in Features | 01 MAR 05
Featured in
Issue 89

Enigma Variations

Michaël Borremans explores the potent significance of painting and drawing with grim humour and surreal clarity

in Features | 01 MAR 05

Michaël Borremans, The Pupils (2001), oil on canvas, 70x60cm

Like a cryptic murderer with a hearty appetite, the Belgian artist Michaël Borremans’ preoccupations include sausages, decapitation and severed hands; shelves, cheese and modified mouths; hair, torsos and butter; laboratories, skin and milk. He also has a lighter side, one that enjoys a well-shaped bow on a well-cut dress, porcelain figurines and telescopes. The time of year in his paintings and drawings appears to be winter; his fleshy, sunless palette is both lush and weirdly austere, full of oily, shadowed browns and exhausted greys. Blank-faced men and women stilled forever in a state of inscrutable self-absorption inhabit skewed environments where a beautiful lack of logic is rendered with the precision of a bureaucrat with a penchant for poetry and punishment. Nothing is consistent in these meticulous hallucinations: even time is confused, permanently stuck in what could only loosely be described as a futuristic 1930s or ’40s.

In other words, clarity and simplicity live alongside extreme confusion in Borremans’ pictures, a place where a dark humour tugs at a melancholy upper register. Which, as descriptions go, isn’t so unlike everyday life. For example: on a recent trip to Basel to see an exhibition of works on paper by the artist I visited the local Kunsthistorisches Museum, where I discovered that in 1955 a reliquary bust of St Ursula (who died in Cologne in the 4th-century, supposedly alongside 11,000 virgins) was returned to the city after a long exile in Russia. To commemorate the occasion the bust was paraded through the streets, followed by 364 local girls called Ursula. This would, perhaps, have seemed more remarkable had I not spent the previous few hours looking at drawings with titles such as 24 Chopped Heads Pronouncing the Word ‘Kaas’ Simultaneously (1999–2000) or Various Ways of Avoiding Visual Contact with the Outside World Using Yellow Isolating Tape (1998). Walking back to my hotel through the reasonable Swiss lanes, an obvious, if appropriate, thought struck me: that a measured approach to lunacy isn’t simply the prerogative of art; art, in fact, can be very good at simply reflecting back what is, in degrees and variations, the resounding lack of reason that daily permeates our seemingly ordered lives. Even so, Borremans’ take on the absurd is very particular. He was born 18 years after the end of World War II, in Geraardsbergen in Belgium, and now lives in nearby Ghent, a rainy medieval town with a dark past and a difficult present: it was occupied by the Germans, bombed by the Allies and accused of collaboration. Since the war this small kingdom has had to deal with the repercussions of post-colonialism and, more recently, with the growth of right-wing political parties and xenophobia. Although Borremans is reticent about ascribing precise meanings or readings to his work – he has said ‘a painting is not just an image: it is an object, with a multi-layered character’1 – it is difficult not to conclude that the recent history of both Ghent and Belgium has influenced his perception of the human condition as being shaped as much by illusion, illogic and cruelty as by fair-minded reason.

However, although many of Borremans’ images portray chillingly dehumanized scenarios, they can also be gruesomely funny: rendered with the matter-of-fact precision of drawings from a Boy’s Own adventure magazine from 60 years ago, a woman examines a ceramic salami with forensic care (The Ceramic Salami, 2001); the busts of three orphans are delicately arranged on a shelf (Three Orphans on a Shelf, 1995); young men in neat haircuts and uniform coats examine the faces of a row of decapitated heads (The Pupils, 2001); a sketch for an enormous public monument includes severed penises being sucked by severed heads (Think or Suck, 1999). The tragicomic mood of such odd couplings is both tempered and exacerbated by the sense of indifference that emanates from perpetrators and victims alike – which only serves to emphasize the pictures’ bewildering atmosphere; after all, what could be more nightmarish than a populace oblivious to either its own pain or the pain it inflicts on others?

In Borremans’ painting The Constell-ation (2000), for example, elegiac washes of brown, pale yellow and creamy white paint depict a sober room of men in suits standing to attention beside a table, on which are arranged the deadpan torsos of other men and a single faint outline of the bust of a schoolgirl reading a book; some of the figures are painted in loose, ghost-like strokes and are less tangible than others. The scene is unfathomable, the period evoked a time in Europe when the most unimaginable of crimes were planned in elegant rooms over tea. The title of the painting points its meaning into a more particular direction: for centuries it was commonly believed that constellations of stars influenced events, yet here the heavenly canopy has been made redundant by the ambiguous, and possibly sinister, intentions of well-dressed men – men whose hearts are possibly as dead and as difficult to read as a star’s. Similar in mood is the painting Four Fairies (2003), which portrays three women and one young girl, dressed and coiffed in the fashion of the 1940s, contemplating the empty space in front of them. They see something, obviously, that we are not privy to. Their patient faces are painted with near-reverent delicacy; their clothes executed with a concentrated, tactile softness. So far, so real; one thing, however, overwhelms the almost photographic realism of their depiction – like Surrealist monuments, the women are oblivious to the fact that they are severed in two and are arranged on a simple dark surface like sick trophies. But of what? Of war? Of our all too human failing to see each other as complete? Or is the painting simply a reiteration of what painting can do – raise fictions from oil paint, which in this case have sprung not yet whole from the medium of their own making? The title of the painting again adds another dimension to its reading. Before the 20th-century fairies were variously perceived as the symbolic leftovers of a displaced people, fallen angels, heathen dead or the unconscious made flesh. In the 19th-century photography propelled them from the imagination of folklorists, dramatists and artists into science’s cold laboratory, where their existence was disproved and so infantilized. In Four Fairies Borremans has, in a sense, resurrected a debilitated symbol to serve its original purpose as a hybrid indicator of dispossession or dislocation. Painted in the manner of an exquisite, antiquated Photorealism, these passive, incomplete women/fairies allude not only to the 20th-century’s state-condoned cruelties but also to the unresolved tension that still exists between photography’s will to truth and the potentially mythic and imaginary dimensions that painting might still explore.

