Ronald Ophuis: Fiction is part of witnessing

Ronald Ophuis studies single actions sometimes for weeks at a time before he starts to paint. The scenes he depicts reflect moments of despair, violence, pain, and the breaking of trust.

Methods for painting

My work consists of the creating and painting of fictitious events. I stage the drama in my studio. Actors playing and reconstructing the scene in front of a camera. Before I start I do my research and read a lot about the story, I gather statements and images. I try to visit the places I will reconstruct and take photographs of the environment in which the story took place. I talk to people who were really there and have experienced the story I want to show in my painting. I collect clothes they were wearing or have them made for me.

I take a lot of photographs of the actors in my studio. The best ones I will use for the life size paintings. De actors are set in scenes such as an execution, a miscarriage, a rape, a war scene, etc.

The painting tells a fictitious story but the metaphor of the painting can’t be ignored because of the affect the painting will evoke. The emotion the painting can bring on is real. For this, poetry or art is more suited than CNN. Journalism informs you but gives you less feeling of suffering, confusion, deprivation or fear. Journalism is much more superficial and does not appeal to beauty or style as art can do.

A work of art gives you the opportunity to identify with an other person. With the victim but also with the offender. I try not to work with set morals because your frame of mind will stay within a confined area and the impact of the work will diminish. The way that is dealt with violence and sexuality within my work increases the possibility to identify with the subject in the paintings. Even if they’re not the phantasies of the spectator, the experience will be physical and less easy to ignore. A painting claims more time and if you’re moved by the work you will take more time to read it. Not only the depiction but also the way it has been painted claims your attention.


In 1992 a transport plane crashed into two blocks of flats in the district Bijlmermeer in Amsterdam. Dozens of people were killed. Although no one filmed the actual crash, there was only footage of the scene after the catastrophe, many people stated that they had seen the plane go down. Even when they were in no position to witness the event.

Many years after the Second World War some of the survivors of concentration camps testified about their encounter with dr. Mengele. Even though they had never actually met dr. Mengele as he had never visited the camp where they were imprisoned. After World War II he became the most vicious icon of the concentration camps because of his horrifying medical experiments on the prisoners. His name became a symbol for the fears and tortures the prisoners endured.

When I was four my younger brother died. I have hardly any memories of him, not even of his dying days. Nevertheless I withhold two images of his death which give me great sorrow. About thirty years later I spoke to my father about these images. He told me that I could not have experienced my brother’s death the way I thought because this was not how it had happened. They were fictitious images.

Why do we give fictitious testimony?

The testimonies may be fictitious but the sentiments we have experienced are not. As a means to call up emotions they are not necessarily untrue.

Is it possible to form a social community as human beings if we can not experience other peoples feelings. We rarely take part in the events or witness the story of the other person. How then can we feel compassion with our families, friends, colleagues, lovers or strangers. How can we put ourselves in the shoes of our opponent or the generation before us.

What we do is, we put ourselves in their position, we try to indentify with the other person, we look for similarities with our own lives. We attempt to create an image of the events we weren’t a part of. A picture which evokes the desired emotion. This happens everyday in our life, watching the news or internet and in art. You could say that we dishonour the truth, that we’re lying. But it’s not the truth we’re talking about, it’s the experience, the feeling that comes with it. If you watch the crucifixion of Christ in any Catholic church, you know it’s not Christ you’re looking at but a body double and still you believe in his suffering.

In the earlier example of the testimonies about dr. Mengele the same occurs but the other way round. How do you express the horrors of the concentration camps when it’s hard to even speak about it. Mentioning the name Mengele is sufficient to convey the horrors you have suffered.

Interrogation of the soul

As a child I often looked at the images from the life of Christ during mass. Above the altar a crucified Christ was hung and in the mid of last century a beautiful Stations of the Christ was painted on the walls of our church.

Back then I couldn’t suppress the sensation what it would feel like to be hanging at that cross, to endure those tortures, hearing the death sentence, being pure and feeling a hero. But also the sensation of how it would feel to speak out a death sentence, to nail someone to a cross.

What I’d like to achieve with my painted testimonies is that the spectator feels for or indentifies with the victim or the offender. To hear the spectator about his identity, his thinking and his behaviour.


In what situation do we conjure up fictitious images. When does our visual phantasy starts to work. At night in our dreams. When we’re having sex. When we’re tormented with visions of fear. Before a sports game. When we have to face an audience. When we think about our identity. When we reminisce about our loved ones who have passed away. When we try to make a work of art. When we recall a personal history. When we dealing with a trauma....

These are moments with a certain intensity in which we desire an image that shows us that emotion. These are the instances we try to reconstruct; we try to visualize to get a grip on our situation. And although these moments can confuse us, without them we’re helpless. And that is an empty and unmanageable circumstance.

The Game

Compare it to the games children play. They play war games, play death, they long for a game full of mature love an intimacy. They make agreements about who is in charge. They construct a balance of power in the playground.

Between the artist and the spectator you’ll find a game that’s not very different. The artist starts with the idea that the spectator will see the work of art that could fill an empty space in his head and will stimulate his mind by using the means that art is given.

The artist’s studio and the testimony

Lamentation, Srebrenica 2003, 65 x 100 cm, oil on paper

At first the studio is an empty place. As an artist you decide what kind of life will fill your empty space. It is inevitable that it will fill itself with the human fascinations, obsessions, fears, angers, love etc. These feelings will enter you and stimulate your imagination. The works of art are witnesses of the thoughts in the studio.
It’s the spectator who speaks out the verdict upon these testimonies.

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Research, Landscapes, Interiors, Models/Actors.