‘This is where all my work from the past three years comes together’

“I know my place, I’m an actor who has been drawing all his life.” Wim Opbrouck brings with the unpretentious exhibition Open Heart at the Museum Dr. Guislain drawing an ode.

Sophie Van Hyfte

We know him as an actor, we know him as a writer, as a storyteller, singer and presenter. But somewhat more deeply hidden in Wim Opbrouck’s extensive oeuvre is his visual work, which is now being shown on a large scale to the general public for the first time.

Before he ever started at drama school, Opbrouck followed a plastic arts course. His drawing board has never gathered dust since then. In Opbrouck’s world, there are always cross-pollinations. That’s how he just completed the theater tour I am the whale af, a performance commissioned by the organization Te Gek!?, which champions mental well-being. Simultaneously he worked on two books on the theme and in between he continued to draw on the assembly line. Witness to this is a large stack of sketchbooks that the man keeps in a personal archive and which forms a central point in his solo exhibition. Open Heart at the Museum Dr. Guislain.

The books are packed with notes, fragments of theater texts, sometimes rough, sometimes extremely precise sketches. They are often realistic scenes, but they are also invented figures or scenes that he put on paper during the many preparations and waiting times between theater rehearsals.

Lonely Whale

What characterizes his work – whether he is on stage or he sketches it down on paper – is Opbrouck’s gift for telling a story. For example, the multitude of sketches gives rise to storylines that extend to the inner garden of the museum, where a gigantic humpback whale has stranded. While Opbrouck performs an apparently simple act, painting the counterfeit animal, there is still more behind that effort. In the run-up to the opening of the exhibition, he paints the washed-up animal black, layer by layer, together with groups of vulnerable young people – from refugees to people with a mental disability. He sees this collective achievement as an anointing of the loneliness and suffering, which the whale stands for.

“I couldn’t imagine a better location to do this,” says Opbrouck between painting. “The circle is round. This is where all the projects I’ve worked on over the past three years come together. It all ends here, literally. We don’t know why a humpback whale gets stranded, that remains a mystery. But that beaches contain the whole story behind my work. It almost immediately became my image for the book, the performances and for the expo. It moves me and it did forty years ago, when I first penned a humpback whale on paper.”

Opbrouck takes us to the expo part of Open Heart† He sounds enthusiastic and a little nervous. It is also the first time for him to see the end result. Generous as we know him, but atypical for an artist, he did not pre-select and gave his entire oeuvre to curators Pierre Muylle and Patrick Allegaert without further ado. “Honestly, I would never have chosen these works myself,” he says, slightly surprised. “Simply because I had long forgotten that I made them.”

Imaginary herbarium

The exhibition marks a few key points from Opbrouck’s visual oeuvre, such as a series of red-blue-black watercolors drawn thirty years ago for a book about the First World War or a few intimate ink drawings he once made for Watou and recently restored – an outlier.

What is striking is how the works reveal a completely different aspect of the artist. We know his bombast and his humor from the stage and from television, but the subtlety he puts in these matters is especially apparent in his sketches. Literally even, with fine lines, which can be seen in the subtle curves he once made for NTGent and in his often precise color choices.

As in his latest work created during the pandemic – another outlier. The imaginary herbarium, as he calls it, contains the same plant over and over in a slightly absurd way. It is drawn in different ways, but each time with a carpenter’s pencil, red on one side, blue on the other. The result is soothing.

The botanical motif returns a few times in the tour. As fantasies above a pensive figure, in the head of some striking portraits or as body parts that seem to want to grow further. It is reminiscent of word-image associations. The other grows out of one.

The associations are also reflected in the Drawing class. On the ground floor, a room has been set up with ten drawing tables, each equipped with a camera. There is a large screen in the front. “The drawing class is an important part of our project,” emphasizes Opbrouck. “Think of The Big Draw, which takes place annually in October and calls on everyone to start drawing together. A signer and a reader will be present. Accompanied by text and images, each participant makes sketches, you are given ten minutes per drawing. And so we collect sixty copies after an hour.”

“My work is one big ode to drawing. While drawing, the imagination knows no bounds. There is power in a drawing to discover, but also to escape. In Open Heart it all comes together.”

Open Heart runs from June 26 to January 8 in Museum Dr. Guislain, Ghent.