Mordecai Ardon

Symbols without significance.

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Images reprinted with permission from the Ardon Estate.

Mordecai Ardon's painting Sarah (1947) depicts the biblical matriarch in a blazing red dress, amidst a sea of blue-purple cloudy forms. Sarah's arms reach for her face, but they more closely resemble animals' claws readying themselves to tear her face apart. The anguish is appropriate. Sarah is standing over her son Isaac, who is bound and ready for slaughter.

Richard McBee has suggested that Ardon's Sarah "is an early Israeli reaction to the Holocaust that harnesses the biblical metaphor of the tragic outcome of the story of the Binding of Isaac (The Jewish Press, June 6, 2006)." McBee cites a rabbinic text which, altering the Bible's account, tells of Abraham actually sacrificing his son, a perfect fit for Ardon's reference to the Holocaust. "The shock kills Sarah, just as the horrible reality of the millions slain in the Shoah extinguished the faith of untold thousands."

Ardon (1896-1992) has been called "Israel's greatest painter," and whether this is true (Israel has produced many phenomenal artists, including E. M. Lilien and Hermann Struck), he mixed a modern mode of paint application (bold and heavy) with a love of the European Old Masters, such as da Vinci and Rembrandt. This aesthetic marriage of the old and the new resonated in post-Holocaust Palestine.

Racing Against Time

Ardon, born Mordecai Eliezer Bronstein in Tuchow, Poland, was not supposed to be an artist but a watchmaker like his father. His first experience with art came when he observed a Jewish painter named Roth (his last name is lost) painting a lion, tiger, deer, and eagle in his synagogue. (The animals are Jewish symbols for ideal attributes of the diligent worshiper's efforts to rise in the morning for prayer: for example, the lion's strength and the deer's speed.) Seeing the young Ardon copying his forms on a pad of paper, Roth descended his ladder and admired the drawings so much he pressured Ardon's father to enroll the young boy in an art class.

This was not the last of the pressure that Ardon's father endured. When Ardon showed promise in his studies, his teacher lobbied his father to send the young man to a local monastery to study Greek and Latin. Ardon's observant father--who enjoyed regaling his son with Hasidic tales--reluctantly agreed, but he insisted that Ardon receive a formal Jewish education of Torah and Talmud, as well.

As a young child, Ardon created paper soldier cutouts, which one writer speculates were perhaps "made to protect him ... against all of the demons and witches that people Jewish folklore." Ardon developed a certain reputation for this sensitivity to mythology, and his eleven siblings called him sterngucker or stargazer.

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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.