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  • Provenance

    David Zwirner, New York

  • Catalogue Essay

    The highly acclaimed Belgian painter, Michaël Borremans, made his mark on the art world by treading the line between realism and the surreal. Frequently working in paint, Borremans is aware of the weight of art history this medium carries; hence his style is heavily influenced by past masters from Manet to Velázquez. He notes, “All the imagery of the 20th century and earlier is baggage we have to deal with. My work is an answer to that, a dialogue with that.” (the artist Michael Borremans and David Coggins, Art in America, 2009) Borremans deals with this ‘baggage’ by refreshing his works with elements of ambiguity, mystery and tension. Whereas traditional portraiture showed often well known characters and aimed to depict their personalities, Borremans uses nameless stereotypes, thus undermining the function of portraiture. These depersonalised, ghostly figures are placed in indistinguishable surroundings, resulting in a lack of narrative and a feeling of imminent threat. Subsequently, his paintings possess a strange unease between his painterly style and the surreal atmosphere of the pieces which challenges the sense of realism imposed by his predecessors.

    Borremans style is most distinguished for its links to Realism; his mixture of brushstrokes and use of colour greatly contribute to the overwhelming atmosphere of his work. He uses a combination of opaque and sketchy brushstrokes to create focus in some areas and hazily obscure others. Therefore, the viewers’ eye is drawn to the lightest point of the painting, the smooth, pale face in the foreground. This pallid skin appears luminous against the dark surroundings, emphasising its ghostly appearance. However, the sickly white of this skin is not the dominant force of the painting. The murky tones of the rest of the canvas, from deep, bloody burgundy to the dark black of the wall behind overpower the painting, creating the unidentifiable surrounding responsible for the uneasy mood of the piece. Even the figures are engulfed by their environment, as their hair and clothing blends into the darkness. The viewers’ lack of ability to see what is around these figures is highly unsettling, evoking the fear of looming danger in the unknown. Thus, by leaving his works without narrative, Borremans invites the viewer to create their own meaning and thus taps into a common psychology felt by all.

    The lack of setting and hazy, almost unfinished appearance of Borreman’s work echoes the work of traditional artists whom he took inspiration from. “Velazquez I’ve known for years...technically he is my teacher...mostly him, but of course there’s this whole tradition, there’s Goya and there’s Manet...and I consider myself in the same dialogue, in a way, but I’m a painter of my time.” (the artist Michaël Borremans and Mario Rossi, 2011) The prevailing difference is that these time-honoured works are easily comprehensible; the personality of the sitter or the scenery is part of the narrative. Borremans purposely never paints a person in particular; his figures are merely stereotypes standing in for characters. This vagueness gives a much more surreal and contemporary edge to the work, as Borremans undermines established rules of portrait painting. Furthermore, the expression on the face of the largest figure is obscured and he seems to be holding something which we cannot see, adding to the mysterious quality. The pictorial space is compact and claustrophobic, yet eye contact is not made between the two men. Despite a pale hand forebodingly pointing in his direction, the other man seems unaware, thereby increasing the feeling that an unfortunate fate may befall him. Consequently, by limiting detail and narrative, a hauntingly enigmatic atmosphere is created.

    Borremans takes the influences of past masters and gives them a modernist approach. His pieces aren’t portrait paintings; rather, they are psychological studies. The sense of fear and danger are prevalent forces in his pieces, however it is notable that these are felt without illustration. Therefore, his pieces engage the viewer with their own fears as they piece together the real and surreal in Borreman’s work. “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.” (the artist Michael Borremans and David Coggins, Art in America, 2009)


The Portrait

oil on canvas
50 x 42 cm. (19 5/8 x 16 1/2 in.)
Signed, titled and dated 'Michaël Borremans The Portrait 2002' on the reverse.

£150,000 - 200,000 ‡ ♠

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London
[email protected]
+44 207 318 4063

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Evening Sale 10 February 2014 7pm