Michaël Borremans - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Tuesday, October 4, 2016 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private Collection, Tokyo

  • Catalogue Essay

    Looming out of the darkness, the torso of an unidentified, unidentifiable figure is shown, the image cropped to show only a striped shirt. The Shirt was painted by Michaël Borremans in 2002 and perfectly typifies the combination of mysterious imagery and painterly virtuosity that would propel him to increasing international fame during this period. Borremans has lushly and lavishly painted the eponymous shirt, eking out its details, its meandering pinstripes, the deep shadow of the creases and collar, all within a restrained, almost sepia palette. From the point of view of pure painting, this is a sensual masterclass, a contemporary return to the chiaroscuro favoured by artists such as Diego Velazquez—one of Borremans’ key points of reference.

    Another point of reference is Jan van Eyck, and in particular the Ghent Altarpiece. Although currently undergoing restoration, the Ghent Altarpiece is usually housed in the cathedral in the city of the same name, where Borremans himself lives and works. Borremans has discussed his fascination with the world of Van Eyck, the glimpses of another universe, with myriad tiny elements that intrigue the modern viewer and sometimes baffle comprehension (see Maggie Gray, ‘The Modern Mysteries of Michaël Borremans’, Apollo, March 2016). Similarly, Las Meninas by Velazquez plunges the viewer into the midst of a mysterious narrative where answers are not easily found. This is echoed by The Shirt: the fact that the picture is framed in such a way as to give little information, showing the loosely-fitted garment, a short expanse of neck and the hint and shadow of a jaw, insists upon the anonymity of the subject. However, the composition contains enough recognisable content that the viewer is engaged and intrigued. ‘With the paintings, at first you expect a narrative, because the figures are familiar,’ he has explained. ‘[…] 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’ (Borremans, quoted in David Coggins, ’Interview: Michael Borremans’, Art in America, March 2009).

    The anonymity of many of the figures in Borremans’ early paintings such as The Shirt was essentially guaranteed as he often used found images, including photographs from the decades before the Second World War, as his source material. More recently, he has created scenes of his own, photographing them and using those images as his sources. His works are filled with a suspense and air of surreal mystery that has garnered the admiration of the film director David Lynch; Borremans himself now works in film, as well as other media. Indeed, Borremans was originally trained as a photographer, and only turned to painting in the mid-1990s—when he was in his mid-30s. Within a short time, Borremans had shown an alacrity that saw his work compared to Edouard Manet and the Old Masters for its virtuosity. In a sense, this is the key to his works: despite basing his pictures on photographs, and thereby retaining his connection to his original discipline, works such as The Shirt are emphatically paintings. The source material of The Shirt is an image devoid of context or identity: the viewer is forced to look continuously, in search of clues, in search of narrative, and in so doing, ends up looking at the painting in a different way. As Borremans has explained, ‘I make paintings because my subject matter, to a large extent, is painting’ (ibid.).


The Shirt

signed, titled and dated 'MICHAËL M.C.G. BORREMANS "The Shirt" 2002' on the reverse
oil on canvas
42 x 50 cm (16 1/2 x 19 5/8 in.)
Painted in 2002.

£150,000 - 250,000 ‡♠

Sold for £173,000

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London
+44 207 318 4063

Henry Highley
Head of Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4061

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 5 October 2016