ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Michaël Borremans - 2013 - Mystery and Illusion [EN, essay],
Mystery and Illusion
About Michaël Borremans’ paintings
Anyone who desires to learn more about Michaël Borremans’s work should definitely read the interviews. As a rule, the essays on his work only serve to deepen the confusion he personally evokes in his pieces. However, Borremans is perfectly coherent when he is the one doing the talking. He openly reveals that he originally did not possess any obvious talent for drawing, but was so fascinated by it that frequent practice enabled him to gradually improve his skill. When he started to paint, he stated that he was not a very good painter. Now that his paintings have acquired a certain mastery (he is able to apply the technique to serve the image or the atmosphere he wants to evoke) and he has started producing films and sculptures, he displays the same reserve. He is, in fact, someone who constantly pushes his boundaries and just as it is hard to specify the so-called content of his work, he himself is hard to peg because he does not confine himself to figures of speech or truths. One constant in the interviews is his belief that truth does not exist. This is why he tries to create open works; works that still contain empty space (as many authors describe it), thus leaving them open to a wide range of interpretations.
Perhaps he does not believe that identity exists. His images do appear to hint at this. When he does assign himself a character trait, it is a chaotic nature, which makes it possible for him to advance in an intuitive manner, at times driven by apparent inspiration for the design, elaboration or completion of an image, and at others nothing. Just like Luc Tuymans, Borremans is someone that creates images first and paintings second. However, this does not prevent him from repeatedly placing the emphasis on the specificities of each form used, for example when he says that producing drawings is more like writing, that the granularity in his films is extremely important or that the physical manifestation of a painting, spatially as well as essentially, makes a difference compared to drawings. Without being associated with more fundamental painters, who appear to explore the boundaries of the art of painting in their work, he nevertheless emphasises the fact that an image that has assumed the form of a painting is inevitably interpreted according to the history of painting. The same is true for his films of course, which cannot be viewed without them calling other films to mind. In an interview with Peter Dorochenko, Borremans names several film makers: “Buñuel, Sirk, Tarkovsky, Hitchcock, Visconti, etc. Too many to mention.” I have not found an author that has closely studied why these particular film makers were cited, while one can directly identify links with the famous suggestive techniques employed by Sirk, the attention Hitchcock devoted to clothes, the opening scene depicting the balloon flight in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, etc. The only film maker the authors name is David Lynch, and then it’s without referring to any specific image (the man that makes erasers out of a head in Eraserhead or the disarming and at the same time shocking naked Laura Dern in Blue Velvet: “He put his disease in me!”).
What struck me most about Borremans is his shyness, which is initially difficult to detect, and which can come across as dull, offensive or arrogant due to his verbal communication skills. However, you soon start to enjoy the game and feel a sense of gratitude for the way in which he is able to overcome or put into context his propensity for suspicion and cynicism. The beauty of it is that I have identified this in his work from the very beginning. His work is a game. And to paraphrase Freud, “People believe that play and seriousness are opposites, but it is not true: the reality we are allotted is the opposite of play, while players take nothing more serious than the game.”
Michaël Borremans was born in 1963. He is the fourth child out of five; he has three brothers and a sister. His parents were hardworking and Catholic. His father was a pharmacist and a balloonist. His mother ran a flower shop and painted flowers. His grandfather, on his mother’s side, was originally a baker, but later became a photographer. He imparted the secrets of photography to his grandson. He was also the one that introduced young Borremans to a local artist. Borremans studied at Sint-Lucas arts secondary school (kunsthumaniora) and Sint-Lucas School of Arts in Ghent, where he specialised in graphic art. Later on, he worked full-time as a teacher for ten years at the Ghent City Secondary Arts Institute until he reached the age of thirty-six, when he decided to try and survive on his artistic work. He was granted his first solo exhibition in 1996, at the Croxhapox experimental art house in Ghent. In 2000, his big break came in the form of an exhibition at the S.M.A.K. in Ghent. Borremans began his artistic career as a draughtsman. According to Jeffrey Grove, curator of the Dallas Museum of Art, Borremans began to paint with oil paint in 1993; however, his painting remained strongly rooted in his practice as a draughtsman until 1997. In around 1999-2000, a new clarity materialised with paintings such as The Butter Sculptor (2000) and The Assistant (2000). Grove believes that the year 2000 was decisive, with the creation of forty-six paintings. The Box (2002) was also produced at this time: it was the first painting that had not been based on an image the artist had found, but was produced from a mise en scène. Since 2002, Borremans had based his paintings on photographed and later filmed models, initially because the photographs he had found and then used made an unintentional nostalgic impression on the public. He has been producing films since 2002, which he started screening in 2007.
