Should all wounds be healed? Painter Ronald Ophuis does not think so. According to Ophuis, it is better to be confronted with the suffering that people can cause each other. His latest work focuses on the Widows of Srebrenica. We talk to Ronald Ophuis about his work, human nature, gaps in art history and the impact of trauma.
Earlier this year, Ophuis (Netherlands, 1968) moved into a brand-new studio in a business park on the outskirts of Amsterdam. There he depicts war trauma, rape and executions in a mouse-grey cube-shaped building with ceilings at a height of 5 meters. The latter was a precondition, says Ophuis: “My largest canvases are 3 meters 40 high. It is a way to tempt people to look at my work longer, then it becomes more than a concept, namely a physical experience ”
Was there a defining moment when you decided: I'm going to paint violence and human suffering?
Yes and no, the themes of violence and trauma gradually crept into my work. When I was accepted at the Rietveld Academy in the late eighties, I made abstract work in the style of Willem de Kooning. We soon got to figure drawing and that went better than I anticipated. From that I drew confidence to produce figurative work.
To my experience, it never mattered whether I painted something that I experienced myself, such as the scene with the Coke bottle in the football dressing room (in which teammates humiliate one of them by putting a Coke bottle between his buttocks, WvdE), painted stories that I heard from people in my immediate environment, such as having a miscarriage, or produced war scenes situations that came to me through news reports. I did, however, expand my knowledge of the subjects by, whenever possible, interviewing witnesses, victims, perpetrators, or collecting their writings. By visiting the places where it took place, such as in Srebrenica, Poland, Sierra Leone, and collecting images there.
In those years there was also a row surrounding the work Sweet Violence, in which two children are abused. Did that row also determine the direction of your work?
That painting had first been on display in Amsterdam and hadn’t caused any commotion. Afterwards, it was included in an exhibition in Deventer, where it was removed after protests. In the end, I took the case to court and won. That turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory, because many people simply did not want to see the work anymore. It is also significant that I hardly received any support in the press, while I claimed my artistic freedom.
I didn't intend the canvas to be shocking to the extent that people could immediately dismiss me as an immoral person, so that they wouldn't have to think about the work ever again. This means you still lose.
The work Birkenau I, in which a female concentration camp inmate is raped by two male fellow inmates, caused another stir.
What I wanted to show is that victims are not a priori saints. In a lawless environment like Auschwitz, some people are capable of anything, because in such a situation any sense of norm is lost. Not many of us are capable to stay clean in such extreme conditions. That is also something we should bear in mind outside of the concentration camp.
I knew the subject was a taboo, so I spoke to a number of survivors and two rabbis before making the work. They indicated that they appreciate someone making a work about something for which they themselves often could not find words. It was a lot more sensitive with their children, the second generation. They were confronted with an image of their parents in a grey area between perpetrators and victims. I did look for consent from the survivors, but entering into a conversation with the second generation did not occur to me at the time.
Ronald Ophuis, Birkenau I, 2000, Upstream Gallery.
While working you came across a gap in art history, but where does that fascination for violence come from? Were there any indications of that in your childhood?
The first time I thought about violence was during an Easter celebration in my youth. I grew up in Hengelo in a Roman Catholic environment. We went to mass every Sunday. The Easter story focuses on the crucifixion of Christ, yet I found myself wondering who the people were calling for Christ's death.
Other things play a role as well, such as the fact that I grew up close to the German border. My grandparents' house was occupied by the Germans during the war. That was unpleasant, but it also meant that they always had good food. As a result, from an early age I sensed a more ambiguous relationship to Germany in my father than the usual right and wrong dichotomy. As a little boy, my father got on well with the resident soldiers who spoiled him with sugar sandwiches. They looked like his father's younger brothers. In my youth I also made cartoons of street fights of older boys in the neighbourhood, so violence was something that already occupied me then.
What information do you base your work on?
This has changed over the years with the advent of the internet. In the 1990s, I made work about the war in the former Yugoslavia and the Second World War, drawing material from newspapers, magazines, reports from organizations such as Amnesty International, reading testimonials, visiting the places and trying to speak to witnesses. Much more information is available now due to the internet and digital cameras.
What remains unchanged is that you need to have a certain amount of concentration to be able to produce this type of work. It requires a certain amount of aggression.
Once you’ve established what you are going to paint, are you shocked by yourself? Do you feel the pain of the trauma or is it just work?
Once I know which scene I'm going to paint, it touches me deeply, of course. I often let the idea rest for a few months or a few years in some case. While painting, that intense emotion fades into the background. Then the concentration is mainly on painting and visual thinking. Only when it is finished and people come to watch, do you get that emotion again because you also look through the eyes of the other.
Ronald Ophuis, Widows of Srebrenica. Bosnia and Herzegovina 2005, Upstream Gallery.
The painting itself is a fairly practical, but at times also frustrating affair. While working on a canvas, you sometimes don't know how to proceed. For example, I worked on the Widows of Srebrenica for a year until I became saturated. In the meantime, I also made a number of portraits and the canvas with the calf. Initially, there was a rising sun in the performance, but in the end it annoyed me, because it distracted visually from the subject and was therefore disruptive. Only the snow with the grey cloud cover remained. That was better for the painting.
Why did you choose the Widows of Srebrenica?
Because they must not be forgotten and have no voice. In art history it is mostly about those who were murdered and about the murderers, but almost never about the ones left behind. You cannot paint the trauma itself, the consequences of the genocide. What you can show are the after-effects of a trauma. They look beaten. The middle woman is even supported by the woman on the left.
The aesthetic is partly inspired by the film The Turin Horse by the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, which I saw a few years ago. When Nietzsche lived in Turin, one day he saw a horse on the street. He fell in love with the horse, hugged it and was a patient for the rest of his life. Since then we know how things turned out badly for Nietzsche in his last years, but no one wondered what had become of that horse. Tarr shows us the rest of the horse's life.
Why is it so important to show those who lag behind?
Historical books often have a blind spot for emotions. You read about wars, oppression, accords and truces, but most of the time it is a factual treatise. The emotional side and psychological consequences of a conflict are rarely considered by historians. I want to offer the viewer the emotion with the text and feel the pain of the trauma. In fact, my work is complementary to classical historiography. The stakes are therefore high, and perhaps unattainable, but that challenge is inspiring.
The exhibition also includes two works depicting a cow. It is quite a leap from Srebrenica to a peaceful depiction of a cow in a stable. What's up with that?
I've always had a fondness for folk art. Those were the first paintings I saw growing up in Twente. Such a representation of a calf or a cow in a stable is typical of that genre. It is a scene that seems from another time, which it is not, but such farms hardly exist anymore. It has a nostalgic longing to it. I know farm life from my childhood, because my grandfather had a small farm and there were farm children in my class. The farm life of that time actually no longer exists. For a long time, I renounced making such canvases, which I used to do more often. It would distract from my main theme, but mentally I cannot process one heavy story of human suffering after another. So, I gave in to painting farm life again, and with great pleasure at that.
Ronald Ophuis, Upstream Gallery.
The exhibition Should All Wounds Be Healed? Ronald Ophuis can be seen at Upstream Gallery from 29 August to 17 October