michaël borremans

lost in the sadomasochistic universe

people must be punished

the secret charms of the enigma


An innocent looking girl sticking pins into nude men (Jetlag girl, 1996/1999); '24 chopped heads pronouncing the word 'Kaas' (1999-2000); chopped heads adjusted to fit into sardine cans (Boxing Heads, 2000); packages Fromage aux acteurs flamands (2000) with gory pieces of flesh; a face cut off from a head with a steel wire as if it were a hump of clay or cheese (The mask of simplicity, 2000); a gory head aggressed with glass shards (Glass and Blood, 2001); hideously deformed faces of women (Slight modifications, Carnadines, Helmette and Languelette, 2001-2002); a male torso with cut off arms and four bullet holes (The Resignation,2001); horse carcasses neatly arranged in rows (Square of despair, 2005); human toy figures shut down like in computer game (Shotgun aesthetics, 2003); human corpses arranged in geometrical patterns in the series The good ingredients (2006) ... ... ... not precisely what comes first in mind when hearing the name of Michaël Borremans (° 1963). Even less does one think of the rather vulgar sexual representations in Sausage Garniture 1995/1996/1999), Friendly Rivalry (2001), The Ceramic Salami (2001) and Small Virtues (2002). One is rather reminded of figures like Paul McCarthy, Odd Nerdrum, Joël-Peter Witkin, John Currin. Nevertheless, the above is a representative sample of the themes handled in the drawings of Michaël Borremans.

It is apparent, then, that, after the proven recipe, the sadomasochistic universe that is openly deployed in the drawings, turns out to be rather concealed in the paintings. To be sure, there are the works for queen Paola in the Royal Palace in Brussels (2010), where - albeit only on closer view - a footman is cutting himself in the finger, or piercing the eye with a finger. But, as a rule, there are only hints in the paintings. A remnant of the bullet holes is found in Terror Identified (1998), where a button of the corset is replaced with a hole. An echo of the mutilated faces resounds in the American Actress (2001), who has a glass shard in her mouth. In The preservation (2001) there are traces of scratching on the eyes and the mouth. In The pupils (2001) fingers are about to pierce the eyes. In The Hair (2002) a kind of pins are piercing the cheeks. What presents itself as a torso, appears to be the counterpart of the chopped heads: bodies severed in two in Anna (2003), Four Fairies (2003), and The apron (2009). That sheds a new light on the glassy planes on which the torsos are displayed, on the panels at middle height of the body in One at a time (2003) and The Feeding (2006), on the book equally at the middle height of the body in The storm (2006), as well as on the disks around the middle in The new corpses (2006) - apparently variants of the glass shards pointed to the gory head in Glass and Blood (2001). In The Thunder (2006), an eye is looking at and a hand is reaching to a cut in a cloth, which reminds of the incredulous Thomas. In The greatness of our loss (2006), the 'shotgun aesthetics' are softened to a paraphrase of the dead toreador of Manet. On Automat III (2008), a girl with a ponytail but without legs, seems to stop a bleeding from the wrist. And inThe load III (2009), we see a girl with a cap lying on the ground - 'she is probably dead, almost wringed by the neck' (Van Canneyt) - which sheds a new light on the footmen at the Royal Palace, who wear their livery back-to-front...

There is more to the transition from drawing to painting. Already in the drawings, the traces of sharp, pointed instruments like the needle and the pencil, are washed with clouds of ink or water colours. But, in the paintings, the contrast makes place for the homogeneous application of clearly distinguishable, creamy brush strokes. The shift is thematised in The swimming Pool (2001), where a brush paints the words People must be punished, that look as if they were cut with a sharp chisel in stone - and that cannot but remind of The Penal Colony of Kafka. This exchange of the pencil for the brush is in line, hence, with the effort to conceal sadomasochism: the smooth, creamy oil paint as the ointment on the wounds afflicted by the needle or the pencil. It is no accident that, on the paintings, often soft and shiny cloth is suggested: silk, satin, porcelain - the counterparts of the invisible knives, axes, glass shards and bullets that have inflicted the wounds on the drawings.


A third method of making sadomasochism socially acceptable, is a shift from the private to the societal sphere, which allows at the same time to have the terror executed by others perpetrators, and to replace pleasure at the sight of the result with indignation. Thus, referring to Trickland, Borremans is talking about 'the rulers who hold us in their grip' (Nieuwsblad), and many a commentator descries the shadows of communist (Prater) and fascist regimes (Amy), or reminds of Kafka, George Orwell (Berk) or Beckett (Coggins, 2009). In terms of academic painting, this transformation of sadomasochism to all kinds of terror comes down to a shift from genre painting - although it was not precisely commonplace to depict everyday sadomasochist practices - to history painting, where aristocracy and clergy are replaced with their contemporary counterparts - from totalitarian regimes and terrorism to capitalism and the free market. The transformation goes through various phases. On images like Jetlag girl (1996,1999) and Chopped heads pronouncing the word "Kaas" (1999-2000), undisturbed pleasure in the result makes it difficult to blame a perpetrator. But that is no longer a problem in Swimming Pool (2001), where the hand of a punishing instance appears in the image. In images like Trickland (2002) and The common world (2002), the gloomy atmosphere reminds of the conveyer belt or of forced labour imposed by some invisible hand. Forced labour still shimmers through in Terror Watch (2002), where the buildings have something of old factories or concentration camps. But it is only in drawings like Shotgun aesthetics (2003), Horse Hunting: The Game (2003), Square of Despair (2005), The Greatness of our Loss (2006), The Good Ingredients: The Hostages had to Lay Down on the Ground in Order to Form Geometrical Figures. (2006) and Whistling a happy tune (2006), that there is a clearly discernable evildoer, although he is not always visible in the image. More ambivalent is Think or suck (1999), that, according to Christ and Haldemann would refer to child abuse (Dutroux).