From found to staged
In general, if you train as a graphic artist, it means that you learn to draw and work with woodcut, lithography and all forms of etching and screen printing. The first works that earned Borremans public success were drawings he had produced on used, tinted paper with materials such as pencil, ink, watercolour, coffee and opaque white. Borremans gradually started to paint more frequently with oil paint. As already mentioned, he had initially based his work on photographs he had found, whereas he now stages and photographs or films his subjects, which means that the images are stripped as far as possible of any reference to a particular place or time.
Baroque painting technique
Borremans uses the Baroque painting technique, which consists of working with transparent layers of oil paint on a surface that is not white as in the case of the Flemish Primitives, but provided with a light brown or red ground-layer. (The foundation now sometimes consists of untreated canvas or a panel because they can provide a similar colour. This is the case in Kati Heck’s work, for example.) The lighter elements are lightened and the darker elements are darkened by adding transparent layers of paint. Where necessary, the ground-layer can be retained. Since it is more difficult to lighten the painting than it is to darken it, the lighter elements are often more paste-like (more raised) than the dark ones. The advantage of this method, if one compares it to that adopted by the Flemish Primitives, is that it saves time and affords the artist the opportunity to allow areas to melt into one another at the edges, which can create a more spatial effect and reduce the painting’s tendency to break down into separate sections. It seems as though Borremans’s paintings are becoming thinner, which demonstrates that he continues to refine his mastery of the technique. The result is that the technique increasingly serves the image.
Since 2002, Borremans has also produced 35-millimetre films. To him, they represent a type of painting, created with a medium other than paint. Their granularity affords them an artistic quality, even though they constitute a different medium. The films are imbued with their own poetry. (He told me the same thing about the photographs of his models, which he does not exhibit.) They are usually screened on vertical flat screens inside a wooden frame. They may not be shown in any other fashion. In a discussion with the writer David Coggins in 2009, Borremans stated that his films do not consciously refer to other films, but that they openly respond to the viewer’s consciousness. He also explained that their rhythm is extremely important, that they are as slow as breathing. He added that he is also interested in the aesthetics of the actual filming, such as focusing or blurring the image.
Court jester at the palace
A few years ago, Borremans received a request from Queen Paola to create pieces for the royal palace. Borremans told the author Renko Heuer that the Queen showed him several rooms that she wanted to renovate and gave him carte blanche in his approach. She also visited his studio to familiarise herself with his work and to follow the paintings’ progress. At the last moment, he changed his mind so that the Queen was surprised when she saw the result at the unveiling. Borremans once told me that the work may not have been entirely suitable, was perhaps somewhat anarchist, but that it was still a little too bland in his opinion. He had painted characters wearing uniforms that were worn at the court, but back to front, so that they reminded some people of straitjackets. However, today, he can reconcile himself with the pieces. “I tried to create an image of a court jester,” he reveals, “an artist that amuses as well as troubles the palace.”
Of mysteries and miniatures, illusionism and solace
Essays on Borremans’s work drive the reader to despair. The vast majority of these texts are based on speculation. Authorities are often cited that add nothing (such as Foucault and Bentham’s Panopticon) and brief ideas frequently set off in their own direction. Jeffrey Grove, curator of the Dallas Museum of Art, states that Borremans once compared his paintings to spirits and that the word “spirit” can be interpreted as the soul of a deceased person or a bodiless being, but also as a bridge to the spiritual kingdom. Curator and writer Christine Kintisch goes further and writes of spiritualist séances and other nonsense that Borremans probably never meant. Nobody considers the simple explanation that paintings, just like curtains and shadows, can conjure up images that briefly come to life, particularly in the case of artists who sometimes have a less stable image of reality than their contemporaries who, when they “look”, actually “think” and “see” forms with which they are familiar. Many artists are less effective at retaining these forms of thinking and do not succeed in freezing the essentially dynamic, shapeless world around us that isn’t really divided into forms. Thus the world may appear more threatening or spooky to them.
