Michaël Borremans may be the greatest living figurative painter. Based in Ghent, Belgium, home to Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s epic altarpiece, “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (1432), he has subsumed 500 years of painting into his art. Yet his work is informed by history, not mired in it.
“The Acrobats” provides an opportunity — all too rare on this side of the Atlantic — to see the genius of Borremans in the flesh. He renders skin with such intensity that the living, breathing, blood-coursing nature of the human being becomes vividly alive. In “The Witch,” Borremans seems to be teasing the viewer with a knowing contradiction: The left hand — hands being famously difficult to paint — is awkwardly held before the ambiguously gendered figure’s chest to suggest the form of a witch’s broom, while at once being meticulously rendered with sinew, tendon and veins. In “The Double,” the sitter is costumed in a metallic quilted suit, as if offering protection from an immense heat, with a pink-orange glow reflected off its surface. The face glistens: pink in a pink balaclava, eyes slightly closed. But the magma heat also seems to be creeping up and radiating from an underpainted layer on the canvas. Borremans’s paintings all seem to stop at a near-final moment, with just enough of the brush work and layering left observable. As if a solid thing suddenly has emerged from some elusive vaporous material. It’s painterly magic. A major New York museum retrospective is long overdue.
On the Faces of Strangers: Michaël Borremans’s Pandemic Portrait
I didn’t understand how much I needed to look at the faces of others until I drove into Manhattan this past December to stare into a stranger’s unmasked face on my birthday. The sole reason for this trip was the stranger’s face—a portrait by Michaël Borremans, an artist I had taken to describing for nearly a decade as my favorite painter whose work I had never seen in person.
I knew Borremans’s work mostly from the giant monographs and exhibition catalogs on his work I’d check out from the Mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library several years ago while I was working as a rare-book librarian a few blocks south at the Morgan Library & Museum. I’d lug these giant books from one library to another and then home in my backpack on the train from Midtown back to Brooklyn, renewing them over and over until they could be renewed no longer, sometimes requesting them again immediately, repeating the cycle. These paintings, or at least their reproductions, had a special resonance for me then. In the Morgan’s reading room, I routinely looked at the miniatures painted in the medieval manuscripts requested mostly by visiting academics. And when I would reshelve the printed books housed in J. P. Morgan’s former study in the old library, I’d always take a moment to look upon Hans Memling’s panel painting Portrait of a Man with a Pink.
“Can you believe this used to be a car park?” Michaël Borremans asks, looking out onto the vast expanse of greenery unfolding before him. It’s hard to picture the daisy-dotted back garden of the painter’s countryside studio covered in a blanket of concrete. And yet, such was the case nine years ago, when Borremans bought the 19th-century property—formerly a baron’s hunting château—as a rural alternative to his primary studio in Ghent. Today, the site is a tableau of serenity. Ancient trees tower in the distance, and horses graze around them. “A lot of the trees are in their last phase, so I planted some new ones,” Borremans says, pointing to a row of young saplings across the lawn. “You have to make sure that future generations have their trees too.”
One of the most acclaimed figurative painters in Europe, Borremans knows a thing or two about creating a legacy. Born in Belgium in 1963, he turned to painting in the mid-1990s after training in graphic arts and a stint working as a photographer and art school teacher. “I already had a certain control over form and light, I just had to teach myself how to work with colors and the materiality of paint,” he says of his transition. “I started off with things that I could master; a hand or face would have been too hard.” It took five years for Borremans to develop his confidence, and find a figurative language that was truly his own. At the time, the city’s Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art had just opened a new offsite space in Ghent, where he landed a solo show in 2000. The founder of the museum acquired a work and interest from galleries and museums around the world followed soon after. Now, he says, “My paintings get snatched away as soon as I finish one.”
Borremans paints people, but not portraits. He depicts anonymous sitters who look somehow absent, their eyes never meeting those of the viewer. Hooded figures stand frozen as if consumed by some mysterious ritualistic force. Children clasp objects—a missile, a dead hare, a bunch of carrots—that could be mistaken for toys, were it not for the gruesome or absurd connotations they carry. Sometimes, his sitters’ features are blown into grotesque proportions. “My work is two things at the same time: It’s holding a mirror onto the complex, often dark facets of human nature while borrowing a very familiar vocabulary of classic portraiture,” Borremans explains. “It’s contradictory and it’s alienating the beholder, and that’s the fun of it.”