Even more omnipresent than sadism or terror is the watching gaze. As if in a stubborn attempt to deny that the picture gazes at us, as Lacan would have it, the figures of Borremans never look into the eyes of the onlooker. In frontal view, they look away to the right above (The traveller, 2007) or down (The Marvel, 2001). Also in three-quarter view, they ignore the onlooker (Drawing, 2003), or lower the eyelids (Anna, 2003). The diversion of the gaze is principial when they turn their back to the onlooker (Still, 2005). In other images, the figures are lying and stare to the skies (Earthlight Room, 2008) or the ground. Sometimes, the eyes are bluntly covered: with tape, like in Various ways of avoiding visual contact with the outside world using yellow isolating tape (1998), or with a black square in Oblivion, (2002).

The counterpart of the elusive or blocked gaze of the figures is the gaze of the artist - and hence the gaze of the onlooker. Their looking is not an engaging in an interaction with an equal, but rather a submission by a sovereign contemplating subject that has the figures in the image reduced into unresisting beings without a soul. Such reducing into an object is the spiritual version of bodily decapitation. The shift from doing to a seemingly more neutral watching is a further step in the masking of sadomasochism.


From the Flemish Primitives onwards, the hands are often introduced as additional means of unveiling what is concealed behind the outer appearance - a move that often leads to the unfolding of the portrait into a genre painting. On many a 'portrait'of Borremans, hands are to be seen. But rather than as amplificators of the gaze, they function as their substitute, as a haven to the subjugated gaze. Rather than to the onlooker, the eyes are looking at the doings of their own hands. The subjugating gaze follows their lead, so that the hands want to escape it in their turn. Thus, the onlooker comes to witness an action that wants itself to be undone. Hence no 'grand gestures' here, let alone speaking gestures, but rather shameful hands that would prefer to become invisible - as if they were about to do something forbidden -.People should be punished. The subjugating gaze is transformed into the surveilling gaze...

The wish to become invisible can take various forms. Either we see the hands at work (with instruments and objects), but it is not clear what they are doing, like in Manufacturers of constellation (2000), The pupils (2001), The German (2002 and 2005), and Blue (2005). Or we see only the instrument - needle rather than brush - like in The examination (2001), The Stick (2003). Or we see only the hands, without instruments or object, like in Four Fairies (2003), Anna (2003), Fingerwoman (2007), Crazy fingers (2007), Magnetics (2009). In all cases, the figures seem to want to justify what they are doing, by lending it the aspect of some handicraft activity, like in The Ceramic Salami (2001) Atomic (2003), The Hole, (2006). When there are more figures, they often seem to work at some conveyor belt, or to listen to the their master's voice on some conference table (The common world, 2002). The impression of some justified activity is further enhanced through the wearing of archaic working apparel - whereby the choice for the coat still reminds of the apron of the nurse or the surgeon. How much the hands are tempted by the forbidden, appears from images like The advantage (2001), where the hands are immobilised in a straitjacket .

In some images, the transition from the needle to the brush seems to find its counterpart in the transition from forbidden activity to the making of art - the permitted activity par excellence. The pricking of The jetlag Girl (1996) is transformed into the making of images in L'homme frommageux (2000), The pupils (2001) and The constellation (2000). In Trickland (2002) and in The common world (2002), the images of man are replaced with the model of a landscape, like in the series The journey (2002).


In a next phase, the forbidden action is further obfuscated. In many an image, the gaze is not directed to the hands, but to other figures who are doing nothing but gazing in their turn. Such images can be called images of the second degree, because the onlooker is looking at an image where other onlookers are looking at some spectacle. Not so much a panopticum hence, but rather a kind of optical relay race, where the object of a gaze makes another person to its object in its turn. This relay of the surveilling gaze is exemplarily embodied in N.Y.C, 24th of September 2030 (2006), where the onlooker looks at giant figures - with their hand obediently above the table -, who look in their turn at minute pedestrians on the streets below them. In these works, history painting, where the focus is on the action, evaporates into a special variant where the focus is on the gaze: the rendering of a world where everybody is an onlooker looked at by another onlooker.

It catches the eye, then, that, next to these images where gazing is the only action, there are also images where there is neither action or actor to be seen, but only the result of an action: Chopped Heads Pronouncing the Word Kaas Simultaneously (1999-2000), stacks of corpses in Shotgun aesthetics (2003), Horse Hunting: The Game (2003), and the series The Good Ingredients: The Hostages had to Lay Down on the Ground in Order to Form Geometrical Figures (2006). The introduction of onlookers in the image makes it possible to condensate both: images where the onlooker looks at people who look at (a spectacle consisting of) the result of the action of an (invisible) actor, like in Terror Watching (2002)and Square of despair (2005). The result of the action can thereby be hidden in the dark, like in The Filling ( 2005).

