The Cathedral, The North East Face/Uluru (Ayer's Rock), painted in 1985, is one of Michael Andrews' masterpieces, being the first of his celebrated large-scale full views of Ayers Rock, or Uluru. The series of landscapes of Uluru was entitled Rock of Ages Cleft for Me after the hymn by the Reverend Augustus Toplady with which Andrews associated it and whose next line, 'Let me hide myself in thee,' conveys some idea of the smallness that people feel before the vast geological feature, and indeed before this colossal canvas. Andrews associated Uluru with the hymn because of the almost religious awe that he felt when he visited the vast monolith in person and because of his knowledge of its prominent place in the ancient legends, myths and rituals of the aboriginal peoples of the region. He has captured the scale of Uluru, his own sense of amazement when faced with it and also its unique timelessness through the combination of the monumental canvas upon which The Cathedral has been painted and the contrast between the solidity of the orange-brown mass and the insubstantiality of its organic surroundings.
For several years, Andrews had been fascinated by conveying the sense of belonging, of humanity's part in the organism that is Earth, through the depiction of landscapes that were both shaped by tradition and which in turn had shaped tradition, as was the case at Ayers Rock, which he had visited two years before The Cathedral was painted. He had had his epiphany when he had first noticed this interplay, this give and take between people and their environment, when looking at the historic gardens of Drummond Castle in Scotland. He subsequently painted numerous landscapes and scenes of stalking in the Highlands, conscious of the fact that gamekeeper and client were following steps that were dictated by nature, by the landscape, and that also echoed those of forebears from previous generations. He also moved to a house in the village of Saxlingham Nethergate, which was more than a millennium old, and painted scenes there that showed the ancient homes with the more ephemeral phone lines and phone box around them as incidental, fleeting details, historic blinks of little moment compared to the ancientness of the place but showing its continued life. There is a similar sense of the timeless, ageless Uluru in The Cathedral: the trees, the organic matter that fills the foreground and which is so strikingly dwarfed by the epic proportions of the distant rock have an almost transparent quality in comparison to the solidity of the stone itself. This contrast has been increased by the incredibly varied paint surface, by the different textures and effects with which Andrews has conjured a sense of the shimmering, mirage-like organic growth of the plain surrounding Uluru, the ghostliness of the flora accentuated by his use of grass and leaves that he took from there as stencils, reinforcing the bond between the picture and its motif.
Who we are, where we are, where we come from, what we do to those places... All these are the themes that lend Andrews' landscape paintings their impetus. 'Identity and community-- and identity in community; that's my prevailing occupation-- my prevailing idea,' he explained (Andrews, quoted in W. Feaver & P. Moorhouse, Michael Andrews, exh.cat., London, 2001, p. 28). In some of Andrews' earlier works, that sense of community was made explicit either in group portraits or in images of planes, of shoals of fish, of buildings, while his balloon paintings expressed his feelings about the place of the individual relative to society. In the landscapes from the late 1970s onwards, that explicit sense of community was often eschewed in favour of something subtler, more poetic, less specific and therefore all the more universal. While there may be no overt human presence in the vast expanse of The Cathedral, it is nonetheless known and implied, both in terms of the viewer (be it Andrews himself when faced with the Australian landscape or the modern viewer faced with his painting) and in terms of the history and belief of the local tribes that is writ so large over so much of the surface of Uluru. Discussing one of the sister-pictures from his Rock of Ages series, which showed a specific feature at Ayers Rock, Andrews explained that, 'Cleft opened for me in revelation of a near perfect manifestation of interdependence [between] man and environment' (Andrews, quoted in ibid., p. 34). This is no less true of Ayers Rock itself, as seen to such imposing and monumental effect in The Cathedral. Nature, belief and humanity all collide in the forms in and around the rock, lending the place a sense of the crystallised accretions of the many lives lived over endless centuries. As he explained, 'The land abounds with being, creatures actively alive or metamorphosed into rocks or trees imbued with the spirit, with the living presence of totemic ancestors' (Andrews, quoted in ibid., p. 35).
Andrews' title, as well as his hymn-linked name for the series, makes explicit the links he felt between existence in modern England and the timeless beliefs of the tribes of Australia, between religion there and religion here. While in the increasingly secular modern West, belief is less tangible and evident than perhaps it once was, we are still struck by the cathedrals, we still re-enact vestiges of the rituals of our ancestors, even if only in the form of Christmas and Easter, weddings and funerals. Christianity shaped the townscapes and countryside of Britain, meaning that ancient belief, whether or not we partake of it, continues to shape the patterns of our actions and movements to this day. It was both on that larger scale and on the more personal level that Andrews explained: 'We are what has happened to us' (Andrews, quoted in ibid., p. 39).
As is fitting in a painting of such a vast geological feature, The Cathedral is an immense canvas, towering over the viewer and stretching to right and left. The space of the canvas is completely dominated by the glowing orange of Uluru itself, resulting in a landscape in which the viewer is absorbed. Andrews himself had gained an understanding of the scale of Uluru when he approached it, flying towards it over a span of time, seeing it grow and grow: 'I came in a light plane from Alice Springs. So I saw the Rock gradually from the air, coming closer and closer to this wonderful motif' (Andrews, quoted in ibid., p. 44). He stayed there for over a week, spending nine days climbing and circumnavigating it. He was fascinated by the nooks and crannies, many of which were covered in incised or painted images, reflecting the age-old importance of each place in the rituals and belief systems of the local inhabitants, and by the sheer scale of the rock. On the one hand, Uluru left him profoundly aware of the insignificance of the individual within the vastness of the world, and on the other hand increased his sense of the importance of the surrounding world on the individual. It was to emphasise this relationship that Andrews adopted such a deliberately un-expressionistic manner of painting, suppressing any distracting sense of the subjective, of individuality, that would reveal too much of the artist and too little of the world to the viewer. Avoiding any overpowering sense of visual idiom, Andrews acts as a medium between the viewer and the world, providing a vast painting that functions as a focus for meditation and contemplation. Andrews himself was fascinated by Zen, and carried a piece of paper on which he had written:
'Zen is active meditation (painting in my case) leading to sudden enlightenment which is unself or selfless consciousness which is realising things just as they are: interdependent. (For example hold your breath and keep holding it, and see how long you feel independent it's quite enlightening in itself.) You don't lose individuality or identity by dropping your idea of concept of yourself (your ego) or by acknowledging the fact of interdependence; on the contrary it becomes subtle and unrestricted. That's my understanding anyway' (Andrews, quoted in ibid., p. 54).
By painting the world, Andrews became aware of his place in it and hoped that we too, looking at The Cathedral, would gain awareness of that crucial and poetic interdependence.