What is an irrational insight?
There are major differences in the emotional approach of Borremans’s work. Grove maintains his distance and writes that a further study of the position of his protagonists makes it impossible for one to feel emotionally involved in Borremans’s quintessential mimetic scenarios. And one page further, he writes that Borremans’s paintings pretend they want to explore complex psychological states while they defy all logic. He laconically summarises the issue of time in Borremans’s work as follows, “Borremans intentionally uses poorly defined signifiers that collide in ambiguous spaces. This method responds to his desire ‘to create an atmosphere devoid of time, a space in which time no longer exists’.” This more sober approach contrasts sharply with authors that view the work in a more melodramatic fashion. First and foremost, repeated claims are made that Borremans’s works play out in a present that is not the present, in a place that does not exist. Usually something takes place that continues unceasingly. The Swiss art critic Hans Rudolf Reust writes “The certainty that the painted gesture will inevitably continue to exist is breathtaking” and “But above all, he creates an unidentified place for his paintings by importing a frozen time, with gaps between certain moments in which the duration of rapid gestures are immeasurably drawn out.” The Belgian art historian Michaël Amy writes of a sadomasochist universe with distinct references to the Nazi era. Christine Kintisch, in turn, talks of “the desolation of their everlasting misery”, “a seemingly endless nightmare”, “doomed to forever replay the irreconcilable drama between desire and fear”. In general, Kintisch tries to kindle a dark, sinister atmosphere, in which she not only refers to artists such as Edgar Allan Poe, but also to the writer Sebald, in a rather inappropriate manner. It is true that all his books feature strange, almost transparent figures that practice the most unusual habits, but in the novel Austerlitz, which attempts to describe an uprooted Jewish child’s amnesia, Sebald’s images serve to evoke a reality that is so gruesome that I would never take them out of context and certainly not purely to conjure up an atmosphere.
If I may make a statement on Borremans’s work at this point, then I would like to compare it with a remark by Nabokov about what, in his opinion, constitutes the essence of literature: “Pushkin the balanced, Tolstoy the sober, and Chekhov the restrained have all had their moments of irrational insight, which meant the senses became simultaneously blurred and revealed a hidden meaning that was worth the sudden blurred vision. However, with Gogol, this shift forms the basis for his art….” Perhaps one could say the same is true for Borremans. But what is an irrational insight? Why does Borremans portray some characters with a duck’s bill? And is there any point in asking him?
I asked Borremans about the significance of the word “mystery” because I wanted to talk about Magritte’s endless attempts to capture “mystery” by depicting things combined in an unusual way (a giraffe in a wine glass or a bicycle on a cigar). Magritte was so obsessed by this that Marcel Mariën mocked him in a pamphlet. In the great number of letters that Magritte wrote on the subject, he finally arrives at the conclusion that the effect is greatest when he uses everyday objects (such as an oversized egg in a cage). Borremans replied that he never used the word mystery and that there is nothing special about plucking an object “out of its usual frame of reference” and making it reappear elsewhere. “Wim Delvoye does that too,” he told me, “by marrying elements from higher and lower culture.” And he concludes, “No, if you come across that word then it’s because the authors used it.”
“Michaël Borremans,” writes Grove, “has occasionally called his drawings his ‘secret weapons’. If by ‘secret’ he is alluding to the mysterious then few will contradict him.” “Michaël Borremans,” he writes elsewhere, “is meticulous and cautious when it comes to his work: he painstakingly creates insinuating drawings, he cautiously ensures that nobody can read any meaning into the drawings.”
We encounter one frequently recurring description of Borremans’s work in a text by the Belgian art critic, current director of De Appel and soon-to-be director of the Frans Hals Museum, Ann Demeester. Just like Grove, she is convinced that it is impossible “to analyse drawing or painting in a logical manner”, yet she still wants to try. She goes on to describe his drawings, quite explicitly, as follows: “The painter has frozen a certain ‘action’ and denies us any explanation of the context in which the recorded moment must be placed. There is a silence, a void around the image, which is open to many interpretations. This creates a kind of ‘suspense’, as though the canvases are also detective stories. As Borremans seems to work in series, the ‘mystery’ is partly lifted.”
