Of Monkeys and Men

LONDON — I am sitting in a coffee shop yards from David Zwirner’s Mayfair gallery. Michaël Borremans, small, impishly besuited, has just hurried past my line of vision in the company of a few relatives. A burst of Flemish conversation adds music to the air.

What does it mean to be a northern European painter? Or, more specifically, what is it to be a Flemish painter? We think mainly of the early Renaissance, and of how the religious paintings of Northern Europe often possessed a cool, if not forbidding, savagery that could approach caricature. So utterly different from the warmth and  weepy sentiment of the sunnier south.

In the case of the contemporary painter Michaël Borremans, being a Fleming seems to require a pitiless, if not forbidding, irony, almost studiedly cruel in its level of dispassion. He lives and works in Ghent, a city still awed by the extraordinary presence of Jan van Eyck’s altarpiece “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” which is the pride of its cathedral, and whose recent restoration was carefully anatomized in Hyperallergic. A small painting by Borremans is on the side of a concrete lift shaft in Ghent within view of the cathedral, high in the air.

At the artist’s current show in London, a different painting by van Eyck, his great portrait of the Arnolfini family in the city’s National Gallery, is a suggestive antecedent. That 15th-century portrait is an extraordinarily solemn, even gloom-struck affair. It has no skittish, Mozartian lightness. The costuming, though magnificent, weighs like lead. This couple is not accustomed to skipping toward the matrimonial bed.

Borremans is a portraitist of sorts and, like van Eyck, he is much focused on the costuming of the fragile, infinitely suggestible, and malleable human form, how it has the capacity to aggrandize, define, and utterly wrong-foot the onlooker. His portraits are synthetic; they do not so much show us a particular individual as dissect the idea of what it is to be human.

Borremans presents two kinds of portraits in this show. They purport to show us various specimens of humankind, and they offer us several variant portraits of another primate, a monkey.

None of the human specimens are happy. Why should they be, in a world that rumbles toward unmitigated disaster, one in which, at the lightest touch of an autocrat’s button, we will be returned to the dust from whence we came? They are muffled, constrained, confined by what they wear. Is this the suit of a cosmonaut or was it merely another miserably cold winter afternoon in Ghent? Why is this boy in a Stetson? Why does no one meet our gaze? Why are so many faces flushed, lips scarred?  

And why is this show called The Monkey? A painting by Chardin, “Le Singe Peintre” (c. 1739–40), in which a monkey stands before an easel, wielding a long-handled brush, may be part of the answer. Is the monkey a nobler and less destructive creature than humankind then? 

In the final part of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, a severe 18th-century moralist, the Houyhnhnms, a noble race of horses, are superior to the Yahoos, a raging babble of beastly humanoids. It is the task of the Houyhnhnms to whip them into submission. Perhaps Borremans, ever the enigmatic prankster, shares Swift’s rich vein of pessimism. The magnificent monkey on the gallery’s first floor is the largest painting by far — certainly the star of the show.

Michaël Borremans: The Monkey continues at David Zwirner (24 Grafton Street, London, England) through July 26. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.   

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