Michaël Borremans - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, February 12, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Michaël Borremans, 'Untitled', Lot 28

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 13 February

  • Provenance

    Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Antwerp, Zeno X Gallery, Michaël Borremans. Painted Fruit, 26 April - 31 May 2008
    Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart; Műcsarnok, Kunsthalle Budapest; Kunsthalle Helsinki, Michaël Borremans, Eating the Beard, 1 May - 26 June 2011, pp. 20, 27 and 217 (illustrated, p. 153)
    Vienna, BAWAG Contemporary, Michaël Borremans: Magnetics, 23 November 2012 – 20 January 2013, pp. 19 and 49
    Brussels, BOZAR, Centre for Fine Arts; Tel Aviv Museum of Art; Dallas Museum of Art, Michaël Borremans, As sweet as it gets, 22 February - 5 July 2015, no. 59, p. 298 (illustrated, p. 167)
    Shanghai, TANK, Convex/Concave: Belgian Contemporary Art, 31 October 2019 - 12 January 2020

  • Literature

    ‘Doekje voor het bloeden – kunstschilder Michaël Borremans’, Humo, no. 24/3536, 10 June 2008, p. 149 (illustrated)
    'Painting is a way of showing oneself as an artist, and every painting is a kind of face, a self-portrait', Art World, no. 7, October - November 2008, p. 75
    Jeffrey Grove, ed., Michaël Borremans: Paintings, Ostfildern, 2009, pp. 35 and 182 (illustrated, p. 160)
    'An der Grenze zum Tod - Michaël Borremans ‘Eating the Beard’ Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, 20.2 - 1.5.2011', Das Kunstmagazin, February 2011, p. 89 (illustrated)
    Rosa Juno Streekstra, 'The Unfinished', University of Amsterdam, 2011, online
    Rachel Morón, 'Perspectives Shift in WIELS and TANK Shanghai’s “Convex/Concave"', TL Magazine, 8 January 2020, online (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    ‘We are conditioned to read images in a certain way and if the image is not explaining, then you need an explanation. But that’s not what my work is meant for… I only build with the stones that are lying there. I have no idea what the purpose of my work could be.’ – Michaël Borremans

    ‘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.’ – Michaël Borremans

    At once figurative and abstract, familiar and uncanny, Michaël Borremans’ Untitled, 2008, serves as a poignant portrait of a collective human unconscious. An anonymous young woman appears as if in a state of sleep paralysis, lips sealed shut, body restrained by senseless immobility, wettened eyes fixated upon some unknowable vision. Her disturbance and fear are ineffable; yet the scene feels intimately familiar. Most disconcerting of all is the painted mask which uniformly covers her face, breaking unevenly below her jawline. Materialising the power of silence, Borremans draws the viewer in with mystical force. Referencing Edouard Manet, Gustave Courbet and Diego Velázquez in an exquisite treatment of paint, the artist crafts a composition that is self-conscious in its dialogue with the past whilst simultaneously maintaining an air of defiance. ‘Borremans embraces tradition’, Michael Amy elucidates, ‘and then seizes the proverbial rug, and pulls it from under its feet’ (Michael Amy, quoted in Michaël Borremans: As sweet as it gets, exh. cat., BOZAR, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, 2014, p. 284).

    Presenting an elusive subject matter in the guise of figuration, Borremans introduces an art which successfully evades the definitive nature of categorisation and interpretation. In Untitled, the oscillatory play between abstraction and figuration is expertly exploited in his rendering of the girl’s neck and upper chest, which dissolve in detail until he achieves a state close to a near-complete blur – splotches and lines of monochromatic paint that, when isolated in the lower segment of the painting, produce no coherent image. As our eyes journey upwards, however, the legibility of the figure increases with the implementation of additional painterly detail; the colour palette is enriched, the figuration is enhanced, the painting appears as if transforming from two-dimensional space into three. To achieve such a dramatic technical transition in the space of a single canvas is no small feat. Yet Borremans achieves this with such fluidity and transience that we barely notice it has occurred.

    The uniform mask of white is disrupted only by two red circles adorning the protagonist’s cheeks, akin to those worn by clowns, or painted upon the wooden surfaces of ventriloquist dolls. Such comparisons conjure a sense of the sinister that, once recognised, saturates the work. The victim/perpetrator duality is shared by the subjects in Cindy Sherman’s Fairy Tales and Disasters series, as well as Gerhard Richter’s harrowing Tote (Dead) paintings. Thus, the preconceived innocence and fragility of the subject is disrupted by the mask she wears, as Borremans presents us with a troubling paradox; a subject who is somehow simultaneously threatened yet threatening, terrified yet terrifying. As Natalie King notes, Borremans’ figures are ‘unsettling, eluding comprehension. The painted figure is beside the point, more absent than present, an object to be posed and deciphered like a riddle’ (Natalie King and Diana d'Arenberg, ‘Michaël Borremans in Conversation’, Ocula, 17 April 2018, online).

    A misty haze hangs over the present painting, conjuring an other-worldly atmosphere tinged with a permeating sense of ambiguity. Opposing the highly contrasted chiaroscuro of Old Masters, Borremans offers a sedated, verging on monochromatic tonality which prescribes for the work a sense of liminality – as if the subject were caught between two states; consciousness and slumber, life and death, this world and the next. In her eternal stillness, Borremans’ subject resembles John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, 1851-52, a work which yearns for a richly devised narrative interpretation and inscription. Untitled, however, remains uniquely intangible and transient.

    Ultimately, Borremans’ Untitled can be read as an exercise in blurring the distinctive boundaries between pictorial truth and artistic illusion. The work enlivens our expectations of what painting can achieve; both stylistically, and symbolically. In the words of Borremans, paintings such as Untitled are ultimately ‘philosophical question[s] about what truth can be. And truth is just as much in the lie as in something straightforward or honest… in my work I want to give information in a way that’s clearly incorrect, not fitting, out of place. I think that’s more honest.’ (Michaël Borremans, quoted in Michael Herbert, ‘Michaël Borremans’, Art Review Asia, May 2015, online).

Property from a Distinguished European Collection



signed and dated 'Michaël M.G.G. Borremans 2008' on the reverse
oil on canvas
42.1 x 36.5 cm (16 5/8 x 14 3/8 in.)
Painted in 2008.

£250,000 - 350,000 

Sold for £350,000

Contact Specialist

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099
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Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 February 2020