Embarking on a career as a painter relatively late, at the age of 33, Belgian artist Michaël Borremans initially trained as a draughtsman and engraver at Saint Lucas in Ghent. On the occasion of his inaugural exhibition Michaël Borremans: Fire from the Sun at the new David Zwirner space in Hong Kong (27 January–9 March 2018), I spoke with Borremans about his practice and his participation in the Biennale of Sydney (BoS) (16 March–11 June 2018).
There has always been something not entirely of this world about Borremans' works. His paintings depict figures sometimes incomplete with limbs or heads missing, frozen mid gesture, seemingly swaying or dancing to unheard music or engaging in some sinister ritual. They are unsettling, eluding comprehension. His portraits—if they can be called such—tell nothing of the sitter. Borremans uses the language of portraiture to draw in the viewer but then subverts our expectations and understanding of the works. The painted figure is beside the point, more absent than present, an object to be posed and deciphered like a riddle, rather than a subject with a story.
Borremans' painted figures are Beckettian actors without a script, posed theatrically, resembling Edouard Manet's The Dead Toreador (1864), where a female figure lies on the ground cocooned and obscured in a red polygonal cardboard cylinder as if lying on a stage. They are untethered, directionless, forever waiting in a non-place, forever forced to repeat pointless actions that seem to have no beginning or no end. Some of Borremans' paintings, such as Automat (I) (2008), feature figures with truncated torsos or dismembered limbs, further suggesting that these are figures trapped by a pervading sense of futility. Borremans has said '... it is a conviction of mine ... that the human being is a victim of his situation and is not free'. Even the gestures and postures of the figures, with slouched shoulders and downcast faces, seem to indicate resignation, as if they had long ago accustomed themselves to the purgatory of their existence. There is an atmosphere of brewing tension and anxiety with an undertow of horror tugging away beneath the surface in his paintings: with his paintbrush Borremans brings to life a cargo of existentialism.
Seven years ago in his studio in Belgium, Michaël Borremans told me about the response to his painting Red Hand, Green Hand at an opening in Budapest. The image was widely interpreted as a symbol of Hungary’s political circumstance and even showed up on a large banner promoting the show. Borremans asked the curator why this specific work held such local significance. “[It] explains the situation in the country we live in,” he was told. “It shows two contrasting hands, but they come from the same body. That’s our problem.” The answer satisfied Borremans. That the painting had had an unintended and instinctive meaning signalled that “I had made a good work”, Borremans said.
This year at the opening of his solo exhibition, Fire from the Sun, the inaugural show at David Zwirner’s new gallery in Hong Kong, Borremans was likewise satisfied. This time, because people were less likely to voice the meaning they read into his paintings. The significance was in this reticence. The perceived meaning of the works is difficult to voice or uncomfortable to admit.
In the most evident terms, Fire From The Sun portrays children aged two or three in various stages of play with fire and what appear to be human limbs, even hair. The children are all light-skinned Sistine-style cherubs, sometimes covered in blood. The children do not appear to be distressed or disturbed (though some viewers at the gallery may be). The drama of the paintings is heightened by their visual connection to each other—and, more broadly, to older works by Borremans. The scene in each painting is composed against a similar beige backdrop. This is a set or a stage, devoid of context, withholding of answers, but suggestive of a director or someone watching.
In some of the paintings the children are in the process of disappearing: phantom bodies not quite removed from their gruesome acts. These ghostly figments remind us of the artist’s hand (another detached extremity) and its control over what we see and what we don’t. More poetically, the visible existence of “disappearance” suggests the impossibility of a clean escape from a bloody episode. Importantly, Borremans chose to depict children too young to have clear memories. In some fictional future, they might be unreliable carriers of this formative origin story or trauma. Are these portraits of what it means to try and erase the past, unsuccessfully? Like Red Hand, Green Hand, this exhibition is an unexpected, sometimes unwelcome, illumination of the different situations in which we similarly live.
