The Model as Muse

Hannelore Knuts discusses her role in the painter Michaël Borremans’s new work.

Hannelore Knuts "The Angel"

Among the roughly 100 works in the Michaël Borremans survey As sweet as it gets, currently on view at Bozar, the Centre for Fine Arts located in Brussels, one in particular stands out: “The Angel,” the 10-foot painting depicts a stoic female figure in a long pink dress, her face darkened and lowered toward the viewer. Though “The Angel” seems anonymous, some may in fact recognize her as the Belgian model and actress Hannelore Knuts. Here she talks about her role in the making of what some are calling Borremans’s Mona Lisa.

How did you become involved with Michaël Borremans? Michaël Borremans and my boyfriend, the video artist Nicolas Provost, are good friends, so I’ve spent some beautiful BBQ evenings at his country house in the Flemish Ardennes. When I was in Belgium for the premiere of DAVE, a one-hour music video/film by 2 Many DJ’s, in which I played the main lead David Bowie, Michaël and I met again. At the after party he asked me to stop dancing and come outside; on the spot he asked if he could paint me. According to him, when he saw me that night, all things fell into place. He had bought the dress just a few weeks prior and needed a strong, long and lean woman to carry it.

What was the process like, posing for him? Of course I was very honored and curious how that would be, posing for a painter. Arriving at his atelier was magical. It is a chapel [in a decommissioned Catholic church] in Ghent, empty, with a table of paint and brushes and a huge blank canvas on an easel right in front of the altar, with sunbeams falling from the windows. I had decided to put my hair back with wax before I arrived so he could have a clean slate. Since I have short hair, it seemed to me that a prominent haircut would identify the character or timeframe too much. I did bring shampoo, just in case, but he liked it and the tone was set. He knew what he wanted and I was there to give it to him… and then he took out… his camera. He calls himself a modern painter. He shot me in different spots in the chapel, all with different light and backgrounds, every time from various angles. Later he would choose which ones would fit his end vision. What he did know from the beginning was what I had to express: serenity. Not melancholy or something divine, just simple and serene.

As a model, you have posed for countless photos. How did this experience differ from posing for a fashion shoot? Usually, as a fashion model I am surround by a whole team. The fact that it was only him and me made it very special and intimate. It was a very nice moment for me to be standing there. The silence was exciting. At that time I was in Belgium to appear on Dancing With the Stars, so you can imagine how good it felt to stand still in the rollercoaster ride my life was at that moment.

Your face is covered in the painting. How does it feel to see yourself this way? He painted my face with a brush—‘a painting in a painting’ I heard him explaining later to a journalist. I love it. I can enjoy the depth and emotion of the painting almost in the same way as any spectator does because it helps me experience the painting almost anonymously. To me, the fact that the face is black gives the painting an extra dimension. It is the center point of the painting and you as a viewer need to look for a story behind the black yourself. The black face is almost like a black hole that sucks you into the painting—a non-frightening black hole.

Some people are calling this painting Borremans’s “Mona Lisa.” What is it like to be the subject of such an important work? I’m honored he called it “The Angel”—not that I am sure if the title refers to me, the dress, or the sunbeams in the chapel. While he was shooting me he didn’t say much, only that he already saw the painting he wanted to create. He felt good and happy. The Muse was definitely among us. People often call me a muse but to me a muse is something else. It is a spirit, impulse, moment and/or emotion that guides the artist to where he needs to go. My part is that I pave a path for the muse to feel welcome.

How do you feel about the final result? I got really emotional when I saw it hanging in his gallery Zeno X in Antwerp. [It was] impressive in a gallery space. When I saw it later at the big museum Bozar in Brussels it was the same thing. The size of it, of course, impressed me but you just feel that even if it he had made is smaller, it would still breathe the same strength and serenity.

“As sweet as it gets” is on view at Bozar, Rue Ravenstein 23, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium, through August 3, 2014, after which it will move to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, then to the Dallas Museum of Art.