How to Paint the Sea in Alessandro Baricco’s “Ocean Sea”

Sea and art: I love to read about both. But most of all I prefer to read about the sea in art and about artists in the sea. Have you read Alessandro Baricco’s “Ocean Sea”? I was eighteen when I read it for the first time. Not my favorite writer today, I’ll be honest, and yet his magical, lyrical world swallowed me back then and the weird Almayer Inn still lingers in a corner of my heart. One of the inhabitants of the inn is Michael Plasson, the artist.

“The easel is anchored by slender cords of four stones placed on the sand. It sways imperceptibly in the wind that always blows from the north. The man is wearing waders and a large fisherman’s jacket. He is standing, facing the sea, twirling a slim paintbrush between his fingers. On the easel, the canvas.”

Each morning, when Plasson starts, he is standing on the coast, but when he is done just before sunset, the tide is high and “water has already reached his heart”. A boat comes to bring him and his easel and brushes back on land.

He is half-immersed in the sea when painting the sea. Most of the time he doesn’t paint with oil or watercolours. He paints the sea with seawater.

“The man does not even turn. He continues staring out at the sea. Silence. From time to time he dips the brush in a copper cup and makes a few light strokes on the canvas. In their wake the bristles of the brush leave a shadow of the palest obscurity that the wind immediately dries, bringing the pristine white back to the surface. Water. In the copper cup there is only water, And on the canvas, nothing. Nothing that may be seen.”

Each of the visitors at this remote seaside inn has a story of her own. Including Michael Plasson. Once he was a renowned portrait painter. “Plasson could have carried on like that for years. The faces of the rich are never-ending. But, out of the blue, one day he decided to drop everything. And to leave. A very precise idea, secretly nursed for years, carried him off.”

“To make a portrait of the sea.”

How to paint a portrait of the ever-changing sea? Where to start? Is it right to even think the sea has a face? In dialogue with Bartleboom, a professor studying waves, Plasson reveals, he struggles as an artist because he cannot find the eyes of the sea. He always starts with the eyes.

“The problem is, where the dickens are the eyes of the sea? I shall never get anything done until I find out, because that is the beginning, do you see?”

Where are the eyes of the sea? Do you have your own answer? A little boy in the book says that the eyes of the sea are ships…

“Ocean Sea” is divided into three books. Book III has chapters named after each visitor. Chapter 4 is called Plasson and is dedicated to his paintings. It’s unusual in its form – written as a catalog of 41 paintings of the sea. Written by professor Bartleboom, a friend of Plasson, who owns these paintings now. Nearly all of them are titled “Ocean sea”. Many are described as being completely white. But not all of them. For example, there is a series of four pencil sketches. This is how Bartleboom describes them:

“A simple horizonal line crosses them from left to right (but also from right to left, if you will) more or less midway up the canvas. In reality, Plasson maintained that these were four profoundly different images. He said, and I quote, “They are four profoundly different images.” My own highly personal impression is that they represent the same view at four successive different times of the day. When I expressed this opinion of mine to the artist, he occasioned to reply, and I quote verbatim, “Do you think so?”

Alessandro Baricco “Ocean Sea”. First published in Italian in 1993. This paperback edition was published by Canongate as part of the Canons series in 2019. English translation by Alastair McEwen. You can borrow “Ocean Sea” in English and in Latvian from the Sea Library.

Jūra un māksla: man patīk lasīt par abām. Bet visvairāk man patīk lasīt par jūru mākslā un par māksliniekiem jūrā. Vai ir lasīts Alesandro Bariko romāns “Okeāns Jūra”? Man bija astoņpadsmit, kad iepazinu to pirmoreiz. Teikšu godīgi, šodien Bariko nav mans mīļākais rakstnieks, un tomēr viņa maģiskā, liriskā pasaule mani toreiz aprija, un savādā Almaijera pansija joprojām glabājas kādā manas sirds kaktiņā. Viens no pansijas iemītniekiem ir gleznotājs Mišels Plasons.

“Molberts ar smalkām aukliņām noenkurots pie četriem smiltīs novietotiem akmeņiem. Tas tikko manāmi šūpojas vējā, kas aizvien skrej no ziemeļiem. Cilvēkam kājās gari zābaki un mugurā plata zvejnieku jaka. Viņš stāv, pavērsies pret jūru, un virpina pirkstos smalku otu. Uz molberta – audekls.”

