Interview by Filep Motwary
You can never forget a Michaël Borremans painting. The haunted characters inhabiting his paintings always display a distinctly contemporary unease, as if they are prey to an uncertain fate. They look too real, too classic, too precious, too brutal even. He uncovers the illusory nature of representation and the idiocy of existence in a suggestive, ironic way, through a variety of art forms drawing, painting and film. The Belgian artist, whose oeuvre captures one’s absolute attention as if by mysterious magic, receives my call whilst at his country studio.
FILEP MOTWARY: Back in the 90s, how did you move from graphics and photography—your original training—to painting?
MICHAËL BORREMANS: I’ve always been very interested in painting. I had a great admiration for painting and painters, especially Old Masters or at least painters who are not alive anymore because it’s always been fascinating the fact they have left something behind—just like writers or even more than writers do. Masters left us with some implicit visible testimony which—if the painting is in good condition—appears to be very direct, very close to us when we perceive it because it’s very physical and it’s there. So, there is no distance to what they made with their hands and that comes from their mind and it comes very close to us as a way of communication over the barriers of life and death. It’s been always fascinating to me, somehow: there is always something ghostly to an old painting.
FM: At times like this, or at difficult times, how can art be healing, or how can it be disturbing? How can something that is phenomenally soulless convey such great emotion?
MB: But that’s where my fascination for the medium lies, and it’s hard to explain because psychologically we attach things to it. To many, a painting is just canvas and paint; rationally it’s nothing. It’s just like an eye, you know: when we look at someone’s eyes and we think we see the soul. But an eye is only an organ, like a stomach, or an ear, or a foot—but we attach things to it because we recognize it and we can relate to it, I think.
FM: Why do you make art?
MB: I have no idea, but I think, analyzing it throughout the years, it started very early in the first grade, at six years old, when I realized that I wanted to communicate and work with images. So, either I would become a comic strip author, I would work in film, or become a painter. It didn’t matter what, but I felt immediately that this was my way to speak.
FM: Is there emotional attachment?
MB: There’s always emotional attachment. When any work leaves the studio, each time it breaks my heart. It’s like your children, they have to leave, the bird has to leave the nest, you know: they’re not meant to stay with me. Yet, my own appreciation for my work I use like a tool for judging its quality. So the more I’m emotionally attached, the more it means to me, the more quality it has or it must have. Not everybody sees this the same way as I do but if I make a work and it doesn’t move me then I will never show or share it, I just destroy it.
FM: What is your biggest struggle as an artist?
MB: Today I don’t struggle. When I see it’s not working in my studio then I do something else. I used to think when a painting was not going the way I wanted it that I should continue, like in a fight. So, I would continue to the end and then I would be very tired, very disappointed and I had the worst painting that I ever made. But now I have learnt from that. After half an hour, if it is not going anywhere, I leave it and go for a walk. Sometimes, I don’t return to something that does not work. Instead, I’ll try a new attempt on a new canvas because it’s hard to repair a mistake on a painting. Sometimes, I do struggle and I continue but in certain cases, it’s pointless to do so.
FM: Why is art always expected to have a theoretical aspect?
MB: Marcel Duchamp, for example, had to explain what he was doing, Mondrian had to explain, Picasso had to explain and then later, all conceptual work came along with explanation, which is cool because people were not used to these new things and they needed to understand. On the one hand, conceptual art is all about the idea. And then the art becomes like some sort of proof of that idea or an illustration even. This was not needed during the Baroque times. Rubens’ work was like cinematographic theatre and everybody knew what was going on because his iconography was clear to everyone. Art then served a different purpose than it does today. Now art is liberated from a lot of things and it’s very free and finally, we have this very large plethora where many things that are entirely opposite can coexist and it is accepted.
FM: How would you say documenting people serves in our understanding of our society? Can a painting be a representation of reality? Should it be?
MB: Art should hold up a mirror; I mean it’s a cliché but it’s true and the task of the artist is to use his/ her creativity to find a cunning and smart way to hold that mirror in a way that is original, to show an alternative perspective on perceiving humanity or oneself. In my work, one of my main subjects is about the human condition just like it was in Bruegel’s time and, although every artist has his personal take on it, I just do it my way. It’s difficult to pin down how I do it, and I’m not interested in analyzing it for myself as I work guided by my intuition.
FM: What is the quality that you always find inspiring in people?
MB: Creativity and its ongoing evolution that has no boundaries in imagination and in science. Although I feel that everything we do, each progress we make scientifically or in technology is also a downfall while it’s also very beautiful that we are capable of all that. Each time we move forward, we lose the capability of living in harmony with nature. But what I see mostly is our capacity for destruction, unfortunately. The more we develop the less we are capable to co-exist. The other species are always capable of living in harmony, compatible with the cycles of nature. Humans are not willing to do this anymore and that’s really worrying me. It is because we are too many and we live on economical profit is our God now and the more profit the better, so we dry out all our resources, our fellow humans. The problem is that we need to have other values [that are] different than the economical profit because it will destroy us, just simply destroy us. Look at the American society: for decades they have neglected public education and now they pay a very high price: people are badly fed, badly educated. At most times, I don’t entirely believe in progress. It’s very complicated as we are getting too much from the planet, we are too many inhabitants, this is the biggest issue that is approaching us and this will provoke a lot of other problems soon. I’m truly worried.
