Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Michael Borrëmans
One, 2003

Oil on Canvas 70 x 60cm

Parasol Unit, London
4th June 2005

The last time I visited this space it was housing the Carnegie Art Award in 2004. Since then it has been transformed from a crumbling warehouse into a really beautiful exhibition space. I was one of the first visitors after the opening and the polished concrete floor is amazing. I would love one in my own studio! This was the first work I had seen by Michael Borrëmans, and it was totally suited to these airy pristine galleries. The work was sparsely hung and I had plenty of opportunity to contemplate the paintings.

It was very hard to grasp the meaning of his paintings, but the pervading mood throughout the work for me was one of melancholia. With so many melancholic works in the exhibition, I find it hard to choose a specific painting. I have picked a very interesting profile of a self absorbed woman whose melancholic mood has something in common with Dürer’s Melencholia I. She is in a doll-like state between dreaming and vigil.

The ground is various random sketchy marks made with different brushes and blue grey paint. This has then been knocked back with a thin pale glaze. The figure is painted over the top, realistically for the face and hands, but very sketchy for the shirt - in fact little more than outline with a few pearly white highlights. His painting shows painterly flourishes of Baroque pictorial economy similar to Velásquez. Light comes from behind the figure and is painted very delicately - no deep shadows.

The fascinating bit is the oily rich brown glaze over the lower part of the figure, yet around the arms and hands. It looks like she is seated at a table that goes right through her, turning what could be read as a straightforward portrait into something much more enigmatic. This surreal notion of the figure evolving from the table links his work with the paintings of Magritte and other examples of his work demonstrate temporal disconnect more clearly.

As to the meaning of the painting, I find it pretty impenetrable - the title doesn't offer a clue (this was same for all the paintings). Is she working on the table surface or contemplating her hands? She is gazing down at her hands very intently so perhaps she is preparing to type, yet there is no typewriter? Hand gestures are also a repeated motif in other works in the exhibition, and it each case the action looks frozen.

The hair cut looks like a style from the 1940's and the face seems to have the austerity I associate with the period. It is probably painted from an old photograph or made to look that way. This reference to a time past enhances melancholic feel of the image and instils a certain feeling of nostalgia. In an interview for with Luk Lambrecht for Flash Art he acknowledges working with existing images, ‘Sometimes these images are indeed photographs from a distant past. I attempt to create an atmosphere outside time, a space where time has been cancelled.’[1] In fact, I do get a sense of time being frozen – she is almost a still life, concentrating on what she is about to start, but never actually starting.

[1]Luk Lambrecht MICHAËL BORREMANS - I AM AN AVANT-GARDE ARTIST! Flash Art Online (Translated from Flemish by Dirk Verbiest)

©blackdog 2009


  1. I totally agree with your describing and analyzing of the painting: "reference to a time past"- in motif, dressing/hairstyling and painting technique/style (I thinks of French style)- the lady might be dreaming/contemplating of former days whilst having fully sunk into her own reminiscences, and some parts of her body look transparent as if the shapes of another person and a landscape are appearing in her memory- Yes, there is a melancholic feel, because she seems to be very alone and she has to fight for herself after having lost ...(the hands signalize for me: I have to be powerful, hold myself together) but a reference to Dürer's Melancholia may be for me more a hypothesis.

  2. I read: His paintings are reflecting the "instability of the civil selfness", there could be a kind of ironical political-social critic- but I'm not sure if we can find any 'message' of his paintings?!
    "Seine paradoxen Bildräume sind durchdrungen von gegenläufigen Perspektiven und Größenverhältnissen, von Formierung und Deformierung. Sie spiegeln die Instabilität des bürgerlichen Selbst, das in diese Bildräume eingefasst wird: samt seinen kodifizierten Attitüden, Fehlleistungen und Abgründen. Das Unheimliche und Fantastische ist in Borremans Zeichnungen ebenso präsent wie Ironie, Gesellschaftskritik und politischer Kommentar."

  3. Yes you are probably right about the reference to Dürer's Melencholia - I probably see it everywhere these days! Hands do feature a lot in his paintings and here they could symbolise "keeping a grip". I see your quotation in German references the unheimliche and that is probably the strongest feeling I get from his work, but a very sad version of the uncanny.