Katru rītu, kad Plasons sāk, viņš stāv uz sauszemes, bet, kad neilgi pirms saulrieta ir pabeidzis, ir paisums, un “ūdens tad skalojas Plasonam pie sirds”. Pakaļ atbrauc laiviņa, lai vestu viņu, molbertu un otas krastā.

Mākslinieks, gleznojot jūru, ir pa pusei iegrimis jūrā. Lielākoties viņš neglezno ar eļļu vai akvareļiem. Viņš glezno jūru ar jūras ūdeni.

“Vīrietis pat neatskatās. Viņš turpina cieši raudzīties jūrā. Klusums. Pa laiciņam viņš pamērcē otu vara traukā un uzvelk uz audekla pāris vieglu triepienu. Otas sariņi atstāj aiz sevis bāla tumšuma ēnu, ko vējš tūlīt nožāvē, ļaujot atgriezties iepriekšējam batumam. Ūdens. Vara traukā ir tikai ūdens. Un uz audekla – nekā. Nekā, ko varētu saskatīt.”

Katram viesim šajā piejūras pansijā ir savs stāsts. Arī Plasonam, reiz slavenam portretistam. “Plasons būtu varējis tā turpināt līdz mūža galam. Bagātnieku seju jau nekad neaptrūktos. Bet kādā jaukā dienā viņš pēkšņi nolēma mest visu pie malas. Un doties prom. No galvaspilsētas viņu aizvilināja skaidra un precīza, sirds dziļumos daudzus gadus lolota iecere.”

“Uzgleznot jūras portretu.”

Kā uzgleznot nepārtraukti mainīgās jūras portretu? Kur sākt? Vai ir pareizi pat domāt, ka jūrai ir seja? Dialogā ar pansijas iemītnieku Bartlebūmu, profesoru, kurš pēta viļņus, Plasons atklāj, ka viņš kā mākslinieks cīnās, jo nevar atrast jūrai acis. Viņš vienmēr sāk ar acīm.

“Jautājums, kur, velns parāvis, jūrai ir acis? Es nemūžam nespēšu neko izdarīt, kamēr nebūšu to atklājis, jo tas ir pats sākums, saprotiet, visa sākums, un, kamēr nebūšu apjēdzis, kur tas ir, es turpināšu caurām dienām skaatīties uz šo nolādēto klajumu, nespēdams…”

Kur jūrai ir acis? Vai tev ir sava atbilde? Kāds mazs zēns grāmatā saka, ka jūras acis ir kuģi…

Romāns “Okeāns Jūra” ir dalīts trīs grāmatās. III grāmatā nodaļas ir nosauktas katra varoņa vārdā. 4. nodaļa saucas Plasons un ir veltīta viņa gleznām. Nodaļa ir neparasta savā formā – principā tas ir katalogs, kurā iegrāmatota 41 jūras glezna. Katalogu rakstījis profesors Bartlebūms pats, kuram tagad šīs gleznas pieder. Gandrīz visi mākslas darbi tā arī saucas – “Okeāns jūra”. Daudzi no tiem raksturoti kā pilnīgi balti. Bet ne visi. Piemēram, ir četru “šķietami absolūti identisku” zīmētu skiču sērija. Lūk, kā Bartlebūms šīs skices apraksta:

“Tās no kreisās puses uz labo (vai tikpat iespējams, no labās uz kreiso pusi) aptuveni vidusdaļā šķērso vienkārša horizontāla līnija. Plasons man apgalvoja, ka patiesībā skices būtiski atšķiroties. Citēju viņa vārdus: “Tie ir četri gluži atšķirīgi attēli.” Man radās iespaids, ka skicēs atveidota viena un tā pati ainava četros secīgos diennakts brīžos. Kad izteicu savu viedokli autoram, viņš atbildēja šādi: “Jūs sakāt?”.”

Alesandro Bariko “Okeāns Jūra”. Pirmoreiz romāns publicēts itāļu valodā 1993. gadā. Latviski izdots izdevniecībā “Atēna” 2003. gadā. Tulkojusi Dace Meiere. Bariko romānu “Okeāns Jūra” iespējams no Jūras bibliotēkas aizņemties gan angļu, gan latviešu valodā.

Foto: Anna Iltnere / Jūras bibliotēka

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