Michaël Borremans//As sweet as it gets @ Bozar, Brussels

It is widely accepted in the artistic circles that the work of Michaël Borremans is an acquired taste, at times referred to as disturbing. But my initial close-up encounter on the night of the Museum Night Fever, was an instant hit. Borremans’ major exhibition ”As Sweet As It Gets” is hosted in Bozar and presents 100 works from private and public collections, created over the last 20 years.

Borremans tends to work on small and medium size paintings but there are a few impressive larger-than-life ones like this barefoot fellow, strategically placed at the entrance, ushering visitors in:

The Avoider

Michaël Borremans – The Avoider (2006) 360 x 180 cm, oil on canvas © Photographer Ron Amstutz

Or the strong lean figure, her face covered in black paint – ”a painting within a painting” in the artist’s words – standing three metres tall in her long pink dress, looking down at the viewer:

The Angel

Michaël Borremans – The Angel (2013) 300 x 200 cm, oil on canvas Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp © Photographer Dirk Pauwels

Michaël Borremans was born in 1963 in Geraardsbergen, East Flanders, one of the oldest cities in Belgium. Today he lives and works in Ghent. He moved there when he needed a change: he was 33 years old, a trained photographer and graphic designer, frustrated with the job he’d held for ten years teaching drawing at the Secondary Municipal Art Institute of Ghent, and decided it was high time he evolved artistically by taking up painting.

A bold change of direction for a relatively unknown artist who had never painted before. But Borremans is a man of conviction, structured and totally focused; working methodically, meticulously and passionately, he became one of the most sought-after artists of today.

He lives and creates in a large open space surrounded by white walls, lots of natural light coming through windows overlooking a green courtyard, wooden floors; an orderly, structured, minimalist interior in neutral, muted colours, a colour palette mirrored in his paintings.

Borremans works only by daylight because he ”sees” better and is always wearing a suit because working in his Sunday’s best helps him focus (unconsciously trying not to stain his clothes). He creates his subjects himself out of photographs he makes working with live models, producing powerful gripping images – you just have to look at them, even when their back is turned on you:

The Ear

Michaël Borremans – The Ear (2011) 42 x 53 cm, oil on canvas

Borremans’ paintings show as little information as possible. He is systematically extracting things, creating an introvert, minimalistic environment with a detached and slightly morbid quality leaving the meaning of his work wide open to interpretation; so the viewer becomes simultaneously an accomplice and a spectator. His limited colour palette adds to the mood. Borremans knows his limitations: ‘‘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.’’

The Load

Michaël Borremans – The Load (2008) 40 x 49.8 cm, oil on canvas

The Sleeper

Michaël Borremans – Sleeper (2007-2008) 40 x 50 cm, oil on canvas. Private Collection Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp © Photographer Peter Cox

The Wind

Michaël Borremans, The Wind (2011) 42 x 36 cm, oil on canvas

Borremans’ greatest influence and inspiration is Velasquez who worked with brushes attached to very long handles which gave a spontaneous touch to his paintings. Borremans’ brush strokes are smooth, very delicate, academic, detached. But look closer and you’ll notice some bold, rougher finishing strokes, balancing out the morbid immobility, giving just a touch of movement to the stillness.

I was captivated by this first part of the exhibition – the paintings. But only when I arrived at the drawings section the artist’s true mastery was revealed. Borremans has drawn for much longer than he paints – it just comes to him naturally. Since his student days he’s been drawing only on recycled paper: cardboard, old envelopes, the backside of a book… The more stained the better because stains can be used as a starting point for an unfolding story. He would never work on a white sheet, in fact he finds white quite repellent, ”pure horror” are the words he uses, because ”you can’t have a dialogue with all that white”.

A Mae West Experience

Michaël Borremans – A Mae West Experience (2002) 16,3 x 20,3 cm pencil, watercolor and white ink on paper

The German part two

Michaël Borremans – The German (part two) (2002) 24,8 x 31 cm pencil, watercolor, white and black ink, mica foil and transparent tape on cardboard

Two Circles

Michaël Borremans – Two Circles (2006) 21 x 29,7 cm pencil on paper. Used for the cover of Vantage Point, the fifth album from the Belgian band Deus, released on April 18, 2008.

The Reference

Michaël Borremans, “The Reference” (2007), pencil and watercolor on paper, 12,5 x 9,0 cm, Courtesy: Paul and Katrien Lannoy-Mattelaer

The decisive, meticulously detailed lines, the re-currency of the themes, the surreal perspective and scale of these drawings, the contrast between reality and fantasy, the balance between insinuation and truth are the artist’s way to discuss illusions: about political choices, personal freedom and the individual’s ability to perceive. And he does that brilliantly.