In the images where gazing is the only action, the criminal intention is relegated to the next potential perpetrator in the relay of surveillance. In that, eventually, the result of the action is allowed to appear in the image, surveillance is turned into a transgression itself: the onlooker before the image comes to regard the onlooker in the images as the perpetrator of a non-action: guilty neglect. The guilt of the non-intervening onlookers originates in a secret solidarity between surveillants and perpetrators: apparently, the surveillants merely projected their own transgressive desire onto the potential perpetrators in a next relay, so that it can only appear in the image as the result of the action of someone outside the image who he cannot be surveilled. But through guilty neglect, guilt comes to run the relay in reverse sense: from the finish to the start, where we find the artist who made the image and the onlooker who enjoys it. Such reverse movement unveils the accomplice in the surveillant. The relay that is installed between the onlooker before the image and the final spectacle, turns out to be a further attempt at projecting sadism. This condensation can easily be condensed with the re-interpretation of sadism as terror performed by societal actors - the 'really existing' counterparts of Kafka and Orwell: be it communist of fascist regimes, terrorism, capitalism and the market, or rather the surveilling eye of Gestapo, KGB, Stasi, CIA, or media-tycoons and marketeers who surveil our behaviour on the internet. Only when the true function of relay and societalisation are thus revealed, can we understand why these images do not elicit revulsion or condemnation, but rather fascination...


In many images, the spectacle is as real as the onlookers who look at it. But in other images, we are dealing explicitly with toy figures - with three-dimensional images. Also these images originate in images of the first degree: in the designs for three-dimensional sculptures of often giant size, like Cerebral Office (1995) and Le sculpteur de Beurre (2000-2001). To give an impression of the scale, Borremans adds human figurines. Through the introduction of these figurines, the gaze of the onlooker is transferred into the image. But, this time, the onlookers in the images are no longer looking at a spectacle, but at the image of a spectacle. In a first series of works, the images are three-dimensional images: Think or Suck (1999), Proposal for a wall and ceiling decoration (1999), An unintended Proposal (1999/2000), Small Museum for Brave Art (2000), The Burden of Ideas (Inflatable monument) (2000), Cabinet of Souls (2000), Rainpillow. Inflatable monument for John Coltrane(2001) House of opportunities Faller (Kit - The conversation, 2002), A Mae West experience (2002). But this formula unfolds fully only when we are dealing with two-dimensional images, the size of which reminds of giant billboards or film screens, like in Chopped Heads Pronouncing the Word Kaas Simultaneously (1999-2000), Lhomme frommageux (2000), The swimming Pool (2001), The German part II (2002) and The German, Dreiten Teil (2003),The Greatness of our Loss, I and II (2006) and Whistling a happy tune (2006).


It is no accident that the relay of the gaze goes hand in hand with the introduction of differences in scale. Only in scarce cases like The Pupîls (2002) do the figures have the same size as the image. But in a majority of cases, the figures are far larger than the (image of the) spectacle they are looking at or the image they are making, like in Spirit of Modelmaking (2001), Terror Watch (2002), Trickland (2002) The common world (2002), The Journey (2002), The Prospect (2002), Square of despair (2005). This should not come as a surprise, because, as a rule, an image is far smaller than the reality it depicts, especially with Borremans, whose drawings are often compared with miniatures. That implies that the artists looks like a giant who conjures up Lilliputians on whom he looks down from the heights.

This is the key to a proper understanding of these images. It will have become clear that they are not the mirror of a world where the aforementioned subjugators or surveillants are at work: they are too indeterminate, not differentiated according to political or economical role, gender or generation. Above all, these giants are only the shackles in an relay that begins with the artist or the onlooker: the figures in Trickland manipulate, but they are manipulated themselves. No concrete political or economical regime is rendered here, but a world in which we are individuals that increasingly fold back on ourselves amidst an increasing number of other people with whom we have no other relation that being aware of their presence. Conversely, the doings of these others have no bearings on our well-being, whereas at the same time our endeavour seems futile. Since we have no real relation with them, it is not difficult to distance ourselves from them and to reduce them to Nietzsche's "much too much". That is all the more easy when these "much too much" appear as minute creatures, for instance when we look down upon them from some apartment building. From these heights we may feel as almighty, self-sufficient beings who can dispose in all sovereignty of the ants down there - not otherwise than the self-sufficient child that conjures up minuscule figures on its screen to shoot them mercilessly down, or like the wild shooter that begins to fire in the crowd, as proposed by André Breton and filmed in Le phantôme de la Liberté by Luis Buñuel. This latter example shows how easily the absence of involvement where reciprocity was expected may stir destructive urges. And, since in such a world we have become purely narcissistic individuals, our interaction with the others is not a concrete subjugation, exploitation or (political) enmity, but a purely abstract sadism; the sadomasochistic universe is narcissistic in essence. Against this background, a new light is shed on the presence of the word 'game' in the titles of these works, and on the use of a device for wireless control in Terror Watch (Amy 2008). The disguise of these abstract narcissistic/destructive urges as political or economical relations is merely a means of legitimising these in essence un-societal impulses, and is wholly in line with the projection through the relay of the gaze, that obfuscates the secret solidarity of surveillants and perpetrators as it is evident in the images of the first degree.

The difference in scale between the artist and the Lilliputians in the image corresponds perfectly to the deflation of the dramatis personae to the minute "much too much" and the inflation of the atomised individual to the proportions of a giant or a God. When, with the introduction of the onlookers in the image, the relay of the gaze is installed, it unfolds to a kind of optical matryoshka doll. In such matryoshka doll, the artist, under the cover of the surveilling critic, takes the position of the almighty god who plays, not only with corpses, neatly arranged in geometrical patterns, but also with the manipulating mighty in the image - like in Trickland, where they look like puppets manipulated by the artist, or like in People must be punished, where it is the hand of the artist that 'paints' the letters on the nude chest. That is overlooked in interpretations like that of Marianne Vermeijden, who joins the move of projection, although she has a keen eye for the true nature of the forbidden activity: 'His figures are kicked around (...) by colourless office giants, men who, like generals, like to handle people like instruments or props'. Says Borremans himself: 'You start drawing on a sheet of paper, and an entire universe unfolds where you can play God. In fact, I am a kind of power-mad person. Happily, I have become an artist...' (Leenknegt/Vervaet).

