Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2012
Although he had already studied fine art, Borremans didn’t turn his hand to the historic tradition of oil painting until he was 34. However, there are no signs of inexperience in the sumptuous depiction of the present work. It is characterised by a single figure, depicted in larger than life size, standing in an ambiguous corner of an almost entirely obscured room. The walls are covered with large high panels which, combined with the sharp dramatic light source from the left hand side, which our protagonist appears to stare into, imbues the work with the mood of a simple stage or movie set.
However, the central figure appears anything but an actor. Dressed in an homogenous manner of dull grisaille, and stood in a pose that seems awkwardly stiff-backed and upright, she gazes resolutely ahead, neither frowning nor smiling, appearing completely blank in expression. Indeed, the closer one observes this figure, the less human she becomes. She seems to hover between human and mannequin, and in the sharp sheen on her jacket, and the high fragility of her cheekbones, appears to be made more of glazed porcelain than of living flesh. This effect is entirely intentional on the part of Borremans: “I try to show figures – I don’t want to use the word ‘individuals’; they’re not individuals. I try to place them in a space that is familiar yet undefined” (Michaël Borremans in conversation with David Coggins, in: Art in America, 1 March 2009, online resource).
However, the uncanny ambiguity of this figure is not helped by her odd prop. The large ‘duck’ that she holds, versions of which are featured in at least three of Borremans’ other works and which is also referenced in the title, appears quite different to a real duck. It has no discernible eyes or feet, it sits with an entirely implausible rigidity in the placidly outstretched arms of the figure, and in texture and colour, it seems entirely matched with the wall behind it. The curator Katerina Gregos summarised its significance in her commentary on the present work: “What we see is not an actual duck. It is of course paint on canvas, rendering the impression of a duck. But that is not the decisive point here, nor is the question of ‘realistic’ representation. What we see is not necessarily what it appears to be. This approach indeed defines most of Borremans’ paintings and it was expressed in the most memorable way by René Magritte: Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (Katerina Gregos, ‘The Duck or The Treachery of Images’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, Brussles, BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts, (and travelling), Michaël Borremans: As Sweet as it Gets, 2014, p. 177).
This Surrealist-inspired approach is typical of Borremans’ seditious style. Of course, his paintings appear naturalistic; their contents are treated realistically and at first seem recognisable and identifiable, even known to us. However, these are not depictions of any real world, nor does this artist have any interest in attempting to show literal or actual situations. Borremans’ praxis is founded upon evoking a momentary glimpse into an alternate reality of uncanny similarity to our own. His works are focussed on ambiguous situations and incongruous scenarios, viewed in a silent sealed time-space that is hermetically removed from the viewer. Thus, their meaning is not to be found in their aesthetic forms at all, but rather in our own subjective reading of them. Borremans’ preclusive figures are prompts; any significance ascribed to them or the undead world in which they dwell has to be a projection of the viewers own psyche. It is only through the comprehension and realisation of this notion that Girl with Duck and other works by Borremans can become as valuable, or even more so, than an allegorising, symbolising, or emblematising didactic work of the same type.
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