Borremans often likes to re-use a theme, a trend that is not limited to one medium. For instance, ”Wait” the rotating girl with the pleated skirt, is originally a drawing.


Michaël Borremans – Drawing (2002) 16 x 10,5 cm pencil, watercolor and white ink on cardboard

The Skirt

Michaël Borremans – The Skirt (2005) 70 x 60 cm, oil on canvas


Michaël Borremans – Weight (2005) 35.5 x 27.5 x 4 cm Framed 15” lcd screen – colour: VGA DVD (4:3) (duration 9.44 min.) (ed. Of 3 – AP) Courtesy Zeno X Gallery Antwerp, David Zwirner New York/London and Gallery Koyanagi Tokyo

Another example of re-using a theme is ”The House of Opportunity”:

The House of Opportunity In the Louvre

Michaël Borremans – In the Louvre – The House of Opportunity (2003) 26,6 x 27,6 cm pencil, watercolor and white ink on paper

The House of Opportunity Voodoo

Michaël Borremans – The House of Opportunity – Voodoo! (2005) 17,3 x 23,3 cm pencil and watercolour on cardboard

The Journey

Michaël Borremans – The Journey (2002) 17 x 24,7 cm pencil, watercolor, white and black ink, varnish on book cover

Just as his painting is cinematographic, in the same way, his films are shown like paintings on the wall: to be watched as long as the spectator wants. ”The Storm” was projected in a dark space, more like an intersection than a room, where people could view and walk by freely. Borremans works with a steady camera in an archaic way, with clear references to early cinema.

The Storm film

Michaël Borremans – The Storm (2006) – 35mm film transferred to DVD; 1:07 min (loop), colour, silent Edition of 3

”As sweet as it gets” is running until Sunday 03 August, 2014. If your way brings you to Brussels, don’t miss it!

The Swimming Pool

Images from the websites of:

Zeno X, the gallery that Borremans is working with since 2000

David Zwirner

Centre for Fine Arts (Bozar), Brussels

Visited on Saturday, 22 February 2014


22 thoughts on “Michaël Borremans//As sweet as it gets @ Bozar, Brussels

  1. Pingback: David Zwirner: 25 Years – The Humble Fabulist

  2. Hi Tim! Focussing on the technical side may prove very useful in the future course of your work. It may not amount to much right now, but one day it will all click and come together and you’ll start exploring and be creative; a bit like learning to bike, I think!

  3. Thanks for this great post Lia! The paintings and drawings you’ve shown by this artist are inspiring – a reminder to me that I should start exploring my own creativity more with the art that I’m doing. I have been focussing on learning and practicing techniques till now, and haven’t gone much beyond that yet.

  4. Thank you for sharing. A fascinating artist creating a fascinating universe. Like you are creating a very interesting universe in this blog, I like to come here and discovering a new part of it.

    • Oh I like this idea of a blog-universe. We all create our parallel universes, don’t we. I enjoy jumping from one to the other; there’s so much beauty, wealth and knowledge to be shared out there! Thanks for being part of it!

  5. Powerful stuff. Thanks for this introduction to his work. I love that he uses recycled paper etc to paint on. My tutor at college told me to spill my coffee onto the stark white paper in front of me,to make it less scary to start drawing or painting!

    • Your tutor and Borremans share the same sentiments for white paper! Apparently, Borremans also started using recycled paper as a student, when he saw a fellow student binning work he didn’t like. One day Borremans took some of it back and that’s how it began…

  6. I went to the exhibition a few weeks ago and I just love his work. The big oil paintings are beautiful but the miniature sketches were impressive as well. Your posts are so inspiring, it seems like I’m learning more of my little Belgique trough your eyes!

    • Natasja, this is a lovely thing to say, thank you so much! It is your little Belgique and its creative people that’s so inspiring! And I’m glad to be a part of it, in whatever way I can. Back to the exhibition: indeed, I had no idea how impressive the drawings would be until I reached the room. I had to keep on staring, especially at the miniature ones… the lines, the detail, the amount of work, the feeling… Just brilliant!

    • Although Borremans figures in relevant media here in Belgium, his work is new to me too – my first ever close-up encounter was this exhibition; I was so impressed I knew I had to share the experience and spread the love!

  7. Beautiful. An interesting type and dapper by the sounds of it. The starkness of his images reminds me of the Perennial Reader from your previous post. There is an overriding theme I think, a mood, an intention..?

    • You know, I only notice it now… I was doing research and collecting images for this post when I uploaded the Perennial Reader. So, although unintentional, it does show I was actually getting into the mood…

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