FM: Must an artist be obsessive and dedicated to the art of creation in order to be a serious artist?
MB: Absolutely, but it is a game, you know? It’s another cliché : it’s a game but you have to take it seriously. For me, if I do it in a playful way then I’m a better artist than when I try to do it in a very serious way. I need to feel like a dandy who is visiting a studio and is doing something on the side: “Oh maybe I should paint a little!” I never make mistakes when I have this attitude—it’s a very stylish attitude.
FM: And you also wear a suit when you paint?
MB: Yeah, it helps, feeling dandy. I like to be not dressed for painting and in my latest suit, the newest suit I have. Although I should not paint in it because I will make it dirty but that’s when I make good paintings when I have this attitude [of] “I can’t paint now, I shouldn’t paint now or, yes, I’m going to paint”. That’s the attitude I need. If I dressed like Jackson Pollock [with clothes] full of paint, I would only make bad work.
FM: It seems that clothing plays a very crucial role in your work because you stage the objects you work with before turning them into paintings.
MB: The clothing is also very important in the sense that it shouldn’t be too recognizable: it should be not pointing to a certain environment or to a certain moment in time. I design my own clothing more and more for my models. Maybe I should work with a fashion designer and make a collection.
FM: I think you should and I’m sure many designers would like to work with you.
MB: Yeah, I don’t know many designers. Well, I know a couple—one is this Japanese designer, he does Undercover.
FM: Ah yes, Jun Takahashi.
MB: He makes very interesting collections and he made a whole collection with prints of my work in the past, and it was successful. I made a big mistake: of all the pieces he made he sent me one copy for my archives and I donated everything to the Fashion Museum in Antwerp. I should have given it to my friends.
FM: How are you working in quarantine?
MB: I always work in quarantine, kind of. Once I start, I don’t go out and stay in all the time. I have a studio in the countryside, in the woods—I have miles of woods around me and I sometimes take a walk. As for the absence of human touch, you can do it in a very direct way. I mean, in a painting, all of a sudden you need this co-ordination between your brain, your thoughts, and your hands. Just like in the way that paint is applied on the canvas, it can be so sensual and so poetic that it can actually give you emotion and warmth and goosebumps even.
FM: And what about the impact your work has on the viewer? What reaction do you hope for from people?
MB: All my ambitions and all my hopes are exceeded already, I never expected this much attention in what I do so I’m a very happy man. A good work of art is like a vessel that you can fill as a viewer: the viewer always has his/her own history and cultural background. The artwork is then filled with the viewer’s experience and emotions and that’s his/her way of communicating with the artist—it’s an interaction.
FM: What does fame mean for you?
MB: It’s a blessing and a curse but, in my case, it’s still okay—I’m not Brad Pitt! It’s only in the art world locally that people recognize me. But that’s okay if that’s the price I have to pay: for the rest, it gives you a lot of comfort, fame. I always get a nice table at a restaurant. Some people hate you unfortunately, other people love you but also, it’s lonely at the top: I lost friends due to fame because I am working too much. It’s my fault, I’m guilty of this: I have been neglecting friends because of my career because my work comes first.
FM: Did you ever doubt that you were an artist?
MB: I never doubted my being an artist, not for one moment. I felt like I had to do this; for me, it was like a calling. I know this may sound pretentious or arrogant, but I feel like I’m a natural-born artist. That’s also the only thing I can do—there’s nothing else in the world I would be capable of doing.
FM: And I’m wondering about the dialogue that emerges between you as the artist and the art you create? The time that separates you from each other.
MB: I find time tricky and I like to stand above it in my work or try to ignore this element of time or the way it affects us. This is why the images are appealing, I think, because they contain a void in time, or it feels like that. I don’t like to perceive time in a linear movement. Now I’m 57 and for a long time I had no connection with my childhood and now it has come back.
FM: Why’s that?
MB: I don’t know… Maybe because my father died two years ago and then I went back to the place I grew up in. Twenty years ago, it was like ancient, the past, I forgot about it and now I’m kind of implicitly communicating with who I was when I was nine years old, what I would think of myself then. At that young age, you were never sure if you would ever be able to live your dreams or to achieve them and that was the hardest thing, this uncertainty. I knew what I wanted but I didn’t know if I was going to get it, you know? I always had these dreams about how my girlfriend would look, how I would live, that I would make art. Everything is different of course but I didn’t let the little boy down, in the end
The interview was originally published in Dapper Dan magazine Volume 23 © released in Spring 2021.
Portrait photography by Charlie De Keersmaecker ©
Michaël Borremans (born 1963) is a Belgian painter and filmmaker who lives and works in Ghent. His painting technique draws on 18th-century art as well as the works of Édouard Manet and Degas. The artist also cites the Spanish court painter Diego Velázquez as an important influence. In recent years, he has been using photographs he has made himself or made-to-order sculptures as the basis for his paintings. He is the most expensive Belgian artist.