Strange garden

Whatever you would like to write about Józef Mehoffer’s “Strange Garden”, everything ends with a question about a huge dragonfly filling the upper part of the composition. It is disturbing not only because of the large size, but also the reason why it was painted. What is it actually?

Let’s start from the beginning. The “Strange Garden” is a scene from a holiday rest, which the artist’s family had in a village near Krakow. Bathed in the sun and decorated with garlands of flowers, the orchard gives shelter to three characters. A son of a painter, Zbysio, whose figur is radiant in the sunlight. He walks naked on the grass and triumphantly shakes the mallows kept in his hands. Slightly to the side, his mother Jadwiga protects herself in the shade from the heat of the summer day. Whenever I look at her, my temperature rises a few degrees. Her impressive sapphire gown is pinned tightly under her chin, flowing in cascades of fabric onto a carpet of grass. It is more suitable for an evening walk in the shade of the Planty than for this hot afternoon. Last, from between the branches of the apple trees, the boy’s nurse looks at us, dressed in a regional, from Lesser Poland, outfit.

Józef Mehoffer, Strange garden, 1903, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

The realities of the garden have been given with a miniature precision, you can easily recognize such plants as clover, yarrow or plantain. Mehoffer also took care of the proper illusion of space, leading the brightened path into the orchard according the perspective’s rules. Thanks to this, we experience nature in all its glory and immediacy. The only thing that brings sudden anxiety is a flatly painted dragonfly’s figure.

First of all, it looks as if it was hovering in front of the painting, in the space in which the viewer is located. It results from dragonfly’s size, disproportionately larger than the characters in the composition. Secondly, the insect more closely resembles a man’s creation than nature’s, as if it “escaped” from a stained glass window or a sketchbook of a jeweler. The beginning of the twentieth century was the period of popularity of artistic handicrafts, which eagerly was inspired by the natural world. Mehoffer as well was not only an acknowledged painter, but also designer of the stained-glass windows for the church in Freiburg, Switzerland.

René Lalique, Dragonfly-woman, brooch, ca. 1897-98, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

Reaching for such an image of the dragonfly, the artist made his garden strange because of the disturbing appearance of the creature. In the eyes of the viewer, the dragonfly becomes the creature from both the natural world and the world of art, at the same time not belonging to either of them.

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