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by Paul Bollen

At work on a mudflat During a November storm in 1978 Geurt Busser painted a watercolour behind the dike in the Noordpolder of Groningen for the first time. Up until then, he had always painted the Wadden from the shore. The wind blew the paint across the paper and with the big brush he used it proved very difficult to get the colours in the right place. The result baffled him. His ambition to paint a world devoid of all redundancy was rewarded by the optimal workings of light. It was the fruit of a deliberate choice: a minimum of narrative means, subdued motion and faint contrasts, refraining from excessive packs of clouds, admitting no living creatures or objects, neither in the sky nor in the foreground.

For Busser , painting on the Wadden is a logical consequence of the central themes in his work: light and space. He made do in a small boat for a long time, barely keeping himself and his things dry. Yet it was in this nutshell, struggling against the elements, where he evolved into a wilful painter of reduction: the Waddenpainter who needed less and less to express all the more.
The painting landlubber became a hardened sailor and bought a real ship, a 70 years old fishing-cutter. He acquired permanent berths in the harbours of Lauwersoog and Noordpolderzijl. From the latter he sails out to his favourite spot just under the island of Rottumeroog. Unfortunately the area is closed to the public for a few months each year. Strictly speaking Geurt Busser is a professional sailor, considering his dependance on the Wadden to make a living. But the Department of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries clearly does not want to accept this ground or any other. Meanwhile the local authorities of Eemsmond, who are well-disposed towards Busser, have granted him a fishing license, including a registration number for his ship: UQ12. By this agreement he is in fact a professional fisherman and accordingly has more freedom of movement.

Busser's ship: the Hendrik

And this way, Geurt Busser became a member of the fishermen's community at the Waddensea. He labours under the same powerful rule of the tides and frequently sails at inconvenient hours to reach the right place at a practical time, to set up his workbench either on board or on the mud flats of the drained Wadden. The seafaring people are accustomed to the fact that he is not chasing after fish or shrimps. After all the painter's work expresses the unspeakable experiences of the fishermen's lives. The undertone of everything that affects the fisher folk vibrates in his watercolours: of the cheerful and the cheerless stories told in the pub. Busser seeks light, this awesome light that commands the world. Everything, the entire biosphere ranging from the skies, the waters, the mud flats and the adjacent land, to mudworms and birds, from fish, shrimps ans seals to fishermen and environmentalists. Members of the renowned local artist's society De Ploeg testified that this light is unique in Europe, as much as the lagoon itself. Busser tries to capture it by recording the colour shifts in the sky, the clouds, the horizon, water, sand and vegetation. The atmosphere, the accumulation of all light, takes up the greater part of his working surface. This dazzling hollow, sublime void full of wind and steam resulting in vast plastic nuances, grabs him by the throat time and again. This perpetually changing hemisphere, with its prevailing clouds, is also the mirror of the Wadden: of the water and sediments and of the actions of wind and tide. It is obvious that this creates a balance between the parts above and below the horizon.

Thousands of times Geurt Busser has painted watercolours in various sizes of this amphibious world, which alters with every tide. Most of his paintings land on an ever growing pile in his studio, waiting for a spectacular bonfire. But why are some watercolours more succesful than others? There can be no doubt that it partly comes down to balance. Sometimes one lacks the much desired level of clarity. It cannot possibly be the distribution of space in the lay-out. Busser uses a fixed division for every sheet of paper, consisting of around 80% sky and a narrow strip of foreground, seperated by a hairline for the horizon. Voluminous, intoxicating skies set a clear basis for every composition. These are the conveyers of light and the exponents of the force of the wind. There is a conspicuous absence of living creatures, even when Busser painted his occasional watercolours from the shore. Not a tiny shape, not even a small folded line in the sky suggesting a bird. The earth before the dawn of mankind. This thought is often one of the most fascinating aspects of his work. They are however human landscapes and seascapes. The slight silhouettes on the horizon see to that, for instance the watchtower of Rottumeroog (only those who know of it will recognize it), and sometimes the roof of a farmhouse.

Map of the Dutch Wadden

The painter has found the ideal distance to the coastline in all directions on the dead water south of Rottumeroog, around 12 kilometres or 7.5 miles northeast of Noordpolderzijl. He is hard hit by the fact that this area has been declared closed to the public for a number of months a year. And therefore one can only hope that his fishing license will enable him to work freely.