It could be objected that, especially in the aforementioned designs for giant sculptures and screens, the relation seems to be reversed: the onlookers are Lilliputians, and the images often overwhelming giants, like in A Mae West experience (2002), or large-scale two-dimensional images like in Swimming Pool or The German, Dreiten Teil (2003). But the reversal is only apparent: the giant artworks are merely the extensions of the even larger figure of the artist that wants the onlookers admire his work. And how much such imposition - such 'becoming famous' - partakes of sadism, appears from the following quote of Borremans himself: 'I regard the presence of a real image in public space (...) as an aggressive gesture.’ (Fiers). It appears also from the way in which he wants his images to be 'a knife in the eye'. Or in the image itself, where the minute figures have to protect themselves from the deafening sound of the voice of a substitute star - the magnified Mae West.

Only this approach can account for the boundless melancholy that emanates from these images, as well as for their fascination. Boundless melancholy: because there are no relations whatsoever in these images - neither economical, political or religious, nor sexual or parental. And fascination: because in such relationless world the self-sufficient individual is nevertheless surrounded by the negation of its negation: the presence of countless dwarfed others, who are further devalued in that they are mere toys - pure images. Such boundless melancholy and fascination is only enhanced in that it is concealed behind a rejection of the contemporary world as dominated by 'mighty' of all kinds. Only thus do Borremans images come to embody a widespread experience of the world - and only thus is the charm of Borremans' images transformed into a secret charm...


The division of space in scales finds its temporal counterpart in a regression to an ever further past.

The most salient feature of Borremans works is that they are not contemporaneous. In the beginning, they used to be situated in the thirties or the forties of the past century - the era of the Nazis. In dressing up the present in the clothes of the past, Borremans wants to shed a new light on the present. But, rather than warning us for a return of the past, these images had a totally different effect: 'I heard that the work was nostalgic, and that was absolutely not the idea.' (Coggins). That is why Borremans soon resorted to other techniques of alienation - decontextualising or placing the figures in artificial environments, whereby they are supposed to partake of the 'universal' (Coggins, 2009). The technique does not differ much from the way in which Odd Nerdrum has his figures appear without clothes in a mythical non-time, where they nevertheless are wearing modern weapons.

It should not escape our attention, however, that, just like the concrete oppressive regimes only conceal the abstract regime of narcissistic terror in the optical matryoshka, the regression in history only conceals a regression to childhood. Borremans does not know the Nazi regime from his own experience, but only from the stories from his childhood - among them the stories of the forced labour of his uncles in German arms factories. It is apparent, then, that there is more to those giants in Trickland than the atmosphere of the thirties or the forties. 'Those women are a kind of fairytale figures, who introduce minute changes in the world at night' says Borremans. We cannot but be reminded of the 'manipulation' of parents when they stage the parallel worlds of Santaclaus and Easter bunnies. That sheds a new light, notonly on the darkness that hovers over Trickland, but also on the differences of scale: children often experience their parents as giants and themselves as dwarfs, and they enjoy reversing this relation when playing with minuscule toy cars or toy soldiers - or with ants and insects. The difference in scale between parent and child is a prelude to the even further regression, whereby the self is inflating to the dimension of a god. And this helps us to understand the nostalgia that emanates from many of Borremans' images - for it cannot possibly be a nostalgia for Nazism. After the same model, we analysed the effect of King Boudouin or Walt Disney in Luc Tuymans. This infantile undercurrent only comes to endorse the aforementioned secret charms of the images of Borremans. At the end of this text, we will have to uncover a further layer.

That raises the question in how far Borremans is really interested in the past. There is no doubt that much is to be learned from the past. But that is worlds apart from understanding our time in terms of the Weimar Republic, or the assassination of the Tsar in terms of the assassination of Louis XVI: the differences are more telling than the similarities. A new relay of guilt threatens to be installed, this time in the temporal dimension. It is far more easy to condemn communist and fascist regimes and their Gestapo, KGB and Stasi, or even the CIA, than to scorn triumphant capitalism and the world encompassing free market, with the concomitant propaganda machines of figures like Rupert Murdoch and Berlusconi, and the concomitant intelligence services, those of internet marketers included. The more we approach the temporally unmediated first degree image - the here and now -, the more we risk to become an accomplice - just think, as far as Borremans is concerned, of his embroilment in the market as a 'Star des Kunstbetriebs' (Behrisch), not to mention the ' 'strategy of radical complicity' of figures like Wim Delvoye. It is far more convenient to shake one's head at the thought of the Nazi butcher who found solace in playing classical music...


There is another thread that leads to images where figures are looking at images: the aforementionedreplacement of the forbidden activity with the making of an image, like in The Conducinator (2002), where the painter looks at an image that he paints after an image that is placed before him. In images like The Journey (True colours) (2003), there is no longer talk of making: the artist is merely looking at what seems to be his creation, and in In the Louvre - the house of Opportunity (2003, it is the onlooker who looks at such a creation.

We are talking about 'creation', and no longer of an '(image of a) spectacle'.For, in these images, the freighted subjects are replaced with purely 'artistic' - contentually rather neutral - subjects. To be sure, the model houses have still something of concentration camps, plants or residential barracks. But, as with Piranesi, we only see the architecture, no longer people. The trend is completed in The Journey, where the artist is looking at mountains - although still called Tatra, the opposite of the inhabited world. The next step is the void canvas: on many images, the figures are doing something with empty, rectangular surfaces: The table (2001), The saddening (2001) The spell (2001), The Lucky Ones" 2002), Milk (2003), One at a time (2003).