The word “mystery” turns up frequently. In an interview, David Coggins asks the artist: “There is a mystery in your paintings that the observer wants to solve, but it is unsolvable. You invite the observer in, but you create an image that is ultimately unreadable. Are you trying to create a kind of tension?”
Christine Kintisch uses the expression “the mysteries of the art of painting” and poses the question: “What mysteries are embodied in the olive green collar, the paper patterns, the grey, lace veil?” To summarise, she talks about “a visual and intellectual ambiguity (…) that has proved to be inexhaustibly provocative.” However, we could not imagine any artwork without any visual and intellectual ambiguity. An artwork is something (such as an image) that is something else at the same time (such as a painting, an object). Or vice versa; we see ourselves in front of an object that we believe we can perfectly understand and even describe, but there is always something that will elude us, if only because it lives in us in a hidden, unrecognised and unformulated manner.
In an interview with Borremans, Renko Heuer poses a question about “that mysterious element, like a puzzle that the observer must solve – this applies to the observers in and outside the drawing.” Borremans’s answer is as follows: “The paintings always include several elements that refer to other matters outside the painting. I create my paintings in such a way that these references never converge, it remains a puzzle because nothing can ever be defined.” A little later, Heuer says: “All these mysteries: do you have the answers? Or are they open questions for you too?” “To me they are just as easily entirely open questions because they relate to suggestive constructions,” Borremans replies. “There is no story. Everything is implicit. I try and initiate a dialogue because if you become explicit, you always get it wrong – as if you believe that a kind of truth actually exists.” A short time later, Borremans recounts an anecdote about a go-kart that he had hidden under “a very old curtain from a castle”: “You can’t really see what it is, but you do see that it is something technical, it is not a thing of beauty that is concealed, and it’s an extraordinarily monumental, weird shape that is highly appealing and mysterious.”
Naturally, I wanted to demonstrate that Borremans did use the word “mysterious”, but in fact that does not further our case if we want to better understand or identify with his work. What matters is why this word pops up time and time again and what we can learn from it. Much of it has to do with Borremans’s desire to portray a kind of universal man and not individuals in specific, familiar situations. He previously did so by basing his images on those he found in old books and magazines or on the internet, images that often dated back to the 1940s or 1950s, because he wanted to depict a kind of “average” 20th-century man. This is why the painting The German I (2002) portrays a man that is looking at red balls that are floating around his hands. In the interview with Renko Heuer, Borremans first says that he does not know what the red balls represent, but then he explains that the man in the original photograph was holding a chemistry model.
For most writers, the ambiguity or vagueness that Borremans creates by (for example in this case) omitting details, gives rise to an uneasy feeling, even a sense of threat, which Borremans relates to his view of life in the discussion with Heuer: the impression that we are living on a time bomb; on a volcano that can erupt at any moment; in an apocalyptic, terrifying world in which all structures are fragile. He views the world as a cold, strange place and he experiences this in his contacts with other people as well as in the political and economic world. The question of what his work is about (what secret it holds) therefore changes to the question of how he can convert this view of life into drawings, paintings and films without being explicit or unequivocal and how he arrived at selecting this specific form for his paintings that is so closely related to the technique employed by Velázquez.
In the text Rare, suggestieve constructies. Een gesprek met Michaël Borremans (Curious, suggestive constructions. A conversation with Michaël Borremans), I state that in his book Sculpting Time, Tarkovsky describes poetry as an unusual constellation that reminds us of the incongruence of reality. “If we imagine such a constellation as a meeting between two or three things that are not usually observed together, then we see that this applies to the meeting between the contemporary art world and Borremans’s painting method, as well as to the way in which he composes his images. True to his predilection for certain images, paintings or atmospheres, he pushes his paintings to the edge of kitsch and sentiment, using the image as well as his painting method. To the artist, these images appear to come first, whereby the facture of the painting must serve them, but I suspect that the reverse is equally true: that the painter creates these kinds of images because it apparently offers him the opportunity to use old-fashioned painting techniques and images.” However, Borremans replies: “You have totally misunderstood it. The image comes first and only then the style.”
