Lot 29
  • 29

Michaël Borremans

200,000 - 300,000 GBP
872,750 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Michaël Borremans
  • Two
  • signed, titled, dated 2004 and variously inscribed on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 99.5 by 85 cm. 38 5/8 by 33 1/2 in.


Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp

Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2004


Turin, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Somos Libres II, May - September 2014, n.p., no. 58, illustrated in colour 

Catalogue Note

All eyes, including our own, rest on the mysterious placement of both women’s hands. Staring down in oblivious concentration, they seem to be performing some mysterious task, or are their hands just held together? Bordering on the surreal and brushing with the perverse, in Two we behold the subtle enigma of Michaël Borremans’ painting. At first glance, we are assured of a scene, at second, Borremans pulls the wool from beneath our eyes. The master of the open ended narrative, Borremans practices a quiet form of surrealism that imbues itself in a not-quite-as-they-seem aesthetic. Tantalising, partially hidden, and closed off, Borremans throws us pictorial morsels as we perpetually lean over the shoulders of his figures to catch a better glimpse of work’s ever elusive subject.

So what is it that they do? Wrapping, folding, or sewing, the larger task at hand is of little importance to Borremans. Instead, he is interested in the humble process of work. For Borremans, the depiction of seemingly unskilled work transports the viewer into a timeless zone. In the endless repetition of a simple, menial action, there is no beginning or end. Working with their hands, Borremans depicts the time in which we lose ourselves, a meditative space in danger of being lost in our contemporary world. His paintings are journeys back to a pre-industrial workplace, where the silence of concentration holds sway. You will hear no keyboards tapping in Borremans’ workplaces.

For all of Two’s nostalgia, Borremans almost literally undercuts it through his use of composition. Cut in half by the very table they work on, the sewers take on an almost robotic nature. It is only Borremans’ exquisite mastery of paint that convinces us these are humans instead of figurines – as he says, “I don’t want to use the word ‘individuals’; they’re not individuals” (Michael Borremans cited in: David Coggins, ‘Michael Borremans: An Interview’, Art in America, 1 March 2009, online). Jeffrey Grove, senior curator at the Dallas Museum of Modern Art, has noted Borremans’ figures seem not to possess souls. Inside Borremans’ paintings lies a figurative world with which we are totally incompatible. Curiously distant, we feel no compassion towards these figures, only unease at the inability to emotionally connect with them. The only human presence we feel is that of Borremans, the painter puppeteer, a set designer within his own at time perverse imagination. As he recently stated, “I really wanted to use painting like a stage, like Manet did” (Ibid.).

Manet is just one of Borreman’s complex art historical reference points that he brings to bear on the present work. Bravely carrying the torch on from the Old Masters with which he finds so much companionship, Borremans emulates various aspects of his forefathers, from Casper David Friedrich to Vermeer and Velázquez. There is no exact translation for the German word Rückenfigur (literally a back figure), but it is a word majorly associated with Friedrich, who so consistently painted his figures from behind. Friedrich’s use of Rückenfigur has been a major source of inspiration for Borremans, who has taken Friedrich’s figures out of their expansive Romanticist landscapes. Instead, he locks them into tightly cropped interiors to maximise the psychological potential of the technique. 

While compositional links can be easily attributed, it is the atmosphere of Borremans’ work, which owes much to the Old Masters, that is difficult to pin down. Born in Belgium, with a studio in Ghent – a city watched over by Van Eyck’s eponymous altarpiece – it is of little surprise that Borremans has been captivated since childhood by the work of the early Renaissance artist. "The first artworks I saw were reproductions of Van Eyck", he recalls. "They were windows on a strange world. As a child they fascinated me but frightened me too – and they still do, in a way" (Michael Borremans cited in: Maggie Gray, ‘The Modern Mysteries of Michaël Borremans’, Apollo, 5 March 2016, online). Elsewhere, Borremans borrows from the violence of Goya, the empathy of Velázquez and the early ‘photographic’ modelling of Vermeer. Yet in all of this there remains a profoundly contemporary flavour, however rooted in the past. Painting from photos off a computer screen, Borremans somehow links this profoundly contemporary process to painting back his beloved masters: Vermeer, he says, "used a camera obscura, he already used photographic tricks in his compositions – things that were only repeated in the 19th century. He played with that in a very modern way” (Ibid.).