Gradually, the image of the world is thereby transformed into an image of the image. The theme is handled in various variants. In The conducinator, the landscape reminds of the fact that reality is often mediated by an image. As we have seen, Borremans does not work 'after nature': he uses models like toy figures, porcelain sculptures, and above all existing or self-made photographs. In a more refined variant, the emphasis is on the development of or the comment on existing images: 'Good artists don't just destroy the past; they're also able to develop it in various directions, into something aggressive and innovative' (Shinichi). Borremans uses the work of older masters like Manet, Velázquez, Zurburán, Goya, yes even Van Eyck, but also of masters of the twentieth century. Next to the countless references to Magritte, there are also references to the 'fat sculptures' of Beuys (cheese and butter, which also remind of his grandfather, a baker, who used to make sculpture with butter (Grove). The drawings of giant sculptures remind of the 'inflatables' of Paul McCarthy, which are in their turn echoes of the large-scale objects of Claes Oldenburg, Works like Cabinet of Souls (2000) remind of Christian Boltanski, and the series Slight modifications of the countless self-mutilations in performance art, especially of the Self-Hybridizations and de surgery-performances of Orlan. The horses in Square of Despair (2005) refer to Berlinde De Bruyckere, the buildings in Terror Watching (2002) to the maquettes in the exhibition Mirroring Evil in the Jewish Museum, New York, the construction in Faller Kit to Zbigniew Libera and his Lego construction kits of concentration camps - just to mention a few examples.

The shift from image of the world to image of the image is a further step in the neutralisation of content. Borremans himself often emphasises that the artist is merely a 'conman'. 'The reason why I wan to evocate old-fashioned scenes in my work is that I want to create a kind of parallel world'. 'A parallel world is a mirror image, but I want to make it clear that the world in the image is another, mental world.’ (Fiers). The concept of a 'conman' implies that, although it is deforming, there is still talk of a mirror. But it is only a short step to 'Ceci n'est pas un miroir' - to the statement that art does not refer to the world at all, but rather to itself.


Borremans takes a further step in that he states that his images are not narrative. Narrative and unequivocal are the images 'in the media' that want to 'make something clear' (Leenknegt/Vervaete). As opposed to these indoctrinating images, Borremans wants to make images 'that you cannot define at all': 'open images' (Van Canneyt). 'Normally, an image has to make things clear, but I want to go in the opposite direction. I want to make images that makes thing unclear' (Fiers). For there is nothing to clarify: 'I do not give answers, because there are no answers' (Vanderstraeten). 'In my opinion' truth' can best be imagined as a black hole. A void.' (Fiers). In short: no propaganda, but rather enigma...

Borremans developed his own method to transform the 'narrative' into 'enigma': ' I combine elements that are anachronistic or contradictory'. 'In this manner, you get a kind of Ideological failure, and precisely that failure is the essence of the work.’ (Fiers). In his KASK lecture, Borremans gives an example: 'I painted a milkmaid with a cap, lying on the ground, inspired by Vermeer. Well, the way in which she is depicted - it is a though her neck is wringed - she is probably dead - and the way in which she is shown with a sharp shadow, has something of forensic photography. This combination has an enormous power and a kind of bipolarity that makes it unfathomable and poignant' (Van Canneyt). Often, the effect is achieved through additions or omissions, like in Sausage garniture (1995/1996/1999) (Grove). Also titles contribute to the confusion: 'They are an essential part of the work.' 'A title can lead or mislead the onlooker. Take my painting of a man in a straitjacket that is called Advantage – the title is an additional element that often leads to confusion, just like the work itself.' (Boel). The method of Lautréamont, hence, softened already by Magritte into a way of lending a 'poetic flavour' to the 'utilitarian world', and transformed into a means escaping of socialist realism by figures like Neo Rauch, is here a means of being relieved from the task of showing something meaningful under the guise of setting the onlooker thinking.

That does not prevent Borremans from wanting to tell - and effectively telling - an unequivocal, propagandistic narrative. Wanting to tell: for, on occasion of the figures that change the world during the night in Trickland, Borremans writes: 'Nobody notices, but the world changes gradually'. 'That is the way in which manipulation proceeds: subtly, surreptitiously. That is the way the mighty hold us in their grip.' (Nieuwsblad). Borremans has more messages: 'That the human being is a victim of his situation and is not free is a conviction of mine.’ (Coggins, 2009). Or, phrased in another - more masochistic - vein: 'people are victims of themselves' (Grove). We already pointed to the fact that this message is rather vague. More important, then, is that, precisely therefore, the images tell a quite different story, the story that we unveiled above (and will further unveil below). Borremans a'hidden persuader', hence, albeit with a rather ambivalent and veiled message, that, judging from the success of his work, is nevertheless well understood. Borremans' enigma: - different from, but nearly kindred to the pedantic rebus of Jan de Cock, who - equally as an antidote to the indoctrination through the media - wants tot sets us thinking with his 'Denkmal' ...


An even further step in the installation of the enigma is the contention that painting is not about what there is - equivocally or unequivocally - to be seen on the image, but rather about painting as such: 'I make paintings because my subject matter, to a large extent, is painting' (Coggins). How much the content is thereby disregarded is apparent from the following quote: "I placed the corks in the same room where I place my human models with the same lights. (...) All the paintings are painted with all the subjects placed in the same room under the same lights. (...) I tried to paint the humans like objects, and the objects like humans, and tried to see the result. So it's also an experiment' (Shinichi). Humans as lighted objects, that is worlds apart form humans subject to the subjugating gaze, yes, even of humans as depicted by other painters...