Borremans’s greatest historical model is Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), a Baroque painter who is widely praised for his virtuosity: his ability to evoke a world with but a few brushstrokes. Borremans admires him primarily because of the way in which he used his unparalleled, economic technique to serve the psychology of the characters he depicted or the painting’s atmosphere. Borremans also loves Goya (1746-1828) and Edouard Manet (1832-1883). However, he refers to Velázquez as the king of painters.
When I recently spoke to him about the style used by Velázquez and Manet, he told me that he was less fond of the later Manet, “who began painting in a more impressionist style in his later paintings.” I confessed that when it comes to Velázquez, it is mainly the suggestive strokes that I remember, applied from afar, which are only recognisable as an image at a distance and asked him whether he found this Velázquez less fascinating. “Of course Velázquez had this jazzy way of painting,” he replies, “but there is much more than that. I don’t mean that a painting must be naturalistic. The work of John Singer Sargent is extremely well painted, but it is purely virtuosic, for the rest it is usually ugly and uninteresting. Velázquez is a virtuoso, but his work possesses a powerful, psychological dimension; his technique serves something else. If you take the example of his portrait of El Primo, the bookkeeper or the king’s secretary, you feel tremendous compassion. In his final portrait of Philip IV, which shows how the king had declined, you feel the relationship between the painter and the sitter. It was also the last portrait he was able to paint.”
Paradoxically enough, we turn once more to the subject of Magritte, who tried “not to paint” in order to make his images as powerful as possible. In Borremans’s case, this results in the creation of servitude to an ideal technique attributed to Velázquez, in which the layer of paint becomes increasingly thinner, as if it tries as much as possible not to stand in the way of the image or an atmosphere to be evoked, while of course it derives its ambiguity and power precisely from its waning material presence. Hence, the lead role in the solo show The people from the future are not to be trusted in the Zeno X Gallery (2013) appeared to have been reserved for the red filtering through, for example in the large fold of the dress of The Angel (2013), and the almost glistening orange between the Dead Chicken’s legs (2013).
Several drawings examined more closely
Michaël Borremans first entered the spotlight with his drawings. To this very day, his entire universe appears to flow from these drawings. You could say that he thinks in visual terms. He compares drawing to writing, by which he could mean that it is the result of a linear progress, a self-propelling development, in which the content flows forth from a medium that takes the upper hand: that takes you by the hand and leads you to new places.
A fine example of his drawings is The German - Dreiten teil (mixed media on paper, 2003). This drawing is one in a series of drawings with the same theme, such as The German V (pencil and gouache on cardboard, 2003) in which we meet a character that appears to be looking at balls floating around his hand. In The German - Dreiten teil (2003) a variant of this drawing is placed in a decor, where it appears as a giant projection or a (painted) poster. The space in which this scene plays out is created by darker areas, in which spectators or passers-by are depicted sparingly. Lastly, there is a small figure below that appears to step into the scene, but finds itself “outside” the drawing up to his waist.
In terms of spatial design, this drawing is reminiscent of Borremans’s most famous or at least most talked about drawing, The Swimming Pool (2001), which not only depicts a large figure (a young man probably pierced with four bullet holes on which a hand is painting the sentence “People must be punished”), but in which the figure also acts as part of a painting or projection on the high wall of a swimming pool, where tiny spectators that are found in the water and around the swimming pool observe the large scene. The third level is achieved here by the presence, above, of a sketch with an explanation, from which it appears that the event is observed from the swimming pool’s cafeteria.
Another drawing that depicts a large figure combined with tiny spectators is A Mae West Experience (pencil, watercolour and white ink on paper, 2002): a drawing barely 16 by 20 centimetres, featuring a colossal sculpture of Mae West. The sculpture appears before a starry night and seems to be fixed atop a gigantic pedestal or truncated mountain. There is also an entrance, which perhaps leads to a large theatre in the form of an astrolabe. At the same time, her corsage features holes or windows from which pencil drawn arrows exit, pointing to the witty actress’s written one-liners.
