Mordecai Ardon – In Memory of Stefan (1972)

A fiery sphere. A horizontal line. Don’t stare too much into Mordecai Ardon’s Red Sun or you will get blind spots and reconsider your childhood drawings as masterpieces. Maybe your social media feeds, with their unverified yet ubiquitous quotations of Picasso, were right after all: every child is an artist.

Mordecai Ardon - Red Sun 1972
Mordecai Ardon – Red Sun (1972), oil on canvas. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Ardon, a Polish-born Jewish artist who emigrated to Germany, and then – after his art was deemed as “degenerate” in 1933 – fled to present-day Israel, learned the language of abstraction from Bauhaus artists like Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky during his years in Weimar. Their influence was powerful and undeniable. With its childlike naiveté, it’s hard to look at Ardon’s art and not be instantly reminded of Klee’s works. But although both Kandinsky and Klee were wonderful teachers, the latter having the most enduring influence on his art, one of his most important lessons at the Bauhaus School came from Johannes Itten, today famous for his color theories.

Reminiscing about Itten, Ardon describes him as “a genius as a teacher, much more than as a painter. He had not only a philosophical viewpoint, but his viewpoint appealed to us very much, the way he makes something near you. […] He came one day and said, ‘We want to draw a tiger, and you will begin it this way. You know what a tiger is, first, you have to growl like a tiger. And then suddenly, he says, ‘Now!’ In a minute we make a tiger. His way was to shock us and to make us to forget all things we have seen, to bring out the fast feelings. […] Itten was for us this magician that makes us free. He frees something in us. All of the other masters, even Klee, and Klee was a good man, was suspicious about Itten’s method. For us it was something very wonderful.”

Capturing the essence of a subject in a time-constrained fashion, so as not to let reason stand in the way of the most basic visual representations, was a lesson Ardon would never forget, applying it consistently in his paintings over the decades. This aesthetic is similar to how a child perceives the world, with the sun as a circle, and the field a rectangle, as you can see in Red Sun.

And while Klee, Itten and all the other masters – for Bauhaus teachers were called such – helped Ardon forge his artistic style, as chance would have it, there was another consequential meeting for the Jewish artist at the Bauhaus School during the early 1920s – his encounter with Stefan Wolpe.

Bauhaus (literally translating as “building house”), with its multifaceted approach to creative expression encompassing fine arts, arts and crafts, graphic design and architecture, attracted the most diverse pupils who excelled in various mediums and fields. Among them was Stefan Wolpe, a German-born Jewish musician, whom Ardon quickly befriended.

Although, technically, Wolpe wasn’t a pupil but a guest there, he was welcome to attend the lectures and classes, an opportunity which he took joyously, with the lightheartedness of someone merely playing, and lacking the inhibiting expectation of turning said play into a career.

“And he came to the Bauhaus and tried to paint, to make some drawings,” Ardon recalls. “I don’t remember if they were really good. It was like an amusement. It wasn’t really his way of expression. His way of expression was music. He was a musician and tried to make music at the Bauhaus too, especially because Klee was a wonderful violinist and very interested in modern music.”

Like Ardon, Wolpe was particularly impressed by Itten and his teaching style. The two new friends hit it off quickly, soon enough cementing their friendship with shared political beliefs. At Wolpe’s suggestion, they both became affiliated with the Communist Party in Berlin. But once the Nazis came into power, the two friends’ ethnicity and political creed put them in a perilous situation. In 1934 – one year after Ardon – Wolpe also moved to present-day Israel, in search of his roots. However, failing to discover what he was searching for, he left the country four years later and settled in the US.

It was in the US where 70-year-old Wolpe also drew his last breath – in New York City – following the slow decline brought on by his Parkinson’s disease. That same year, a heartbroken Ardon painted an endearing piece which he dedicated to his longtime friend.