One of painting’s attractions for Borre-mans is that its descriptions are illusory, its relationship to history at best suggestive. He is, however, dismissive of its present state, declaring ‘I don’t like most contemporary painting. A large proportion of what is currently being produced is quite bad.’2 His influences are obscure church pictures, various artists from the Renaissance to the mid-20th century, and Surrealism (I suspect he admires its followers’ ability to reflect on reality while remaining clear about their own confused status within it). He is fascinated by the fact that, even when a painting was made a long time ago, it is constantly reinvented in the mind of the viewer, and thus the experience of looking at it is nailed to the present. Which is not to say that the artist rejects photography outright (in fact, Borremans trained as an etcher and photographer). A photograph – one he has taken himself or found on the Internet, a magazine or a second-hand shop – often prompts the composition of a painting or drawing, which he then manipulates to his own ends. Cinema has also been for Borremans what he describes as a ‘suggestive element’3 – especially the work of directors who explore the vagaries of expressive potential and human contradiction, such as Luis Buñuel, Andrei Tarkovsky and Alfred Hitchcock. The difference between the way he employs his source material and the finished product obviously lies in painting’s rejection of narrative. Like stills from a non-existent film, Borremans’ images free-float in an endlessly deferred imaginary space in which nothing is resolved, but much – especially a horror of didacticism, the manipulations of power and the inviolable enigma of painting – is expressed.

Not all of Borremans’ pictures describe cruel scenarios: many combine a benign thoughtfulness with descriptions of bizarre and seemingly meaningless responsibility, a Sisyphean world of endless, apparently futile endeavour in which the enigmatic gesture of, say, a hand might echo the enigmatic nature of painting. Again and again people dressed like lab technicians examine blank surfaces: two women in white coats scrutinize an empty table-top in The Table (2001). In The Saddening (2001) three women, again in white coats, sit writing on what appears to be a large blackboard; the only words visible are ‘the time of …’. In One at the Time (2003), a particularly impenetrable painting, two men and a woman – who, unusually for the characters in Borremans’ paintings, are black – are again dressed in white coats and stare impassively at a cloth-covered table on which seem to be floating three white shelves; the woman holds a small, flat white shape in her hand. Similarly, in the series of paintings and drawings ‘Trickland’ (2002) figures kneel in a gloomy model landscape, their gazes focused on their hands, which are busy, once again, with a job we know nothing about. Apparently this series was based on a photograph from an ‘illustrated magazine published by the US military forces after World War II’.4 The commingling of ideas of power and perception here (of armies, of artists, of viewers, of history) becomes dizzyingly complex and unstable, the painting itself as much a land of tricks as a military map.

Borremans has stated: ‘When I draw, I have no systematic plan; that is different when I paint. I consider drawings mostly as autonomous works of art … I can’t live without drawing. It is my way of dealing with reality. It is a kind of escape: when I feel uncomfortable in certain situations, I create my own reality.’5 The ‘multi-layered’ character of his images is perhaps even more complex in these ferociously delicate, often tiny images, which, like elaborate doodles, are made with watercolour, gouache, ink, pencil and occasionally coffee stains, on envelopes, old book covers, photographs and pages from notebooks and calendars. They tend to describe proposals for crazy monuments, aspects of model-making, journeys, doppelgängers, torture and – overwhelmingly – the indifference of crowds. Many of them reveal a technical skill accomplished enough to evoke a wrinkled lip or a faint blush in a face smaller than a child’s fingernail; their sensitivity and subtlety verge on the beautiful, but it’s a beauty that appears suspicious of its own good looks. In this sense the artist divulges a great sense of play; in A Mae West Experience (2002), for example, a giant model of Mae West overwhelms a tiny crowd deafened by the loudspeakers embedded in her body; in Conman (2003) a man with binoculars wearing a camouflaged cardigan gazes off into the distance beneath the inscription ‘Conman. You are one yourself’; in The Swimming-Pool (2001) people frolic in a swimming-pool oblivious to the giant blank-faced man above them, who is having his chest inscribed with the words ‘people must be punished’; in The Present (2001) a woman tenderly dribbles into the open mouth of a severed head in box.

However grim or ridiculous the scenario, each of Borremans’ pictures celebrates the still potent and complicated cultural significance of painting and drawing, which, at its best, resists the platitudes and quick conclusions so familiar to a society spoon-fed on what the artist describes as ‘the deformed picture of reality’ inflicted on it by the mass media.6 The hushed sepia-saturated universe he so unnervingly describes may be made up of illusions that mirror our own back on ourselves, yet with his evident horror of authority Borremans offers no concrete alternative – save, of course, the implication that alternatives are as much the responsibility of the viewer (of art or of history, or of the scene outside their own window) as they are of the artist.

1 Peter Doroshenko, ‘Interview with Michaël Borremans’, in Michaël Borremans Drawings, Walther König, Cologne, 2004, p. 93
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Hans Rudolf Reust, ‘Opaque Gestures: Michaël Borremans’ Self-Forgotten Painting’, in Michaël Borremans: The Performance, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2005, p. 53
5 Doroshenko, p. 93
6 Jeffrey D. Grove, ‘Michaël Borremans: People Must Be Punished’, in Michaël Borremans: The Performance, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2005, p. 35