Another of Borremans’s famous drawings dates from 1998 and is called Various ways of avoiding visual contact with the Outside World using yellow isolating tape (pencil and watercolour on cardboard). This drawing depicts the heads of six young men whose eyes have been taped over in different ways with yellow tape. I mention this drawing because it is a clear example of Borremans’s ability to produce many drawings on a single sheet, something that is irrefutably a tour de force.
I would like to emphasise that we must not attempt to interpret these drawings as messages, but as the amazing product of someone that visually creates dream worlds, dreams and worlds, which in the first place appear to stem from the pleasure of drawing and only then serve as possible sources for numerous readings and interpretations, which do not have to be mutually exclusive, but can actually enrich and reinforce each other.
Some paintings examined more closely
Several painters I have spoken to were most affected at the solo show, The people from the future are not to be trusted (Zeno X Gallery, 2013), by the small painting The Prop (2013), which portrays a kind of model of a small tree and comes across as highly sculptural. I saw a much larger version of this painting in Borremans’s studio; the artist did not consider this larger version to be very good (even though it had not yet been painted over.) In fact, we should be able to place both versions side by side and try and understand why the small one works and the large version doesn’t. This is no easy task, even for someone who has been observing paintings for thirty years, but does not paint himself. The only thing to do, I think, is to listen to painters when they want to speak. Many art writers, however, start with the image and set the painting aside. They do not observe a small, blue patch in the middle of the painting that represents a kind of opening, offering artistic, illogical access to an unnamed world, which appears to double the painting’s ambiguous world. So what else can we write about the painting? That we see a dead object that represents a living object? And that we feel the model builder and the painter’s desire to create an illusory reality that feels safer than the uncontrollable, changing outside world?
Eating the Beard (2011) depicts a girl or young woman whose face is detailed but blotted out in a slightly Richterian style, sunk into an olive green background. The body (the shoulders) and part of the hairstyle allow a greyish background to filter through. The artist stopped painting there so that the focus is on the “beard”, a dark element that the woman seemingly holds in her mouth. (She doesn’t have hands to help her eat.) The painting reminded me of Le plaisir (1927) by Magritte. When I discussed this with Borremans, he told me that he was not familiar with that particular painting by Magritte. Perhaps he had forgotten about its existence? Perhaps he had dreamed about it and painted it subconsciously? Or perhaps the resemblance is purely coincidental and was born from Borremans’s habit of isolating and distorting the faces of girls or young women, probably guided by his hand, or an interesting mark.
The painting Automat (I) (2008) once again depicts the image of a young woman, but this time in the form of a lifelike doll. Only a kind of notch in her right arm appears to allude to the fact that she has a hidden mechanism. Behind her lies a small flesh-coloured object, which could be a covering. The most intriguing aspect of the image is the apparent absence of any legs. The doll/girl hovers above a surface. The shadow beneath her skirt prevents us from seeing how this physically works. Many characters in Borremans’s paintings are sliced through their middle by a surface, because they appear in a bath of ink, oil or other dark liquid or because they are leaning against a table, for instance. I suspect that for many people there is nothing more subconsciously appealing than people without legs or people who are unable to leave their place, such as cashiers and bus drivers (who often have stalker-like admirers), just as they are reassured to find the Saviour nailed fast or the ever suffering Virgin always watching over them from the same place, yet I am not inclined to offer such a statement for one of Borremans’s paintings. I continue to view them as images that are the result of years of practicing the art of drawing and that may now sometimes take the form of a painting.
Automat (I) (2008) is reminiscent of The Skirt (2005) and The Skirt (2) (2005). In the first painting, we see a girl with a pleated skirt who appears to be hovering above a table; in the second painting, the girl has disappeared, leaving only the skirt (and the pair of hands belonging to the seamstress (?) which feature in both works). Borremans told me that he is currently working on a sculpture with an oval skirt that continually rotates. Why? I don’t think there is any point to this question. How? Now it gets exciting. We can search for technical solutions with the artist and be surprised at the result.
In contrast to most authors’ writings on Borremans’s work that I have read, I observe no anguish or threat in his work, but rather an extraordinary solace that arises from the realisation that someone who has been through a lot has subsequently gone on to create works of art. As a young man, I had the same experience when watching the films made by Fassbinder.
