Confronting the viewer with an inscrutable stare, Borsalino is an absorbing portrait by René Daniëls. Utterly mesmerised, the pale rapt subject is bathed in an air of disquieting solitude, situated against an abstract backdrop of raw red and blue strokes. One of the most celebrated Dutch painters of his generation, Daniëls emerged during the late 1970s, at a time when figurative painting had again become prominent. Executed in 1981, during the early years of the artist’s rise to acclaim, the present work demonstrates his deft layering of pictorial and syntactical meaning. Its title refers to Italy’s oldest company specialising in luxury hats. The eponymous Borsalino hat itself is iconic, as seen in films such as Casablanca as well as the 1970 gangster movie Borsalino. In the painting, the figure’s head is contorted to resemble its shape, inviting comparison with René Magritte’s surrealist bowler hat works. Rife with ciphers and transformations, Daniëls’ paintings are similarly governed by a dream-like logic where nothing is exactly as it appears to be. Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, Borsalino is part of a group of paintings conceived during a trip to London in 1980, and was included in the exhibition Van London naar Gent (From London to Ghent) at the Gewad Centre for Contemporary Art the following year. It has been widely shown since, most recently in the artist’s 2018-2019 touring retrospective originating at WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels.
Each of Daniëls’ works is rooted in a clear concept which he used as a guide to provoke a transmuting chain of associations. As he explained, ‘I first need a framework, a hand-out to paint. That is the idea and from there I play until it becomes an agglomerate of ideas. These always cover many facets of life’ (R. Daniëls, quoted in Haagsepost, 26 March 1983, p. 80). The various versions of the present work bear witness to this complex process. Daniëls would make rapid sketches of his surroundings – in this instance, London – which he analysed back in the studio, linking them to ideas and motifs from his own experience. In this way, his works assume multiple conceptual layers: a synchronicity that is mirrored in their execution. Borsalino’s paper study and photographs of the painting in the artist’s studio suggest that he variously conceived the subject with a tie, a collared shirt and ultimately the V-neck that appears in the present work. Drawing inspiration from Sigmar Polke, Marcel Duchamp and Punk music, Daniëls sought a visual idiom where meaning was never fully fixed. Amassing references to literature, art history and his contemporary world, his paintings metamorphose over time, gradually assuming a life of their own. As critic Michael Kimmelman has written, his works ‘wring symbolist poetry from ordinary imagery, effortlessly’ (M. Kimmelman, ‘ART IN REVIEW; René Daniëls’, New York Times, 28 April 2000, p. E38).