‘With the paintings, at first you expect a narrative, because the figures are familiar. But then you see that some parts of the painting don’t match, or don’t make sense. The works don’t come to a conclusion in the way we expect them to. The images are unfinished: they remain open. That’s what makes them durable’
‘People – most of them alone – look toward the landscape and thus also represent the viewer inside the painting. We watch them as they watch; we observe the landscape with them and through them. But this act of seeing seeing, as we identify with the viewer portrayed in the painting, can also contain an unfathomable dimension: the sense that we ourselves are being observed … One may well imagine that the people portrayed in Michaël Borremans’s paintings … also sense a comparable “burning sensation in the nape of the neck”’
Intimately scaled and thrillingly unnerving, Pony (II) is a deft work of theatre in painting by Michaël Borremans. His Old Masterly talent razor sharp, the artist portrays a male figure from behind, with shirt and jacket on backwards – the close sartorial intention informed by Borremans’s background as a fashion photographer. The subject is exposed, made vulnerable by Borremans’s tight framing: we are brought close to the nape of his neck and the inside of his ear, which is placed at the composition’s dead centre and foregrounded by the direction of the shoulders and hairline. Rather than painting portraits, Borremans uses people as symbolic vehicles, their figures acting as props in a carefully orchestrated Beckettian play of paint. Pony (II) speaks of unease, guilt, or shame in its avoidance of the gaze, while the inverted clothing hints at perversity and disorder; the loose brushwork, visibly unfinished at the man’s lapels, draws attention to the painting as a constructed illusion, a ghostly apparition poised at the intersections of past and present, nihilism and tenderness. In all its hair-raising uncertainty, this work brings forth both dark humour and beauty through Borremans’s unique painterly vision.
If painting a figure from the back signifies Borremans’s turning away from the usual protocols of the portrait as psychological window, it also gestures towards a certain Germanic tradition. Dora Imhof discusses the use of the Rückenfigur (literally ‘back-figure’) as employed by the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich: ‘People – most of them alone – look toward the landscape and thus also represent the viewer inside the painting. We watch them as they watch; we observe the landscape with them and through them. But this act of seeing seeing, as we identify with the viewer portrayed in the painting, can also contain an unfathomable dimension: the sense that we ourselves are being observed … One may well imagine that the people portrayed in Michaël Borremans’s paintings … also sense a comparable “burning sensation in the nape of the neck.” They are also depicted from behind, and are objects of our searching, curious gaze. Moreover, they are not looking at a distant landscape, but at a wall, a corner, a floor, or – we don’t know – perhaps they have their eyes closed, are immersed in their internal worlds’ (D. Imhof, ‘Backs – “The sadness of seeing oneself seeing”’ in Michaël Borremans: As sweet as it gets, exh. cat. Brussels / Dallas 2014, p. 136). Pony (II) thus becomes an oblique performance of the very act of looking itself: dramatised in strokes inherited from Velázquez, Manet and Goya, Borremans’s painting stages its own interrogation, and seems ashamed to meet our gaze.
The work’s title adds a further layer of uneasy mystery. What does ‘pony’ signify? Absent of context or clues, any fixed answer is unclear. Such irresolution delights Borremans. Perhaps by placing the ear at the painting’s centre, he foregrounds the impossibility of its decoding; we are left powerless as if listening to the image, not seeing, our gaze averted from the truth. Indeed, the ear becomes a void of meaninglessness by suggesting and negating the tumultuous artistic passions of Van Gogh; Borremans conjures an art that is instead furtive, enigmatic and detached. For all its eerie artifice, however, the work radiates a timeless, irresistible magnetism. ‘I find it fascinating that modern man can still be moved by painting,’ the artist says; ‘somehow man is still more attracted to incomprehensible, strange, funny stuff than to rationalism’ (M. Borremans, quoted in M. Gray, ‘The modern mysteries of Michaël Borremans,’ Apollo Magazine, March 2016).