When I saw the drawing The Spirit of Modelmaking (2001), I immediately felt that as a young man, Borremans must have had a special, aesthetic experience with an older man. When I asked him if he had ever built a scale model with an older man, he denied it; but when we learn that one of his grandfathers has initiated him in the secrets of photography, special moments shared in the dark room where miniature images come to life, then the biographical foundation of the work becomes irrefutable and we also feel that the aesthetic experiences acquired may also have offered solace during a difficult youth. This solace is palpable.
Borremans told me that he had read all the works by Gerard Reve, but not since the writer had passed away. This appears to be a telling remark. The death of Gerard Reve is too fresh. Velázquez, in contrast, lives on forever. Borremans revealed to me the emotion he felt when he first viewed a certain work by Velázquez in reality. “I had already lived with that painting for so long,” he said, “that it was as though I had met a correspondent to whom I had been writing to for many years, but whom I had never met in person. One of the great things about that painting is that you think that you could reproduce it. You can see extremely well how it was created. A dialogue is created with someone that is long dead, simply because you are involved in the same activities, because you are trying to solve the same problems. This is one aspect of painting I had not expected. The better the paintings are preserved, the more acute the effect, the greater the kick.” In the interview Michaël Borremans: Shades of Doubt, Renko Heuer asks what question the artist would put to Velázquez if he could meet him. “I would ask him if a loved one made him stay in Italy,” replied Borremans. “I wonder what kept him there. The Spanish king asked him many times to return and he eventually did so against his will. That’s why I think he had a beloved in Italy.”
I once asked Lorne Campbell, the ultimate expert on the work of Rogier Van der Weyden, what ten questions he would put to the artist if he had the chance. This was one of the questions he would pose: “Show us Washington Portrait of a Lady. Tell us about her and how you painted her.” A few months prior to this, leafing through a book that Campbell had compiled in 1974 or 1976, little by little, I was moved and finally deeply affected by the close-ups of the women that appeared in the book. Not only by the way in which Van der Weyden presented these women to us, but also because I could feel how Campbell observed paintings: not just examining the techniques, but looking at the people as well. A twofold loneliness accompanied by a double solace unfolded and tears rolled down my cheeks.
Borremans is often compared with David Lynch, in a superficial manner. But what else affects us in Lynch’s work besides his compassion? What else apart from his love of all the naive, human aspirations averse to a sinister world that seems to play out close beside us?
What if we viewed Borremans’s work for a moment as an ode to naivety and to the game? Many authors see a demonic demiurge in a self-created sadistic universe. Could this be blamed on the habit of strictly interpreting artworks? It is true that he presents us with people that appear frozen while they seemingly perform senseless acts? Don’t drawings and paintings always depict “frozen” moments? Can we not simply view the images of these diversions as whirling attempts to create unfathomable images? And with regard to demiurge: can’t his drawings have simply grown out of the habit of drawing large and small figures on the same sheet? Thus suddenly creating (apparent) miniatures that always seem to exert a magical effect on us, for example as designs for giant sculptures.
In Stanze, Giorgio Agamben describes how Baudelaire, as the result of a childhood memory (in which a certain Mrs Panckoucke led him into a room overflowing with toys), distinguishes between three different ways of handling toys: there are children that transform a chair into a stagecoach, others that carefully arrange their toys as in a museum, without touching them again, and lastly those who “obey a basic metaphysical tendency” “who want to see their soul” and manipulate the toy, throw it against the wall and finally tear it open and reduce it to pieces (“But where is the soul? Now comes the ignorance and the sorrow.”) Baudelaire, according to Agamben, recognises the incomprehensible mix of joy and the frustration, beaten speechless, on which artistic creation is based, as in every relationship between a person and an object. “Distant and elusive (‘only you, doll’s soul, we have never been able to ascertain where you actually are’), the doll forever finds itself on this side of things as well as permanently on the other side as an inexhaustible object of our desires and our imagination.” Agamben also points out that, for adults, the boundary between toys and small weighty objects disappears into the darkest depths of archaeology where small objects are assigned magical meanings and their small size is usually attributed to the material’s rarity.