As unsettling punctuation marks Borremans also included two large paintings of industrial apparatuses. These images are not outliers: they are set against that same backdrop and clearly part of the fragments that we are meant to piece together. They set Fire from the Sun in our contemporary, industrialized world. This exhibition does not offer the comforts of distance. But to relieve some tension, a misanthropic or desperate laugh is more than appropriate. Good social satire is, at once, frightening and hysterical.
While the fire and (probable) cannibalism imply some sort of ritual, the works are most chilling as sketches of random violence, causal and instinctual. The depicted characters break with one typecast (angelic) while fitting another (demonic). Fire from the Sun sits cozily—bloodily, cleverly—on the art history couch next to Goya and Francis Bacon, but the exhibition is not an exercise in appropriation or a closed circuit of art talking to art. Like Red Hand, Green Hand, this exhibition has an intuitive relevance to the time in which it was created and the circumstances in which it first exhibited.
The opening of the Hong Kong space marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of David Zwirner gallery as it increases its international presence beyond New York and London. Fittingly, the crowd that showed up for the occasion was international. David Zwirner counted visitors from twenty-two countries and four continents among his guests. The general opening was likewise packed—crammed, stuffed—no doubt with people from different starting points. Hong Kong is an international city, a port city, a crux of world politics, world history and world finances. This exhibition was preordained to fall in the vision-line of multiple points of view.
The paintings live in the seductive space of metaphor and possibility, which can stretch beyond the artist’s intentions. Borremans created this body of work specifically for the opening; he knew that a local reading of it would have global variations. Having travelled from Los Angeles to attend the opening, I juxtaposed these paintings against the morning’s news: against cavalier acts of violence and bloody origins, against history’s unwillingness to be erased, no matter the pressure to do so. I heard other interpretations while there, and so did the artist: that the paintings examine the loss of innocence, that they are a caricature of original sin, that they meditate on hypocrisy, that they demonstrate human capacity to be at once good and evil. How many more ideas went unarticulated?
About a year ago I met Borremans at his studio while he was working on Fire from the Sun. From the outset the artist understood he was taking a risk with the new works, precisely because of their open relationship with interpretation. But even if the paintings deceptively represent a vacuum (lack of context, setting, explanation), they are not made in one. They are informed by a shared reality. Fire from the Sun explains our current situation, by daring us to say what we don’t want to. Just as the title suggests: that which illuminates our existence can likewise set it ablaze.
Holding up a Mirror: Interview with Michaël Borremans
Ghent-based painter Michaël Borremans was born in Geraardsbergen, Belgium, in 1963. Originally a photographer and graphic designer, he developed an interest in drawing and paintings in the late 1990s while teaching art at the city’s Stedelijk Secundair Kunstinstituut. Since then, he has made his name by creating psychologically charged paintings that combine technical mastery with scenes that are removed from any specific time or place. Ahead of the artist’s first solo presentation in Hong Kong, “Fire from the Sun,” which showcases his latest works inspired by human nature, science and today’s society at David Zwirner’s new gallery in the port city, Borremans sat down with ArtAsiaPacific to discuss technique and the contrast between beauty and danger.
In some of the paintings in “Fire from the Sun,” we see unclothed children in an intangible atmosphere, alone, in wonder and looking at each other. Something bad has happened. What are these children doing and, in reality, could it symbolize humankind in a primordial phase?
Part of me wanted to depict humanity in its primal state, or a metaphor for that. The suggestion of cannibalism might be a hint for it. I deliberately didn’t want to make it too clear, but rather make use of art history’s symbolism, such as the naked toddlers that refer to the Renaissance putti and the cherubini, the flesh and the blood, the horrific violence, elegance and beauty, and terrifying life and death. But I didn’t want to specify much, otherwise it would have become too narrative. There are two stages; one is artificial and very raw, confronting and provocative. Then you have the elegance in the way it’s painted, also a bit in contrast—it always has been at some level—with the subject. For me this is important, but it’s not very understood, so I think I made it a bit clearer in this series.
Exactly, it’s a haunting painting and very precise. Finally, I had the chance to respond to my subconscious.
