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Danny Willems : ARNO The Show of Life exhibition & the book Photographs 1972–2022


There are photographers specialising in reportage – a snapshot here & there, their passage is just a sigh. There are those who swear by the documentary approach – they follow a subject for several months or even years. But Danny Willems‘ work defies all comparison. He has photographed the Belgian artist Arno for 50 years – the photographer became a friend, a collaborator, an advisor. In the words of Stephan Vanfleteren: “In good times and bad, Danny and Arno were as faithful to each other as a pépé and mémé (gramps & granny) at their golden wedding”.

Arnold Charles Ernest Hintjens was born in Ostend in 1949 into a warm-hearted family of modest origins. He hàd to become a cook, because the artistic life didn’t bring in bread. As a chef, he was not without merit – he ended up working in the kitchen of a major hotel in Ostend and, a few years later, he prepared prawn croquettes for the soul singer Marvin Gaye, who had found a place of refuge in Ostend – but Arno was not happy with his life.

Arno recounts how, one summer day in the late 1960s, he was walking through Ostend’s nightlife district and all the pub windows were open. Suddenly he heard Bob Dylan singing “How does it feel To be on your own, without direction home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone”. He felt an instant connection and, at the same time, found a purpose – Arnold sheds his skin for the first time AND became blues rock artist Arno.

His first band played a few gigs with moderate success. Publicity was the answer, and pictures had to carry their reputation. Danny Willems was called, and he still remembers the moment. In front of him, two strange characters, penniless and full of humour. Arno stuttered as well, but as in a famous film, it became “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”.

Danny Willems’ parents were in the photographic industry, and he too went into the business. He started out in a studio, but went on to make a career as a photographer, pioneering music video director and dance photographer (of Wim Vandekeybus’s famous Ultima Vez dance company). Danny Willems plays an increasingly important role in Arno’s small entourage. The shy Arno trusts him completely: he photographs him on stage, backstage, in the dressing rooms (in all states, dressed or not), in rehearsals, at home, with a lover (Arno had a taste for good music and beautiful women). Stephan Vanfleteren writes: “Danny, …, saw through the Charlatan’s smoke and mirrors. Thanks to their years of friendship, he knew how to cut through his posing like no other.”

Arno’s career didn’t stop there: he went from blues artist to punk, then to the “most handsome” (le plus beau) and finally to the man in black. He was a singer, bandleader, actor, concert organiser and was awarded the French ‘Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’ in 2002. He sung with Jane Birkin, Ray Davies (Kinks), Stephan Eicher, Stromae, Christophe, Starflam, Eddy Mitchell, Ibrahim Malouf, Hugues Aufray…

For Arno, music was his life, and when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he decided to continue giving concerts. Willems photographed him ill, in decline, dying, dead. Stephan Vanfleteren wrote of this final phase: ” Delivering his swansong to a packed audience with a body like gathered kindling and a splintering voice is one of the bravest things I have ever seen a man do “.

To me, leaving the images aside at this moment, this is one of the best designed photo books of 2023. Cut to black the print “Arno, Danny, You & Me” underlines their connection. The exhibition and book are an impressive retrospective and tribute. In his text Danny Willems talks about his friend with remarkable frankness: an honest account in which he depicts how he saw Arno and what he meant to him. Without lapsing into hagiography, he shows the man rather than the icon. The introduction is written by Stephan Vanfleteren, which is an honour in itself, and he has nothing but praise for Danny Willems.

And then there are the images: this is no ordinary music photography – Danny Willems tells with verve the life of a human being who also happened to be a gifted singer and artist. The images are beautiful, humorous, empathetic and at times very intense, tragic and full of emotion. Danny went through his archives chronologically, reliving their parallel lives, finding lost treasures and being moved by small finds. The closer he moved to the present, the more difficult it became for him, as he was once again confronted with the last period of their friendship and Arno’s death.

Danny Willems, a humble person, as great photographers often are, persistent in his vision and friendship. Willems photographs Rock & Roll, he breathes Rock & Roll and was an integral member of all of Arno’s bands.

This exhibition is still running for several weeks and already brought in a record number of visitors. Fans, music lovers and people who love excellent photography. Afterwards, you can browse through the book – both highly recommended

Finale party 21 May

Danny Willems’ Show of Life is slowly coming to an end. With just under 28,000 visitors right now, the exhibition has been an unequalled success, proving just how popular the Solo Gigolo was and still is today

Tuesday 21 May 2024, to mark Arno’s 75th birthday, there will be a grand finale party, free of charge, at the Venetiaanse Gaanderijen on the Ostend seafront. The last members of Arno’s band will accompany Stef Kamil Carlens as guest singer to pay tribute to the Plus Beau, under the direction of Mirko Banovic, Bruno Fevery, Sam Gysel and Lesley Troquet. Serge Feys will accompany a few songs as a special guest The evening will end with a set by DJ4T4 alias Kristof Michiels, who made the documentary on this rock legend with ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Godverdomme!

Everyone is welcome from 8.30pm till 10pm to enjoy a Rock’n’Roll night out! The concert and exhibition will be open to the public during the event.


John Devos


The exhibition

Arno. The Show of Life
Venetian Galleries
Ostend 8400
until 21 May 2024
Tuesday to Saturday 14:00-17:00
Sunday 10:00-13:00 – 14:00-17:00
Closed on Monday
Price €10


The book

Arno Photographs 1972-2022
by Danny Willems
Edited by Hannibal

  • 29 x 24 cm
  • 368 pages
  • Hardcover with printed edging
  • Trilingual edition DU-FR-EN
  • Quadrichromy
  • ISBN 978 94 6466 675 5

€ 64,50 Free shipping (Benelux)

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