Mordecai Ardon

Symbols without significance.

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Perhaps because the stars are always brighter in the neighboring village, Ardon ran away from home at age thirteen and a half to the nearby village of Tarnow, where he believed he would find a chance to become an artist.

From Socialism to the Bauhaus to Palestine

Eventually Ardon befriended members of the socialist party, and he amused his new friends by reciting Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Milkman in Yiddish. Upon the suggestion of an actor who complimented his delivery, Ardon later moved to Berlin, where he began acting, playing several roles, including Shylock, in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.

In Berlin, Ardon met professors from the Weimar-based Bauhaus school, an avant-garde establishment featuring artists like Anni and Joseph Albers, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky.

To gain entry to the school, Ardon showed his drawing Steeple at Midnight, which depicts a church (an open door reveals a crucifixion), with a crow perched on the steeple. The drawing employs several Kabbalistic symbols, from a rooster to the staircases that personify time--all exploring the notion of tikkun chatzot, the idea that God converses with the righteous at midnight.

Ardon remained at the Bauhaus until it relocated in 1924, one year after he married his wife Miriam. From Weimar, the Ardons traveled back to Berlin, and escaped to Palestine in 1933, though Ardon would have preferred Paris. He wrote, "shipwrecked, I landed in Jerusalem."

Jerusalem's Gray Becomes a Colorful Spark

When he first arrived in Palestine at Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, Ardon complained he was "unable to see color--everything was gray."

But the grayness did not last long. "For Ardon the streets of Jerusalem evoked memories of childhood," wrote Michele Vishny in Mordecai Ardon (Abrams, 1973). "In the Orthodox Jew who lived in the Mea Shearim district he saw himself as a boy, with his little hat, caftan, and side curls. It was the landscape, however, which engraved itself upon his mind and heart. As he walked through Jerusalem's hills he felt a mystical attachment to the earth."

Ardon joined the faculty of the Bezalel Academy, Israel's renowned art school, in 1935 and became director five years later. From 1952 to 1963, he served as artistic advisor to Israel's Ministry of Education and Culture.

More significantly, Ardon began contemplating the nature of the Jewish artist. In his 1949 essay "The Artist and the Earth," Ardon reflected, "It will happen that the Jewish artist, at first, will go out naively beyond the wall of ancient Jerusalem... And suddenly the view of the Kidron Valley will be revealed to his eyes--revealed in all its primal state. And sometimes the artist will stand overwhelmed, almost afraid, will stand as though petrified ... A first meeting takes place between the two [the artist and the earth]--and it is primal."

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Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at, welcomes comments at He lives in Washington, D.C.