Michaël Borremans - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle Hong Kong Thursday, December 1, 2022 | Phillips

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  • “Everything is defined; in painting, it is not.”
    — Michaël Borremans

    Disquieting yet compelling, Belgian painter Michaël Borremans’ works are characterised by his unique style of figuration that features staged scenes based on photographic source images, exploring the potent and complicated relationship between reality and painting – the real and imaginary, the source and interpretation.



    Left: Lot 20, The Assistant, 2000
    Phillips Hong Kong Evening Sale, 1 December 2022
    Estimate: HKD3,200,000 - 4,200,000

    Right: Lot 19, The Butter Sculptor, 2000
    Phillips Hong Kong Evening Sale, 1 December 2022
    Estimate: HKD2,800,000 - 3,500,000


    Both executed in 2000, The Assistant and The Butter Sculptor were painted during a decisive year for the artist when clarity was within Borremans’ oeuvrei. This year marked the beginning of his distinctive photorealist style and the gradual increase of film influences in his work. Borremans started producing his own films in 2002 – only two years after the creation of these works – which he started screening in 2007.



    Lost Images


    Rendered in an intimate scale that draws the viewer to the story within, Borremans’ images are like stills from a non-existent film that free-floats in an enigmatic space, rejecting any definitive narrative or interpretation.



    Detail of The Butter Sculptor, 2000


    In The Assistant and The Butter Sculptor, Borremans utilises elegiac washes of pale yellows, creamy whites, and shades of dark brown, creating a subtle hazy effect that mimics old photographs kept away in old family albums. Possibly referencing his own grandfather who was a baker turned photographer himself, The Butter Sculptor depicts an older gentleman reshaping a large mountain of melting butter, whilst The Assistant shows a younger girl playing with a fresh cube of the same substance, with its title alluding to the collaborative relationship between this pair of protagonists.

    “Images aren’t supposed to be seen this way, you are obliged [to see them filtered through the process that reproduced them for the eye]. I am looking for ‘lost images’ [for instance] images on TV; some scenes are important in the story, [but others are not, they] are ‘in-between’; I try to make use of them.”
    — Michaël Borremans
    Borremans uses source photographs for references, including pictures downloaded from the internet, film stills, and images taken from television. These appropriated pictures introduce a deeper layer of mystery and subjectivity to the end result, implying that no matter the reality of the scene at the instant the image is taken, it both documents and transforms that moment into fiction. Displacing the aura of the original by re-photographing it, Borremans felt this strategy allowed him to ‘get closer by getting further away’ further eroding the significance of the original.ii



    Detail of The Assistant, 2000


    By reworking his source images, Borremans implies that his paintings are subconscious expressions. Though without any logical explanations, he does not imply that they are imaginary: ‘Sure, there is nothing there. On the other hand, all is there.’iii



    In the Eye of the Beholder

    “The paintings always include several elements that refer to other matters outside the painting. I create my paintings in such a way that these references never converge, it remains a puzzle because nothing can ever be defined.”
    — Michaël Borremans
    At first glance, the subject matter of butter draws associations to the fat sculptures of Joseph Beuys. Recontextualising overlooked and mundane objects such as furniture – and in this case, fat – Beuys‘ Fat Chair is an homage to the substance; as he explained, it had saved his life during World War II.



    Joseph Beuys, Fat Chair, 1964–1985
    Artwork: © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn


    Aesthetically, Borremans’ work is more comparable with works by Old Master painters such as Edouard Manet, Antoine Vollon, or Diego Velazquez. Imbuing his portraits with his iconic sepia tones, Borremans embraces the painting medium and genre for its deterministic illusory quality.



    Édouard Manet, Jean-Baptise Faure, 1882-83
    Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William B. Jaffe, 1950, 50.71.1


    However, different from portraits by Manet or Velazquez, the eyes of Borremans’ characters are always downcast or averted, such as in The Assistant and The Butter Sculptor. Intentionally depicted as so, the artist explains that a direct gaze is not suitable for his works, since it will characterise the work as a portrait, offering the protagonist authenticity, originality and power. Deliberately ambiguous with mysterious signifiers, Borremans’ methodology fulfils his intentions of creating works that are situated ‘outside [of] time, a space where time has been cancelled’iv, and where his characters become objects instead, defying clear interpretation.



    Left: Antoine Vollon, Mound of Butter, 1875-1885
    Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
    Image: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Chester Dale Fund, 1992.95.1

    Right: Detail of The Butter Sculptor, 2000


    Borremans explains that painting cannot be seen as purely conceptual: ‘There is always in [some] way an emotional and personal quality involved.’v The psychology that constructs his paintings offer insight into the artist’s articulation that in his painting there is no reality, which in turns places emphasis on what the viewer brings to the experience of looking at the painting itself. To delve into Borremans’ narratives is very comparable to looking at one’s internal reflection in the mirror, as the narratives act as prompts, and any meaning or significance ascribed to them is likely to be a projection stemming from the viewer's own psyche. The beauty of the artist’s artistic exploration lies in the direct contact with the multifaceted human nature that is much more easily perceived than articulated or analysed.

    “There is no story. Everything is implicit. I try to initiate a dialogue because if you become explicit, you always get it wrong — as if you believe that a kind of truth actually exists.”
    — Michaël Borremans

    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.




    i Jeffrey Grove, ‘Ventilating a Nihilist Vision’, Michaël Borremans: Paintings, Ostfildern, 2009, p. 5

    ii ibid, p. 10

    iii Luk Lambrecht, ‘Michael Borremans, I am an Avant-Garde Artist’, Flash Art, October 2006, p. 75

    iv Jeffrey Grove, ‘Ventilating a Nihilist Vision’, Michaël Borremans: Paintings, Ostfildern, 2009, p. 6

    v ibid, p. 8

    • Provenance

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

    • Literature

      Jeffrey Grove, Michaël Borremans: Paintings, Ostfildern, 2009, p. 6 (illustrated, p. 19)


The Butter Sculptor

signed, titled, dated and inscribed 'M.M.C.G. Borremans O.O.C. M.M. "The Butter Sculptor" 2000.' on the reverse
oil on canvas
70 x 60 cm. (27 1/2 x 23 5/8 in.)
Painted in 2000.

Full Cataloguing

HK$2,800,000 - 3,500,000 

Sold for HK$2,898,000

Contact Specialist

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

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle

Hong Kong Auction 1 December 2022