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La belle jardinière (ein Biedermeiergespenst), by Paul Klee
1939
oil and tempera on jute, 70 cm x 95 cm
Kunstmuseum Bern

All paintings by Paul Klee are more or less abstract, yet many of them manage to depict things. So in describing this one I don't know whether to go for the colours and shapes, or the subject and title. I'm looking at a postcard of it: what is my first impression? Abstract, with a dreamy hint of person and background, I think.

The overall effect is of colours emerging luminously from a warm brown background; or perhaps the brown is another of the lights emanating from a rich sea-green further in. In the upper half there's a kind of figure 4 in deep carmine, radiating red; this is the gardener's torso. Below that is a dome or closed semicircle, which is the gardener's skirt; this is deep indigo, radiating blue. More projections below here, thick maroon lines, represent her legs, curled out like those of Biedermeier furniture.

The title means 'the beautiful gardener (a Biedermeier ghost)'. I knew that referred to some kind of nineteenth-century furniture, but I had to look up what it looked like. Waspish waist, splayed feet, a complex mottling of woodgrain colours, and in all this the stick figure Klee painted resembles it; but the Biedermeier movement also meant something like folk art or conservatism, and this also fits the awkward, peasantish stance of the gardener, stock square in the middle of the picture, smiling, holding up something of the horticultural persuasion.

I think it's smiling, and I think it's horticultural, as this is all still Klee's near-abstract taking of lines for walks, or a dreamlike distortion. Her head has, certainly, eyes and a mouth, though it's hard to be sure which they are: it's a little rounded oblong filled with features, perhaps a hat, perhaps a wide smile, greenish on one side and brownish on the other.

And in her hand, held up, five circles within a larger thing, and the overall wash of hue here is green, so I suppose they're things from the garden. All around and behind is the wash of colour, green and brown and red, lesser regions where yellow and blue grow stronger, blending from one luminosity to another. There is pattern underneath them, swirls and contours and rows, and to the right a distinct large star, but one would hesitate, were it not for the title, to identify any of it as a garden.

And here I think is the clue, in the last part of the title, Gespenst: ghost. An earthy, probably plump gardener, no ghost, but in feel a ghost from the Biedermeier age a century before, a phantasm emerging from her green-fingered and flowery element.

The colours don't form foreground and background tonalities: they are all intense, though not all bright, and the sides and corners are only slightly more shadowed than the radiant centre. It is like the fascinating jewellery shimmer in a Symbolist painting, the lit wall of a Gustave Moreau perhaps. Higher up there is more complexity, like a mosaic or a fractal or a rose window of stained glass. Yet the colours hover over the design, rather than filling it.

There is an earlier painting La belle jardinière by Max Ernst, painted in 1923. I haven't seen a picture of it so don't know whether Klee was referring to it in his own title.

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