This reasoning was echoed by Claude Lévi-Strauss who refers in La pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind) to the power of attraction displayed by miniatures and notes that all artworks are essentially miniatures, even the ceiling paintings in the Sistine Chapel because they represent a scale model of the Last Judgement. (Giacometti expresses a similar reasoning in an interview with David Sylvester, stating that the ideal size for a sculpture is approximately a hand high. He also applies this to the colossal sculptures in Egypt because in order to view them in their entirety, you have to do so from a distance.) According to Lévi-Strauss, miniature objects give rise to a unique joy because they are recognisable at a single glance and because we do not have to analyse their individual parts, as we do in science. “The aesthetic sorrow,” he writes “exists because this entity was created in a work produced by a person, so is also made virtual by the observer that discovers, through the artwork, the possibility of a unification between structure and events.” Without explaining the meaning of this last phrase (structures are fixed and events are new things or discoveries that take place despite everything, such as the random effects of peace produced among a tribe by naming various factions according to animal names), I cannot say much more about it here, except that Agamben, Baudelaire and Claude Lévi-Strauss are players who juggle words in the hope of revealing or creating invisible harmonies or laws, just as Borremans – with his drawings, films and paintings – evokes feelings, thoughts, images and stories in us that may never have been there or would have remained forever hidden in the dark corners of our barely used imagination. Borremans is a juggler, an illusionist, who reveals to us a reality that would otherwise have eluded us. And this reality does not need to be named; it plays out beyond the capacity of our words, in a kingdom of phantasmagoria that shapes our reality.
Montagne de Miel, 26 September 2013
- Giorgio Agamben, Stanze, Christian Bourgois Publishers, Paris, 1981.
- Stefan Beys. Michaël Borremans. Spartelen in het sadomasochistische universum. De geheime charmes van het enigma. (Floundering in the sadomasochist universe. The secret charms of the enigma.) http://d-sites.net/nederlands/borremans.htm
- Michaël Borremans, Municipal Museum for Contemporary Art Association (Vereniging van het S.MA.K.), Ghent, 2002.
- Michaël Borremans. Zeichnungen / Tekeningen / Drawings, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne, 2004.
- Michaël Borremans. The Performance, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2005.
- Michaël Borremans, Whistling a Happy Tune. Drawings / Tekeningen, Ludion, 2008.
- Michaël Borremans, Paintings, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2009.
- Michaël Borremans, Eating the Beard, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, 2010.
- Michaël Borremans, Magnetics, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, 2013.
- David Coggins, Interview: Michaël Borremans’, Art in America 3, N°1, March 2009. See http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/michael-borremans/
- Giacometti. Sculptures. Paintings. Drawings, Arts Council, London, 1980.
- Renko Heuer, Michaël Borremans: Shades of Doubt. In: Mono.Kultur #31- Spring 2012.
- Claude Lévi-Strauss, La pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind), Plon, Paris, 1962.
- René Magritte, Ecrits complets (Complete Writings), Flammarion, 2009.
- René Magritte. Lettres à André Bosmans 1958-1967 (Letters to André Bosmans, 1958-1967) Seghers - Isy Bachot, 1990.
- Marcel Mariën, Isy Brachot Gallery, Brussels, 1989.
- Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, New Direction Books, Norfolk, Connecticut, 1944.
- Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, Penguin Books, London, 1999.
- Hans Theys, De brioche van Chardin (The Brioche by Chardin). Een gesprek met Michaël Borremans (A conversation with Michaël Borremans), August 2010, unpublished.
- Hans Theys, Rare, suggestieve constructies. Een gesprek met Michaël Borremans (Curious, suggestive constructions. A discussion with Michaël Borremans). In: <H>ART #73, October 2010.
- Hilde Van Canneyt, Interview met Michaël Borremans en Manor Grunewald. (Interview with Michaël Borremans and Manor Grunewald), Ghent, 26 March 2009, http://hildevancanneyt.blogspot.be/2009/09/beide-kunstenaars-verwittigen-me-op.html
- Margot Vanderstraeten, Ik geef geen antwoorden omdat er geen antwoorden zijn (I offer no answers because there are no answers). Place of publication unknown, 2009.