The Strange Garden by Józef Mehoffer is decidedly a composition transgressing the category of a portrait depicting the artist’s loved ones. It was painted during his summer holidays in 1902 in Siedlec, a village near Kraków, where the artist went with his family. Mehoffer finished it in 1903, as the signature says. During the three subsequent years, it was publicly displayed in Vienna, St. Louis, Chicago, and Munich, where it gained the appreciation of the jurors and official awards.
The canvas depicts three people: the artist’s wife, his son, and their nanny. The axis of the composition is set by the diagonal created by the alley running into the garden. The figures emerge from the orchard alley shadowed by crowns of apple trees and approach the viewer, stepping into an open clearing dazzling with sun. The viewer’s attention is drawn by the lit figure of the naked child, cautiously treading on the soft grass, and carrying long peduncles of pink-red hollyhocks. The child is the ‘guide’ of the walk. The sun-lit boy is gleaming with reflected light exacerbating his childish charm and innocence. He is followed by the mother dressed in an elegant sapphire dress and a hat. Portrayed on the edge of the orchard, she is partially hooded in deep shadow. The lower parts of her dress are lit by the bright sun, the ruckles of the shiny fabrics are glimmering. Her head is raised and slightly tilted and she is looking in the direction or the viewer, or rather her husband, the painter. In her left hand she holds the abundant ruckles of her dress, and her right hand reaches for a branch thickly covered with fruit. In the background the viewer can see the nanny, wearing a traditional costume of the region of Kraków, and lit by a few rays of sun shining through the crowns of trees.
In the painting the ambience of full, hot summer is dominant. It is filled with the lavish green of the trees and grass, colourful flowers, the bright sun, branches sagging under the weight of ripening fruit. The range of colours stretches from green interwoven with brown and dun hues of the trees, through tones of the meadow, to bigger stains of the colours of flowers carried by the boy and radiant garlands fringing the trees. The diversified colours used to depict each figure break the fresh and cheerful tones of nature, yet the entire painting is bonded together by a particular lucidity.
A characteristic feature of the composition is the limited field of view. The viewer looks into the garden from a small distance and cannot see its boundaries. The canvas shows only a fragment of the space which seems tight and framed with amassed greenery. The figures are seen from above, yet this lifted point of view is counterbalanced by the elevation of the landscape in the background. There is an inner rhythm to the painting, peacefully and smoothly dragging the viewer into the depiction, leading his or her look from the subsequent figures and into the shadowed alley. This movement across the diagonal axis is intensified by the flowery garland stretching alongside and the rhythm of tree trunks in the distance.
This description of the harmonious composition does not include the element disrupting the peace, unfit for the scale and perspective of the depiction. It is the huge dragonfly painted onto the canvas. Although its presence in the garden is only natural, it seems to be a foreign body, unfit for the scenery and the figures (who do not even notice it). Maybe it’s the trace of the painter’s presence. In that context, its appearance and proportions could be explained by a sudden emergence of the insect right before the artist’s eyes while he was looking at his wife and son. It would be a trace of his look. The dragonfly could also be considered an element denuding the conventionality of the depiction. The insect is completely flat and doesn’t fit the painting’s space, which seems to negate the rules of its construction.
Mehoffer’s work is surprising primarily due to the juxtaposition of the realistic convention of depiction, marked by the attention paid to detail, meticulously represented greenery or women’s clothing items, with the flat, schematically drawn dragonfly whose form evokes associations with goldsmithing or stained glass. The latter connotation is particularly meaningful, as Mehoffer was gifted in working with stained glass, and much of his major artistic achievements are connected with it. The form of the insect in the painting is noticeably contoured, and the golden filling of the skeleton, abdomen and wings, divided by black lines resembling strips of lead used in stained glass panes, intensifies the effect of weirdness, catching the viewer’s eye. Perhaps the dragonfly signals the presence of the artist also this way.
The years preceding the creation of the canvas could have lead the artist to paint a work representing fulfilment and peace he was filled with, and summer vacation in a pastoral setting was an excellent opportunity to take up that theme. Scholars emphasise that Mehoffer was already an eminent artist at the time, a member and co-founder of Sztuka, an association of Polish artists, and lecturer at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts. Moreover, he was happily married to Jadwiga Janakowska, whom he frequently and eagerly portrayed. The painting is thus an expression of the affirmation of life and the pleasures offered by the surrounding world.
- Agnieszka Morawińska, Hortus deliciarum Józefa Mehoffera, [in:] Ars auro prior. Studia Ioanni Białostocki sexagenario dicata, Warszawa 1981
- Symbolizm w malarstwie polskim 1890-1914, edited by Agnieszka Morawińska, Warszawa 1997
- Wiesław Juszczak, Malarstwo polskie. Modernizm, Warszawa 1977
Author: Magdalena Wróblewska, December 2010, translated by Natalia Sajewicz, August 2016
• Józef Mehoffer
The Strange Garden
oil on canvas, 217 x 208 cm
property of the National Museum in Warsaw