Goya’s touch is also very visible in your previous exhibition at David Zwirner in London in 2015, “Black Mould,” where men, women and children were shown in black gowns that look like KKK costumes, and engaged in various sinister actions and rituals. What’s the story behind “Black Mould”?
I had my first Japanese solo show at Atsuko Koyanagi’s gallery in 2008, and I was invited to a attend a ningyō jōruri—a traditional Japanese puppetry show—in Osaka, and the organization invited me backstage as her husband Hiroshi Sugimoto was working with them back then. I saw the puppeteers with their black costumes. I found that aspect to be more fascinating than the puppets, and I immediately asked if I could buy one of those costumes, but I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. Seven years later, I asked my girlfriend to wear it and dance to very hard punk music.
And what about “Fire from the Sun”?
I always wanted to paint nudes, to paint skin. I was already playing with chopped-off limbs in a previous series, so it all came together when I thought about these innocent kids. I never meant to make this series, but gradually it became what I wanted to be: elegant, dangerous and provocative at the same time. I don’t know why I added fire in the paintings, but I guess that it would appear boring otherwise.
Many of your paintings are set in a frame of timelessness. Would you describe your paintings as a reflection of the modern human condition? Or might it be a statement about your vision of today’s and tomorrow’s society?
I try to hold a mirror [to show our current state]. That’s why I added the machines: to create contrast between the primal and the scientific aspect of humanity, as one element makes the other stronger. Humans are animals, but we differentiate ourselves by developing devices and machines. This is both our blessing and our curse, and I’m convinced that we will destroy ourselves with our own intellect. Whenever we win by technical development, we lose our harmony with nature.
How should the observer approach your paintings?
The viewer has to finish the story because it’s the same as we see color: we all see color in a slightly different way, and the paintings are perceived in another way. I try to make a suggestive construction—as most artists do—and it all depends on whether the viewer can respond or not. It is a form of communication, an implicit form.
Do you think that art is a medium for communication, or relief and therapy?
I don’t know if it’s therapeutic for me. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I always felt like a natural-born artist, and that there was never another option in my life to be anything but an artist.
Your grandfather was a photographer.
Yes, his best friend was a painter—not a successful one and also very poor, but he did what he wanted to do. He was a free man, and I used to go there every weekend when I was just a little child. I started to think that was the life I wanted. It was very clear to me.
Your viewers have to deal with psychologically charged paintings paired with sometimes ambiguous titles, such as The Angel (2013), where a beautiful female figure wears a pink nightgown, but her head is tilted down, and her face is covered in black. Do the titles of your paintings carry any personal significance, or are they chosen for their deviant meanings?
Sometimes it is both. On one hand, painting The Angel was a very important step in my career. I was between two different periods of my life and it was a figure that took me from one place to another, but I had to create her myself, so that was therapeutic for me. On the other hand, I use my titles as part of the work as it’s a conceptual element, and it suggests observing the artwork in one way, or maybe offers a completely opposite view.
In your career, have faith or fate influenced your paintings? If so, how does religion or mysticism factor into them?
I grew up in a very Catholic family. I had to go to church every week, and that was also my first confrontation with paintings, as I’d look up and think to myself how mysterious and, frankly, also a bit scary these paintings were. Also, I work in a former chapel in Ghent right now, and there is a big statue of Mary looking at me and I paint right where the altar used to be. It has the best light and the church’s architecture brings all the light to the center of the altar. I have the feeling that it’s the center of this energy and it works for me.
By the use of props and the absence of time and space in your paintings, can we compare your artwork to magic realism or the Metafisica movement of Italy?
I was carried away by [Italian artist and writer Giorgio] De Chirico at a young age. I was also interested in literature about magic realism written in that area and style, but I developed a certain interest for the metaphysical paintings and its surroundings.
People often compare you to van Eyck, Velázquez, Manet, Degas. What is your relationship with the Old Masters? Do you feel responsible for being a torchbearer for traditional painting, technique-wise, in a contemporary art scene where technique often fades into the background?
The technique helps me to express myself, the artist uses the means he has and what’s suitable for him. There are painters with very little technique that make very good paintings and vice versa, so that’s not what my paintings are about. I seek to be universally understood and readable by as many as possible.