Obituary: Mordecai Ardon
Saturday 18 July 1992
MORDECAI ARDON was Israel's best-known artist internationally and was instrumental in forming a bridge between leading European art movements and Palestine in the early Thirties - at a time when Palestine was a far outpost of the Ottoman Empire.
Ardon was born Max Bronstein in Tuchow, Poland, in 1896, to an impoverished family, one of 12 children of a religiously observant Jewish watchmaker. Having run away from home at the age of 13 he wanted to go to Vienna but circumstances and the First World War prevented him. After the war he set out for Paris but could not afford the journey and found himself in Berlin instead. He first pursued a career in acting, studying under the renowned Max Reinhardt. But the call of art was too strong and he applied to the Bauhaus school, where his submission piece for the introductory course caught Paul Klee's immediate attention: it was the beginning of a long-lasting friendship.
Bronstein was taught by Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Klee and Johannes Itten. Itten paid great homage to his former pupil when he left the Bauhaus to set up his own art school in Berlin, and invited Bronstein to teach there. Another important influence was Professor Max Doerner, under whom he studied for three years in Munich from 1926. Doerner acquainted him with the methods of the Old Masters: making his own colours from pigments and binding them with linseed oil, a method that he applied and used to the end, painting with tempera, and glazing layer by layer.
In Berlin Bronstein numbered Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht among his friends; like them he was a Communist and he even devised a cartoon strip to explain Marx's Das Kapital to the working man. Bronstein's involvement with Communism forced him to leave Berlin and he went to Prague. Through strange circumstances he ended up in Jerusalem in 1933 where, he said:
It seemed to me that I recognised every stone. I walked down the back streets on the way to the Wailing Wall and suddenly I found that religious mystery which I had sought elsewhere in vain. And suddenly after all those years in Germany . . . I became myself again - Mordecai Bronstein from Galicia, who went out into the world searching for a place where he could express himself. From the age of 13 until now I had sought it - and yesterday I found it . . . I forgot all that I had learned. It was as if I had suddenly been bequeathed the inheritance I awaited . . . as if I had to continue from the time I was bar-mitzvahed and ran away to seek something blindly . . . They spoke to me in Hebrew and I understood even though I had not heard a word of Hebrew since I was 13. Everything rose to the surface again and I returned to the same point: to begin everything anew.
He changed his name to Mordecai Ardon and became a Palestinian citizen in 1936. His relationship with Israel was always a very complex one. At the beginning it was the physical earth:
The black earth, ploughed and furrowed, perforated and split with the smell of midday on which the artist must learn to walk and breathe its dry heat . . . This landscape is so familiar . . . but that's impossible . . . he has just arrived from abroad . . . Something glitters in the artist's eye and heart. What? An ancient memory.
The relationship with the fabric of the earth was the second and most important stage of his artistic development. As he put it so aptly, 'The artist has become earth through a primordial contact with his people.' In other words, he attempted to take possession of the land through his art, through the eyes of his soul, rather than copy its physical form.
The harsh light in Palestine was something that took him five years to conquer. However, he did not feel that landscape was necessarily the way he wanted to express his country. The essence, from then on, lay in signs and symbols and, as with Klee, these signs and symbols form a bridge between the known and unknown making the invisible visible. With Ardon this went much deeper, partly for religious, and partly for mystical reasons. The religious aspect was the spiritual Jewish humanity and the mysticism, originating in the cabbala. Another frequently occurring motif is clocks, which came from his childhood. All his paintings from the 1930s on are rich in using certain recurring symbols.
Contrary to popular belief, Ardon was not an abstract artist. He would start off with drawing representational, realistic objects on the canvas and gradually they become abstracted during the process of painting. For him, this is one of the two most important elements, the other one being colour. His palette, which he said was 'the mother of the picture, its birthplace and at once its cradle', teems with exuberant, life-enhancing colours. This applies even to paintings about the Holocaust, a subject that had stayed with him for many years.
One of his most important works on the theme of Holocaust is 'Missa Dura' (1958-60), which is in the permanent collection of the Tate Gallery in London. The first panel, entitled 'The Knight', depicts Nazi Germany; the central and dominating panel is on the subject of 'Kristallnacht', and the third concentrates on the victims and is called 'House Number Five' - a house located in a concentration camp in which is trapped a faceless figure, number 167345. The only creature that escapes, on the right hand bottom of this picture, is a mouse - symbolic of Jews hiding in cellars and sewers.
Ardon was awarded the Unesco prize at the Venice Biennale in 1954 and for quite a number of years he received more recognition in Europe than his own country - rather like David Hockney in Britain. Even this success and offers of support from galleries did not persuade him to abandon his teaching career and devote himself to full-time painting, as he did not want his work to be compromised in form or content. It was only after he retired, at the age of 67, that he took up painting full-time, and his association with the Marlborough Gallery in New York and London dates from this time. In 1965 he was the first Israeli artist in residence of the newly created Cite Universitaire in Paris. And though this was meant to be a six-month stay he was so well liked that he stayed for 25 years.
The first 15 years after his retirement were divided between Paris and Jerusalem but after his wife's death in 1981 he lived mostly in Paris. His long stay there enabled him to look at his homeland from a distance and react to events in Israel and the Jews more clearly. Thus in 1974 he painted a triptych symbolic of the Yom Kippur War and in 1977 another one entitled Entebbe. His last triptych, sold before being exhibited, was based on Hiroshima and was executed in 1989.
Towards the end of his life it was the message of peace which became the focus of Ardon's work. He was addressing his work to war-weary Israel, which had become involved with Lebanon. This was the theme of one of his most important later works - the stained-glass window he created for the Hebrew University National Library called Isaiah's Vision of Eternal Peace. It took two years to complete, in Rheims, and is one of the largest stained-glass windows ever made. Ardon, then nearly 90, participated actively in its execution but this was by no means his last work, as he exhibited 20 new works at the Marlborough Gallery in London in 1987.
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