That brings us to our next point. For the emphasis on painting sounds strange in the mouth of someone who, like Luc Tuymans, takes a rather ambivalent stance on painting. Both painters show a marked reserve towards their medium. 'I like it when people call me a painter, because that means that I succeeded in misleading hem. In fact, I am a false painter, I misuse the medium. I have become a painter, because it allows me to play tricks.' (Van Canneyt). We surmise that he refers - among other things - to the fact that, on paper, you can conjure up more than life-size images, but above all to the fact that one can maltreat bodies, give free rein to one's sadistic urges unpunished: mimesis as the refuge for sadism - for the creation of a 'mental world' as 'parallel reality'.

The reserve is inbuilt from the beginning in that Borremans - it seems meanwhile to have become a pandemic - does not conceive his image in all sovereignty on the canvas, but borrows it form other images, mostly photographs. There is nothing wrong with that - painters have always relied on existing images (also when they painted 'after nature'). The problem begins only when the very concept of the image is borrowed from another medium, or when the photographic or filmic way of handling the image becomes the subject matter, like in Where is Ned? after a still from the television series Black Beauty - not so much painting about painting this time, but rather painting about photography or film...

The reserve is also apparent in that Borremans sometimes would like to end up with a sculpture: 'Some of my paintings are in essence sculptures, but I do not have the know-how to execute them' (Van Canneyt). 'Four Fairies for example was initially a drawing. I would have liked to make a sculpture of it, but I am not precisely qualified. As a big painting, it approached the idea I had first in mind.' (Fiers). Which does not prevent Borremans from delivering real models like his 3-D House of Opportunities (2006),

The reserve is apparent above all in the fact that he seems to have problems with the non-moving image: 'Sometimes I have the feeling that it would be interesting when I could introduce an element of movement' (Van Canneyt). 'A painting is not an immobile image: it moves, it is a presence.' (Fiers). This desire lies at the roots of the transformation of his drawings or paintings in filmic images. Add and Remove (2002) after The evening Walk (2002); The Storm (2006) after One at a time (2003), Weight (2007) after Drawing (2002). Borremans legitimises this transformation in stating that 'film has become a medium that is not transparent - like painting. You know you’re dealing with film. You know you’re dealing with an artefact, with an artificial image. With a photograph you look at the image without seeing the medium.' A second legitimation sounds that his films are in essence paintings: ‘My painterly approach as such has always been influenced by film', and, conversely, his films are made from 'a painterly point of view’ (Kleijn). No wonder that his introduction of the dimension of time is purely formal - rather than a 'plot', we only get the endless repetition of a looped film - for instance a torso of an immobile girl with cut-off legs and a braid turning around on a pedestal. The equation is sealed with the introduction of a frame around the LCD flat screen.


The propensity to unfold the non-moving two-dimensional image in space in time - the unease in the non-moving two-dimensional plane - demonstrates that Borremans does not primarily think as a painter. A genuine painting - also when it depicts events or actions like the Holy Lamb by Van Eyck or the The last supper by da Vinci - cannot be transformed into a tableau vivant or into a moving image, supposed it would call for such a transformation. The reason is that the original as it appears in a painterly medium - paint on a two-dimensional plane - is thoroughly thought in terms of the plane and its immobility. To Borremans, on the other hand, such thinking in terms of a medium is not a primary concern: 'Since I am primarily interested in images (read: originals), it does not matter whether I opt for drawing, filming or photographing'.' (...). The painted image is only one of the shapes that his in essence image-transcendent originals can take. That many of his originals are conceived during drawing or painting, is no objection: once conceived in terms of a given medium, the artist is out at releasing them as soon as possible from their specific embodiment - or rather: disguise. Therein, Borremans resembles the strip cartoonist who transforms his figure into three-dimensional puppets. That is why Borremans readily exchanges his much-praised brushwork with the totally different grain of the film. What is scorned here as a shortcoming, is promoted into a 'broadening of the concept of the image' by Reust: 'Bei Michaël Borremans ist in den vergangenen Jahren jedoch immer deutlicher geworden, dass die Werkentwicklung einen unsichtbaren Kern umkreist, eine metamediale Tiefenstruktur, die den Bildbegriff erweitert. Wie ein spezifisches Bild wirkt, lässt sich nicht mehr allein in den Grenzen seines Genres oder seines Formates erfassen. Das Rätsel ereignet sich ebenso im einzelnen Bild wie zwischen den Bildern in der Konstellation.'

The emphasis with which Borremans repeats that his films are painterly, cannot conceal the fact that he is not so much a painter, as rather a designer of originals. That is also the reason why drawing is his 'secret weapon' indeed (Grove). The design of an original, preferably on paper, is merely the first phase in a series of metamorphoses into more respectable shapes. That painting is the chosen first metamorphosis, has to do with purely external advantages: 'That I have eventually decided to draw and pain, has to do with my closed character. You can make a painting on your own, whereas a film requires team-work and also in photography, you depend on others.' (...) Add to this the aforementioned fact that painting allows to circumvent the technical problems of sculpting, and the fact that you can maltreat the human body unpunished. It is only an overstatement, hence, when Borremans declares in his Kask lecture that a change of medium entails a change of meaning. And it is somewhat besides the question, then, when Ziba de Weck Ardelan contends that 'Where is Ned' 'is not about a portrait, but about painting' ( 2009, 71): the focus on the medium leads only to the focus on the original - and thereby to the devaluing of the media in which it is embodied. When Katrien Schreuder describes the art of Borremans as 'a film of a painting of man as a sculpture', she rather reveals that the focus is primarily on the original: for instance the torso of an innocent but immobilised girl with a braid in Drawing (2002), The skirt and the film Weight (2005)...


