Michaël Borremans - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Wednesday, June 22, 2022 | Phillips

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  • “My images must have two characteristics: to be irresistible and irritating at the same time.”
    — Michaël Borremans


    Recognised for his moody paintings that are charged with psychological suspense, whilst portraying dark and uncanny narratives with an irresistible appeal, Belgian artist Michaël Borremans’ portraits depict his protagonists in characteristic sepia hues, steeped in ambiguous, alluring symbolism.


    Rendered with tonal softness and pictorial precision in light and texture, Borremans situates an enigmatic young man with his back against the viewer at the centre of The Stars, standing within a dark, peculiar void with unknown depths. Finding himself in a pensive state, the intensity of the figure’s focus cuts through the painting surface even though the view of his eyes is hidden from the audience. A few sprinkles of white dots are dispersed across the canvas, in addition to the slightly blurred outline of the figure, which gives rise to the impression of a pixelated old photograph that was taken in the distant past.


    Having a background in draught making, printmaking, and photography, Borremans is a self-taught painter who only forayed into the realm of painting in the 1990s. Looking to Old Masters painters such as Goya, Manet, and Caravaggio for inspiration and eventually adapting those techniques as his own, Borremans’ paintings display an air of quietude that is associated with classical portraits. The delicate chiaroscuro effect in his oeuvre immediately calls to mind works by Caravaggio, whereby a stark light-and-dark contrast creates a sensual and irresistible quality to the portrait, heightening psychologically charged undercurrents.



    Left: Detail of the present work

    Right: Caravaggio, Detail of The Calling of Saint Mathew, c. 1599-1600
    Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome


    Photographic Reference 


    “Through the lens I can see how to use colour and light effectively, and translate the photo into a painting. Photography is my drawing board and research medium.”
    — Michaël Borremans


    The reference to photography is evident in the current work, evoking images such as the Reader by Gerhard Richter, yet it is saturated with theatrical elements and psychological suspense. To achieve this effect, Borremans starts by taking photographs of studio models, whilst playing with the possibility of different staged settings during this process, the results of which become sketches for his paintings. ‘These photo shoots are a crucial step in my process,’ he explains; ‘I try a lot of things in them; they allow me to check whether a composition is working in terms of space and light.’Carefully selecting unsaturated colours that help to build up the scene whilst not overpowering it ii, Borremans places the figure within their own psychologically charged world, reinforcing a sense of distance between the viewer and the pictorial plane.



    Gerhard Richter, Reader, 1994
    Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
    © Gerhard Richter 2022


    Theatrical Flare


    “With the paintings, at first you expect a narrative, because the figures are familiar. But then you see that some parts of the paintings don’t match, or don’t make sense. The works don’t come to a conclusion in the way we expect them to. The images are unfinished: they remain open. That makes them durable.”
    — Michaël Borremans


    The allure of Borremans’ narratives lies in the development of one’s experience of the work as one begins to examine in detail. Due to the conspicuous photographic reference, at first glance, The Stars appears naturalistic, with the subject matter being familiar and recognisable to the viewer. However, scanning further down,one would be shocked to discover the human portrayal abruptly ends at the upper torso -- what was considered to be the partial depiction of the figure turned out to be a disturbing image of an incomplete body. This incompleteness declares the work as a glimpse into an alternative reality of uncanny similarity to the one we live in. The suspense is disquieting and compelling simultaneously, working as a disruptor to reset the viewer’s lens of reading into this painting.



    Lot 22, Adrian Ghenie, Pie Fight Study 4, 2008
    Phillips Hong Kong Evening Sale, 22 June 2022
    Estimate: HKD3,500,000 - 4,500,000


    The intended understatement of the young man’s identity in The Stars, achieves a similar effect as the effacement technique favoured by artists such as Adrian Ghenie. In Pie Fight Study 4, Ghenie is able to zoom in onto the emotional experience of the moment by diluting attention to the identity of the character. In the current example, Borremans highlights the presence of the figure by positioning the young man away from the viewer.


    To delve into the artist’s narratives is very comparable to looking at one’s internal reflection in the mirror, as the narratives acts as prompts, and any meaning or significance ascribed to them is likely to be a projection stemming from the viewers own psyche. Curator Michael Bracewell’s attempt of encapsulating Borremans’ oeuvre yields the following statement, ‘The art of Michaël Borremans seems always to have been predicated on a confluence of enigma, ambiguity, and painterly poetics—accosting beauty with strangeness; making historic Romanticism subjugate to mysterious controlling forces that are neither crudely malevolent nor necessarily benign.’ iii The beauty of his artistic exploration lies in the direct contact with the multifaceted human nature that is much easily perceived than articulated or analysed.



    Collector’s Digest


    Born 1963 in Geraardsbergen, Belgium, Michaël Borremans received his M.F.A. from Hogeschool voor Wetenschap en Kunst, Ghent. Borremans’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at a number of prominent institutions, including Michaël Borremans: The Advantage, the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (2014); Michaël Borremans: Fixture, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga (2015–2016);  the artist’s major museum survey, Michaël Borremans: As sweet as it gets, which included one hundred works from the past two decades, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels (2014), which travelled to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art (2015).


    Work by the artist is amongst prestige public collections, including Art Institute of Chicago; The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (S.M.A.K.), Ghent; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.


    The artist’s most recent exhibition, The Acrobat, had just closed at David Zwirner New York, which lasted from 28 April - 4 June 2022.




    Annick Weber, ‘Day in the Life: Michaël Borremans’, Kinfolk: Artist Profile, September 2019, p. 58, online

    ii  Michael Borremans, quoted in: David Coggins, ‘Michael Borremans: An Interview’, Art in America, 1 March 2009, online

    iii  Michael Bracewell, Michaël Borremans: Fire from the Sun, exh.cat., David Zwirner, Hong Kong,  2018, p. 42

    • Provenance

      Private Collection (gifted by the artist)
      Christie's, London, 30 July 2020, lot 5
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Property from an Important Asian Collection



signed, titled and dated 'MICHAËL M.C.G. BORREMANS "-THE STARS-" 2008’ on the reverse
oil on canvas
52 x 38 cm. (20 1/2 x 14 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2008.

Full Cataloguing

HK$2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for HK$2,772,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 22 June 2022