Geurt Busser has a healthy respect for the sun itself. One seldom sees the source of what he tries to capture in his work. The reason for this became clear to me one evening in July of 1991, at sunset. It was a quarter to ten. The ship had grounded on a mud flat. The typical silence of the Wadden surrounded us, perceptible between the rare cries of birds. Geurt pushed the curtain of a cabin window aside an exclaimed in a hushed voice: "Darn it, this is really spectacular!" And as he rushed out onto the deck: "I have never been able to catch a red sun in a sky like this!". Singing (and occasionally clearing his throat) he spans a large sheet of paper across his drawing board and starts to paint feverishly. He dips his brush (Chinese deer's hairs with a goat's hairs coating, about 4 inches long and 1½ inches wide) in a rusty tin can with rust-coloured water. His palette is a children's paintbox with small cakes of paint ("I have been using a box of Marie's Watercolours for eleven years, and refilled it with small tubes of paint"). The brush flies across the paper in sheets of water. Bluish gray and purplish blue shades evoke a ragged pattern of clouds. Now and then he squeezes excess water from the brush. With a finer brush and the skill of a carpenter marking the line for his saw, he paints the horizon in a single stroke. Just above the horizon he leaves a circular blank space on the white paper. It is the place where the fast sinking ball of fire on the horizon is already emerged in a cloud of vapour. The painter has become quiet as a mouse. He looks up continually. As if he is painting what he observes. But on paper different shapes appear. The perception of the inner eye?
his greedy brush licks the vermillion of the palette, now hovers above a white spot... and lands a bit further down in the wet gray of the clouds. And so the sky and the clouds are touched by the red reflection of the sun. While the sun itself has completely disappeared, what is left of it on paper is a mere surmise of the spot where it went down.

At work on the HendrikBusser puts his brush aside, stretches the paper and goes back inside without a word, to put the watercolour down to dry.
Within half an hour it was all over and done, which is common when working on a size watercolour of 22 by 29 inches. And no (red) sun, which in reality will have reached England. Only its red glow remains on the paper.

"Red suns do not exist", says Geurt Busser, afterwards in the cabin. "It is merely an effect of its heat that we see." He seems to be apologizing. "It just did not work. See, a photograph registers a particular moment, but what I do is reflect an average image over a period of painting. The red sun did not fit in. My dynamics and methods do not allow the inclusion of such a red sun."
Was he afraid of producing a too populistic picture of a sunset? Hesitantly he says:"It would have been an ordinary football in the sky."
Perhaps it is his way of distancing himself from the famous red (rising) sun by Monet, the picture that sparked impressionism in 1874? He laughs, thinks hard and says evasively:"Some people call my work impressionist."
Busser's work has one important connection with impressionism indeed: the light is the real subject of his art. And Busser too is motivated bu the daily changing universe, of which he was made aware by the structural instability of the Wadden. Therefore he sails out time on time again to steal a new day. In one of his many printed interviews he states: "Each day has its own language, its own rhythm and its own colour. Sometimes I succeed in getting into the rhythm of the day. Then I make a good painting."

So there is no such thing as a red sun. Its essence is, especially for Geurt Busser, the blinding white of the light. "I have gone to tremendous extremes with the painting of light. The white of the paper is in fact the ultimate light."

Busser, a Frisian in heart and soul and very much reserved in showing his feelings, talks with sudden enthousiasm about one of his watercolours. Notable he does not talk about the sun itself, but about the suggestion of the sun. "Most of the light was in the middle, the horizon was fairly high. Standing close up to it, it looked like something started rotating.. This watercolour was exhibited in Drachten, at the far end of a long and narrow passage. Moving away from the painting, backwards into the hall, one got the feeling that the spot in the middle was brighter than the whiteness of the paper."
The astonishment is the magic! "I have simply discovered the very thing that tells me: This is how I am, and this is where I stand. I have my own language, my own way of telling things, and a red sun just doesn't fit in. Listen: a Papuan was walking around in New York City. He was overwhelmed by what he saw. When someone asked him what had made the greatest impression on him, he answered with delight: a pushcart on two wheels loaded with cauliflowers. That one man could carry so many cauliflowers was simply something he had never seen before."

Translation: Jeroen Roovers [j.e.roovers at][Website]

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