The question, then, is why Borremans makes so much of the painterly, and why he thereby does not opt for the 'high-definition' of the Flemish Primitives (or photography), but rather for an often juicy, suggestive brushstroke - especially since the fine-grained film has its own potential in matters of sadism: the cutting edges appear all the more sharp, whereas the skin seems at the same time even more undamaged and the fabric all the more smooth. The unctuous potential, then, is only one facet of the choice for the juicy brushstroke, the other one being its function as a sign.

Brushstrokes as such are not new in in the twentieth century. Released from every trace of figuration, they were even the very hallmark of modernity at the time of the diverse kinds of action painting. In combination with expressionistic deformation, they have been one of the first manifestations of modernism, and they became socially acceptable again with the diverse forms of neo-expressionism, the Baroque brushwork of painters like Eugène Leroy and Sam Dillemans included. But, in combination with a rather true to nature rendering, the - hence 'suggestive' - brushstroke is rather rare (think of Odd Nerdrum or Thierry De Cordier). True to nature painting uses to have a predilection for brushless paint, that is either literally 'photographic', like with the photorealists, or either made 'painterly' by wrapping it in a 'flou artistique' (Gerhard Richter) or by simplification of tone and outline (Neo Rauch). That the combination of brushstrokes with true to nature rendering - the suggestive brushstroke - is so rare, has everything to do with the fact that it inevitably reminds of the heydays of pre-Modern, but post-Renaissance painting - precisely the 'academic' model that has been so scorned by modern artists. With Borremans, we are not dealing with the intently clumsy strokes of Luc Tuymans, meant to deny this kind of painterly élan, but, just like with Odd Nerdrum, with the 'the real thing', although Borremans' model is not Rembrandt or Caravaggio, but rather painters like Velázquez.

The sign value of this brushwork is constitutive to the painting of Borremans. For, although the denial of sadism is its central function, the brushstroke can only play this role in that it is at the same time the embodiment of a tradition of making images with the aura of respectability and technical skill, and that precisely therefore is often scorned as 'academic'.

In that the technical skill imposes itself, the attention is - again - diverted from the content. To phrase it with Grove: 'The images often circumvent a simple association with cruelty or violence through the sheer beauty of their execution' (2004,41). In the same vein, also the paintings of John Currin are described in Wikipedia as 'provocative sexual and social themes in a technically skilful manner'. And also the photos of Joël-Peter Wikin become artistically acceptable only by being wrapped in an artsy disguise. The method is all the more efficient in that the shocking through sadomasochism is replaced with shocking through the use of an academic style. Somewhat in the vein of Odd Nerdrum, who posed as 'the king of kitsch', Borremans writes: 'I try to shock, but not through sex and violence. I just make beautiful pictures' (Doroshenko, p. 29). The formula works. The joy experienced when recognising this good old academic brushwork - this fetish of craftsmanship - often culminates in a panegyric of the technical skill and the virtuosity of Borremans - a panegyric that has to be taken with a grain of salt. It is only to his credit that Borremans is the first to be aware of that - just imagine Velazquez having painted his images....

The brushstroke not only an unction, hence, but also a flag, and hence a lightning rod in the first place. On top of that it is also a cover, because it suggests at the same time a different content. One could perhaps contend of Borremans' brushwork that it is beautiful, but certainly not of the world that it evokes. Borremans conjures up a dark universe through a beauty that is developed for the rendering of the radiant and glorious world where the 'mighty' posed as benevolent gods and good kings with the corollary shine of harmony and bliss. It becomes apparent, then, that this descent into the sadomasochistic universe goes hand in hand with a regression to former better times, of which the falling back on the thirties and forties of the past century is only the prelude and the denial. Behind the contours of the giant figures in Trickland and Four fairies loom up not only the shadows of the accomplices of Stalin and Hitler, but in the first place kings, gods and saints - the societal counterparts of parents or guardian angels who roam around the cradle of the sleeping infant - somewhat like the sublime landscapes of former times loom up behind the dark, dead-end landscapes of Thierry De Cordier. Next to the denial of this glorious world in figures and props of the thirties, there are also direct references to this undercurrent: just think of the feudal footmen who turn their backs on their bosses on the paintings in the Royal Palace in Brussels. The beauty of their livery - not otherwise than the suit worn by Borremans when he paints: the Sunday version of the later working apparel - appears in full bloom in The Garment (2008) - an afterglow of the crinolines of Velázquez' infantes. Which sheds a new light on the 'still lifes' in the work of Borremans: The fruitbasket (1999), Pink shoes, (2005), Sleeves, (2003) Dragonplant (2003), to which the statement 'I just paint beautiful paintings' may apply more aptly.

The brushstroke is not only the unctuous denial of the sadistic scratching of the needle, as a lightning rod it also diverts from sadism, not only in that it pretends to measure up with the respectable feats of illustrious predecessor who were at work in churches and palaces - an idea cherished by Borremans - but above all because, as a cover, it conjures up echoes of a world that is the complete reverse of the sadomasochistic hell of his works. And therein the brushstrokes only succeed in that they do not function as a medium of sadism, but as a sign for its opposite.


