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Abstract

My study of Józef Mehoffer’s famous painting Strange Garden, 1903, represents a departure from the polemics that argue that it was meant to depict the artist’s happy family life. I am not saying that the painter lacked happiness, only that his painting had another meaning. In my analysis of the structure of the image, I refer to the distinct painterly treatment of the dragonfly, as compared to the garden and the figures, often remarked upon by art critics and researchers. By focussing on the relationship between the depicted scene and the surface and boundary of the picture, and thus on the identification of the strictly painterly aspects of the work, my analysis led me to the conclusion that the painting contains a coded reference to the biblical story of the Creation of the world and of man’ s salvation. The woman picking an apple can be interpreted as Eve, whilst another woman in the background serves as her mirror image, and as indicated by the withered branches, represents the figure of humanity marked by mortality as a consequence of original sin. The figure of the naked boy radiating his “own” light can be interpreted as the child born of Mary – the New Eve – the miracle child bringing salvation. The elements connecting these three characters and stages of the holy story are garlands of flowers, which I interpret as inspired by the garlands of flowers in the early modern representations of Virgin Mary (among others by Jan Brueghel the Elder). The dragonfly, which does not fit in with the rest of the scene, almost as if it were added later, can be read as an allusion to a new way of defining Nature, which came into conflict with the biblical interpretation during the 19th century following the emergence of theories of evolution, in particular Charles Darwin’s ideas. The dragonfly was most probably inspired by illustrations in contemporary books on natural sciences. The dispute between Christian doctrine and Darwinism, well-known to Mehoffer, presented the most serious challenge to the human mind at the time of Strange Garden, comparable to the Copernican revolution. The present painting is an outstanding pictorial testimony to the spiritual condition of the contemporary man.
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