Mordecai Ardon

Symbols without significance.

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But Does This Make A Jewish Artist?

Ardon said he always wondered why Eden had only two trees (the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life). "I think there was a third one between the two," he wrote. "It was the 'Tree of the Secret,' perhaps the 'Tree of Mystery' ... The standpoint of the artist is between knowledge and life."

This mystery arose in Ardon's work as light and colors, which he held to be synonymous. He was influenced by Rembrandt's "hidden light," which he related to the mystical light of Jerusalem. The Gates of Light (1953), a green painting clearly inspired by Bauhaus painter Paul Klee, contains Kabbalistic forms of sefirot. Ardon included several birds derived from the medieval Bird's Head Haggadah. Kabbalistic symbolism also surface in The Story of a Candle (1954), and perhaps in other works like Eve (1963), Stones of the Ancient Wall (1962, one stone resembles a hamsa) and Sinai (1967), which features the biblical Golden Calf and Bronze Serpent).

Indeed, at first glance, much of Ardon's art seems outwardly mystical. But in response to an email, Ora Ardon, the widow of Mordecai's only son, Michael, warned about ascribing too much religiosity to her father-in-law's work. "Ardon was an Atheist and declared his Atheism publicly many times," she wrote. "He painted several paintings based on Kabbala subjects, because he liked their poetic contents and the graphical drawings of the sefirot (God's mystical attributes). But he did not like mysticism. In spite of his protests, he was, and is, often described as a Jewish mystic. Please do not make this mistake."

Of Ardon's other Jewish-themed work, Missa Dura (1958-1960), which means "hard mass," might be his most important. The triptych--painting in three parts, often used in Christian art to juxtapose patrons and saints--references the Holocaust in one panel, titled "Kristallnacht." Although the panel more literally includes spaghetti-like strings and bowling pins, the forms seem smashed, like the shards of glass from storefront windows destroyed during Kristallnacht. In the bottom right corner, the top rung of a ladder creeps into the painting, representing the ladder of Jacob's dream, in which administrating angels ascended and descended. The first panel, "The Knight," refers to Hitler, who fancied himself a knight of the Reich.

It is hard to question Ora Ardon's claim that her father-in-law should not be considered a mystical or religious artist. But it is also hard to deny the importance of Ardon's use of symbolism and mysticism in his work. Many Jewish artists before Ardon depicted the Holocaust or explored Kabbala, and doubtless many will continue to do so. But where many artists tried to use their art to solve questions of evil and mysticism, Ardon brought the Bauhaus school's matter-of-fact approach to his works. He may not have sought to be a Jewish artist, but just by grappling with such difficult, complicated topics, he shed light on new aspects of Jewish and Israeli experiences and texts.

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Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.