Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Day Auction


Michaël Borremans
B. 1963
signed, titled and dated 2002 on the reverse
oil on canvas
50 by 32 cm. 19 2/3 by 12 1/2 in.
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David Zwirner, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2003

Catalogue Note

Firmly rooted in a figurative tradition stretching back to Rembrandt while engaging in post-modern criticisms of art making and visual truth, Michaël Borremans’ The Portrait is a fascinatingly enigmatic canvas that typifies his celebrated mature work. In this respect, The Portrait encapsulates everything ArtReview editor Michael  Herbert defines as an  “archetypal Borremans' painting [which] is a seductive enigma, a bouillabaisse of specificity, obscurity, anxiety, humour and great technique” (Michaël  Herbert, ‘Michaël  Borremans’, Art Review Asia, May 2015, online).  Two mysterious figures emerge from a looming black background; their ominous appearance out of the darkness in bright, vivid, beautifully drafted brushwork that recalls the great portraitists of the past - from Rembrandt to Goya to Manet.  Although titled The Portrait, neither figure is recognizable as a specific individual; why and where they have met remains as mysterious as their identities and location.

Painted on an intimate scale, the close-up and highly cropped perspective speaks to the influence of cinema on Borremans’ work. Inspired by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, such an unusual vantage point heightens the sense of uncanny mystery. Borremans explains his interest in perspective - “these days, you can’t help being influenced by film and photography. Those disciplines have had such a far-reaching effect on the way we look at nature and reality. We have become used to seeing within frames. In the past, people had a larger periphery to their gaze” (Michaël Borremans in conversation with Kurt Snoekx: ‘Michaël Borremans: As Sweet as it Gets’, Buzz, February 2014, online). Though populated by mysterious characters plucked from the past, it is here that we discover the modernity of Borremans’ canvases. They speak profoundly to the contemporary visual perspective while all the while challenging notions of truth and the role of the figurative artist as a record of the real.

Speaking on the subject, Borremans explained ““It’s really a philosophical question about what truth can be. And truth is just as much in the lie as in something straightforward or honest … As an adolescent, that’s where my fascination for cinema came in. They build decors; they fake everything to make it seem real. And if they do it with that they do it with everything. To have it is to use it … So therefore 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 cited in: Michaël  Herbert, ‘Michaël  Borremans’, Art Review Asia, May 2015, online)

With his canvases, Borremans presents viewers with glimpses of alternate yet similar realities, focussing on incongruous situations that are sealed off, silent, and mysterious to viewers. Their purposeful ambiguity forces viewers to explore their own subjective interpretation of the depicted scenes. A master of ambiguity, Borremans revels in never closing the pictorial circle – leaving narrative tantalisingly open-ended. In doing this, Borreman’s “never lets you forget that you are looking at a painting” (Ibid.). This post-modern preoccupation with revealing the substructure of painting itself sits at the heart of Borreman’s work. To look at a Borremans canvas is to first revel in the skill of one of the greatest contemporary draughtsmen and painters working today, yet on further inspection they masterfully speak to the act of painting itself, and perhaps more importantly, the place of truth within an increasingly post-truth world.  

Contemporary Art Day Auction