The Stars
signed, titled and dated ‘MICHAËL M.C.G. BORREMANS -THE STARS- 2008’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
20½ x 15in. (52 x 38cm.)
Painted in 2008
A gift from the artist to the present owner.
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Lot Essay

In Michaël Borremans’ paintings, time seems to stand still. Bathed in warm chiaroscuro lighting, his enigmatic characters appear caught between worlds, quivering like ghosts from an unidentifiable era. Borremans draws particular inspiration from the work of the Old Masters, including Velázquez, Goya, Zurbarán and Van Eyck. At the same time, his protagonists harbour a distinctly contemporary sensibility, conjuring influences ranging from Édouard Manet and René Magritte to Gerhard Richter’s photorealist elegies and the films of David Lynch. Though cloaked in the guise of traditional portraiture, his works are less portrayals of specific people than essays in body language, atmosphere and theatrical mise-en-scène. With their eyes downcast or backs turned, his subjects invite the viewer into a world of undisclosed reverie, where all sense of narrative and identity is tantalisingly suspended.

Gifted by the artist to the present owner, The Stars (2008) is a sumptuous example of this practice. Against a backdrop of dark, mahogany brushstrokes, a single figure hovers like a spectre, his eyes trained on an unknown point in the distance. Though deft lighting demarcates his flesh and the folds of his garments, his face remains partially obscured, infusing the scene with voyeuristic unease. His hair appears to fuse seamlessly with his surroundings, while the lower portion of the canvas is left incomplete, eliminating his legs and the space beneath his hand. White flecks of paint scatter the surface, lending the work the quality of an old paint-splattered photograph. Indeed, Borremans routinely works from snapshots taken in his studio, as well as found images from magazines, books and the internet. He uploads his sources onto a computer monitor which he places at a deliberate distance from his canvas. ‘When you place it further [away] you have to find painterly solutions for what you see … you have to guess’, he explains, ‘… it’s more exciting when you make it risky. That’s what you see in work by Velázquez or Manet: that’s why I’ve learnt so much from them’ (M. Borremans, quoted in M. Gray, ‘The modern mysteries of Michaël Borremans’, Apollo Magazine, March 2016).

Indeed, of all Borremans’ Old Master influences, it is Velázquez whose teachings resound most clearly in his work. ‘My way of painting, my technique, it’s very much based on the way he worked’, he explains. ‘… He had a very efficient, economical and powerful way to use paint, and in some ways his work is even kind of impressionistic here and there. He creates a lot of atmosphere, because the way he works gives a lot of room to the painting; it’s never flat. And how he sets his highlights … it’s very inspiring – it makes you want to paint’ (M. Borremans, quoted in Michaël Borremans: Shades of Doubt, exh. cat., Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp, 2012, p. 21-22). This dialogue is evident in the present work, where dramatic modulations of light and shade create a palpable sense of depth. The figure appears to oscillate between foreground and background, unmoored from reality and isolated in pictorial space. Though Borremans typically refuses to attach specific meaning to his evasive titles, perhaps The Stars ultimately alludes to this sense of lonely orbit. Like a celestial body, his subject is suspended in an unknown dimension, gleaming brightly against the darkness.

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