The lines along the road

Who doesn’t remember from their childhood those self-imposed assignments, for instance to only step on the paving stones themselves and not on the joints between them, or to cover a given distance within a predetermined number of steps? As a child you are cycling down a road along a row of trees, and from any given tree you have to reach the next one in exactly eight pedal turns-that kind of things. At first you have to try really hard, but soon it becomes a natural thing. You go from tree to tree in a regular rhythm, thinking about other things or even daydreaming as you go.

If you have acquired such sense of rhythm in your childhood, you never loose it. You are driving a car at night and put on some very rhythmical music, a minimalist piece by Philip Glass for instance , and experience how you pass the streetlights in exactly the same rhythm as the music. It is such thoughts that Cécile van Hanja’s paintings can evoke. Her images of modern architecture are based on a rhythmical pattern of verticals and horizontals serving as a self-imposed framework for her compositions.

In one of her paintings it seems as if she has ‘zoomed in’ on the façade of a modern office building. The outlines are not visible. We see an articulation of windows and wall sections. The regular rhythm of horizontals and verticals, which looks like it could go on endlessly, has a comforting and meditative effect. They are like staffs and bars between which a melody might form. In this case , it is the sky sections reflected in the windows, like transparant, blue-grey strips passing briefly, altemately rising and subsiding, that form the melody.

One of the most striking characteristics of Cécile van Hanja’s paintings is their transparant, layered structure. Thin layers of acrylic paint allow the colours underneath to shine through. It is not until the third or fourth layer that oil paint is added. The first , most irregularly painted layer remains visible in several areas. A fine example is presented by a second painting of a façade, in this case featuring an entrance area. It is precisely because of the thin , transparant painting which leaves underlying layers of colours visible, that it does not become a static image of impenetrable walls. It seems as if the façade consists of parts that come forward and recede. The large window sections in between may reveal something of the interior, in vibrating neon light.

If we enter we may easily get lost. And there is no one to give us directions. The interiors may evoke confusion in an Escher-like way. Where is inside, where is outside? Walls are transparant or reflect an opposite wall. Staircases and banisters offer little to go by. We are no longer on solid ground. We get confused by the perspective lines and vanishing points, like rational benchmarks leading us to an irrational and intuitive way of thinking. We are forced to only experience, accept a given space, without being able to reason it out.

Sometimes we may recognize an architectural milestone, such as the German pavilion in Barcelona, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1929. The actual building, constructed from precious materials such as onyx, travertine and marble, seems to be just the occasion for this almost immaterial composition in various watery shades of blue and grey.

And then there are cityscapes. We see a big city by night. The buildings look like pieces of scenery, set out for the next performance-but there is not an actor in sight. Unnatural neon light in indefinable, fluorescent colours makes the buildings stand out against the deep-dark sky like ghostly apparitions. Windows are like black holes or bathing in a poisonous yellowish green light. We find ourselves in an environment of unimaginative blocks and draughty squares where we want to leave as soon as possible. Still, the works do not contain an indictment, for beauty van be found everywhere.

It is the painterly beauty formed by colour balance, rhythm and composition. Planes and lines lead you deep into possible vistas, like markings along the road.


Aernout Hagen, author and art historian, working and living in Amsterdam.




Cécile van Hanja, Artificial landscape, 2005, 130Hx160Wx2,5cm,  Acrylic and oil on canvas