the River Thames.

Visiting Andrews in his Norfolk studio, William Feaver remembers him ‘sifting through fish photographs, pointing out the near-invisibility of the skate on the seabed and the stony markings on the wicked old pike caught by villagers’ (W. Feaver, ‘An Actual Present Atmosphere’, in Michael Andrews, exh. cat. Tate, London 2001, p. 56). The present painting was also the first in which Andrews used 35mm slide projections in planning the composition, departing from the photocollage studies and silkscreens he had used previously. One of his visual sources was Robin Lehman’s 1974 short film Sea Creatures, shot in the vibrant reefs of the Red Sea. Andrews’s notes capture his alertness to its colour and motion: ‘noisy flowerbed—diverse corals, colours brilliant under light, creatures like moving vegetation, blackness beyond … glaring differentiation then dusty camouflage—motes like dust storm or locusts’ (M. Andrews, quoted in ibid.).

Born in Norwich to a devout Methodist family in 1928, Andrews studied at the Slade School of Art, London, from 1949 to 1953. His teachers there included Lucian Freud—six years his senior—and Professor William Coldstream, whose fierce dedication to painting from life was a formative influence. Andrews was singled out as the most promising painter of his year, winning prizes for his early works August for the People (1951, UCL Art Museum, London) and A Man who Suddenly Fell Over (1952, Tate, London). These images marked the start of his interest in representing interpersonal encounters and states of being. In 1962, he painted what remains one of his best-known works: Colony Room I (Pallant House Gallery, Chichester), which shows London luminaries including Freud, Bacon, Bruce Bernard, Henrietta Moraes and John Deakin in their iconic Soho haunt, presided over the owner, Muriel Belcher. The hard-won observational approach of Coldstream’s teaching is evident in the work’s surface. While remaining grounded in realism, Andrews would soon take his painting in more fluid, metaphorical and oneiric directions.

No longer painting from life, Andrews based the ensuing party scenes The Deer Park (1962, Tate, London) and All Night Long (1963-1964, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) on assemblies of magazine cuttings and other found imagery. His use of photographs would remain central from this point onward, allowing him—not unlike Bacon—to stage his observations from a certain critical distance. The triptych Good and Bad at Games (1964-1968, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) stretched the social theme further by presenting party guests as strange, Giacometti-like silhouettes, swelling or contracting according to their changing self-images. ‘Andrews’s party paintings offer views of fish tanks in which exotic fish have been replaced by people’, writes Paul Moorhouse. ‘We observe, instead, the swim of human behaviour—behaviour in flux, influenced by the presence of other people’ (P. Moorhouse, ibid., p. 21).

After the party paintings, in his celebrated Lights series of 1970-1974, Andrews stopped depicting people altogether. Informed by his reading in Zen Buddhism, he instead used a symbol—the hot air balloon—to picture the ‘skin-encapsulated ego.’ These mesmeric works were also based on photographs, and were the first to be painted using a spray-gun, withdrawing Andrews’s physical touch from the surface. They show the balloon of selfhood floating over landscapes in different states of buoyancy and deflation. In the seventh and final painting, it is only a shadow on the seashore.

If the balloon of Lights had drifted away towards enlightenment, the School paintings plunged back into societal dynamics. Coinciding with his return to Norfolk after some fifteen years in London, they also reflected something of a homecoming for Andrews. In tandem with the series, he painted radiant watercolours of his riverine surroundings: ponds, streams, the River Waveney and its tributaries. After the School works were concluded, he began a new series with Melanie and Me Swimming (1978-1979, Tate, London), a poignant picture of himself and his daughter in a Scottish rockpool that continued his treatment of water and the bonds between individuals. Water would return, finally, as the premise for Andrews’s very last series of 1994-1995, which depicted the source, banks and estuary of the River Thames. In the School paintings, Andrews’s pleasure in discovering this fertile theme—water as a medium of connection, flow and exchange—is palpable. Lawrence Gowing called them ‘the freest, brightest pictures that he has ever done’ (L. Gowing, ‘Introduction’, in Michael Andrews, exh. cat. Hayward Gallery, London 1981, p. 22).

Painting, for Andrews, was a form of meditation. The painstaking process in his 1970s works reflected a letting go of the self, towards a consciousness of the unbounded interdependence of all things. In School III: Butterfly Fish and Damsel Fish, his use of sprayed paint elides the hallmark of a recognisable painterly touch. The image instead arises slowly through mists of pigment, like a developing photograph: a revelation of preexisting truth. More than a painting of a coral reef, it pictures the individual’s situation in the world and in society, and maps Andrews’s emergent understanding of his own existence. ‘In painting, through a process of definition, I realise how I am disposed,’ he wrote. ‘As none of us are so different we can share the realisation’ (M. Andrews quoted in P. Moorhouse, ibid., p. 11). The fish swim, together and in solitude, negotiating their places in the great infinity of the ocean.

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