The question remains in how far Borremans' painting technique is in keeping with our times. To Borremans, there seems not to be a problem: 'I wanted to make contemporary, authentic images, and execute them with old techniques and media.' (Vanderstraeten) He seems to assume that techniques are timeless. He thereby overlooks the fact that his kind of brushwork is developed in a totally different context: the self-assured glorification of heaven and court - or of the world within the canopy bed - where the brush stroke resonated with the content rather than being its negation. It is only the combination with the sadism that is concealed by these brush strokes, that lends this outdated form of painting a touch of novelty. Thus does not only the brushstroke save sadism, but, conversely, sadism the brushstroke - it suffices to imagine these paintings with a non-problematic subject-matter.

To phrase it positively: Borremans should rather have developed a language that corresponds to the sadomasochistic universe, like Piranesi. But the bad conscience about the addiction to this universe, as it appears from the countless attempts at escaping described above, highlights all the more how much the descent in the sadomasochistic universe itself is a fall - the incapacity to stand upright in the face of our contemporary world, if not an attempt at debasing an societal ideal that in the past was at least kept up. Borremans' work is contemporary only in the documentary sense of 'typical of our times', not in the sense of 'zeitgemäss' (in keeping with the times). And, therefore, Borreman's recycling of 'old techniques and media' is not so much the working out of a contemporary version of a technique that is in essence timeless, as rather a parasitising on outdated manifestations of it.

After the heaven storming of modernism that knew not to break much fresh ground - the epiphenomenon of the equally abandoned struggle against the world-wide triumphant capitalism with the concomitant nationalistic and religious restoration - nostalgia seems to pop up everywhere - just think of figures like Odd Nerdrum, Thierry De Cordier, Luc Tuymans and Michael Borremans, not to mention Wim Delvoye with his gothic towers. The recycling of past styles is in matters of art the counterpart of the return of religion and nationalism in matters of communal feeling. Both trends are exemplarily united in the music of Arvo Pärt.


As far as real craftsmanship - the conception of 'zeitgemässe Bilder' in an appropriate language - Borremans utterly fails. But how about his craftsmanship in the more narrow sense of the word: the general mastery of the medium as such?

Above, we have already dealt with the brushwork as compared with Velázquez. How about the colours - the domain of the painter by excellence? The palette of Borremans is rather muted, like that of Luc Tuymans. But, otherwise than with Tuymans, with whom everything threatens to disappear in whiteness, with Borremans, everything looms up from a brown, that lends his work an additional academic flavour. But, rather than being a background, from which colour lights up, that brown is rather a marsh in which colour threatens to drown. Gloom prevails, and some recent works seem to disappear in darkness altogether. In that respect, the paintings of Borremans can rather be understood as magnified drawings - primarily conceived in black and white. As little as Tuymans, Borremans is no great colourist - but, otherwise than Tuymans, who deems himself the new Rubens, Borremans knows it: 'I am not a great colourist. Those colours have to do with a lack of expertise. But I also do not like to use outspoken colours, because they divert the attention too much.(. ..). I think that the image has to have the priority. To me, colour has only a supportive function.’ (Fiers). 'Overpowering colours create a language that’s not useful to me. That’s why I choose unsaturated colours. I never use black. Everything is mixed out of colour but the colours don’t play a starring role; they serve the painting' (Coggins, 2009).

And that brings us to the problem of size. As a rule, the drawings are so small, that they are often compared to Flemish miniatures. When the artist exchanges the pencil for the brush, the size increases accordingly. But the paintings remain small. To be sure, paintings like Trickland are large in comparison with the preparatory drawings, but we are still dealing with the rather modest size of 100 X 180 cm. Really large formats are rare. There is no problem when Borremans paints single large figures, like in The avoider (2006) - a more than life-size shepherd. But, when Borremans wants to tackle more complex compositions of figures, he fails to rise to the challenge (Dorochenko, 31). That has not so much to do with the number of figures, but rather with the fact that size obliges: history paintings used to be large, not so much because of the number of figures, as rather because of the importance of the subject. Sadistic representations tend to shun daylight,not otherwise than the forbidden intentions of the gestures of Borremans' figures. That is why Caravaggio's 'Decapitation of Joan the Baptist' is so embarrassing, just like the life-size porn of Jeff Koons - and conversely: why Goya's Desastres are so convincing. Perhaps this explains the paradox that the small drawings are far more monumental than the versions that are magnified on canvas, whereas the giant sculptures or screens in his drawings are convincing indeed.

Needless to remind, finally, that the composition of Borremans is often photographic or filmic. His images are merely well-framed - as is usual in photography that by nature has to rely on pre-existing originals - not inherently conceived in terms of the logic of the frame and the rectangular surface, as it should be in painting - or in the hand-made image in general. As seen, this has everything to do with the flirting with media that unfold in space and time, and the corollary thinking in terms of originals, rather than in terms of an image-in-a-medium - a wide-spread phenomenon in our age of 'multimedia' and 'cross-over'.

Add to this the aforementioned incapacity to embody 'eine zeitgemässe Sicht' on our contemporary world in an adequate language, and it becomes clear how inadequate the craftsmanship of Borremans is - how little we are dealing here with the continuation of the tradition in the true sense of the word, but rather with an academism, not only in the formal sense of the word - a parasitising on approved technical procedures - but foremost in the contentual sense - a handling of outdated and therefore inadequate world views. Although it must be granted that the latter is not so much the responsibility of Borremans...

Not so much the intrinsic qualities of his work, hence, but rather the way in which unction, flag, lightning rod and cover are condensed in it, explains the secret charms and constitutes the enigma unveiled of the paintings of Michael Borremans.

© Stefan Beyst, September 2010, translated October 2010.


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