Mordecai Ardon - In Memory of Stefan (1972)
Mordecai Ardon – In Memory of Stefan (1972), oil and pen and black ink on canvas. Private collection

In Memory of Stefan (zoom in) is a strange artwork, curious in its simplicity, with references to the Kabbalah, which Ardon frequently employed. The key to the whole composition lies in the ladder in the foreground, flanked by two F-holes, an allusion to Wolpe’s identity as a musician and composer. The ladder appears often in Ardon’s later works and it signifies the communion with the divine. In religion we have Jacob’s ladder embodying this connection. The two red circles above it symbolize the spheres of Heaven, with the implication that paradise is Wolpe’s new home in the afterlife. Red dots are scattered like stars throughout the painting.

It is also possible that Ardon may have borrowed the ladder – whether consciously or unconsciously – from his mentor, Paul Klee. Klee used it in his art to mark man’s inherent desire to transcend himself and his earthly bondage by taking nature’s lessons and, in the process of artistic creation, reveal cosmic truths, the ladder bridging the gap between man’s de facto corporeality and his aspiring spirituality.

Writing in his journal in December 1903, Klee lays out the dichotomy defining human beings, who are caught in between the blissful ignorance of animals and the assumed wisdom of the gods, both of these states, in their absolute form (not knowing/knowing), being preferable to the pain of human self-awareness:

“There are two mountains on which all is bright and clear: the mountain of the animals and the mountain of the gods. But between them lies the shadowy valley of humankind. When we gaze upwards – we who know that we do not know – we are seized, as in a premonition, with a restless longing toward those which do not know that they do not know and those which know that they know.”

Man’s desire to ascend from the “shadowy valley of humankind” is memorably illustrated in Klee’s The Limits of Understanding, where an intricate structure of architectural lines, culminating with two ladders, reaches towards an immobile, floating red sphere, a concept quite similar – though more complex – to Ardon’s ladder and spheres in In Memory of Stefan. As a Surrealist, Klee knew that some truths were ungraspable to the reason-based human mind.

Paul Klee - Grenzen des Verstandes
Paul Klee – The Limits of Reason (Grenzen des Verstandes), 1927. Oil, watercolor and pencil on canvas. Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich

The other symbols in Ardon’s commemorative painting are not as straightforward, including the mysterious outline of a Pac-Man-like shape. And then there are the red spots in the foreground, mirroring the two spheres above, like scattered petals or drops of blood. The red, wavering horizon line tentatively separates the earthly from the divine, foreground from background, life from death. Even the ladder is placed at an angle, and its rungs are skewed, as if to say, “Don’t be fooled. There isn’t a straight road to Heaven.”

But just like in Red Sun, what impresses most is the texture Ardon achieved with his short and multi-directional brushwork. Using dark brown and yellow he gives the canvas a texture reminiscent of hay, heartwarming in its simplicity and earthiness, like a rough parchment made of straw expressing the most essential truths.

I can’t help wondering why Ardon only painted two red spheres instead of seven, since the Kabbalah mentions seven heavens. Was that an allusion to his deep friendship with Wolpe – two friends, two beating hearts, finding in each other the realms of Heaven?

Seen through this lens, the Red Sun shines in its loneliness. Although Ardon incorporated Hebrew letters and mystical symbols in his art, often for their visual and storytelling power, he was not a religious man. By some accounts, he was an atheist. I’d rather think that he created Heaven for his longtime friend with his demiurge powers as an artist, and reserved a sphere for himself, so that they’d be together in the afterlife, too.

Or, even, that paradise is within reach during our lifetime where true friendship is concerned:

“He was the only friend that I had. He was the only one,” Ardon said about Wolpe. “You see, the human being is not born alone. There is always a group of human beings who are thrown out. This group are real friends. You have colleagues—friends, but they are not with you together. Stefan was thrown with me together, so he was the only friend. The others, I have a lot of friends, I have admirers, I have people that are with me, but they not thrown with me together. He was from this group.”

Perhaps we’ll never know what Ardon really meant with this piece, just as most of his art eludes interpretation. But something tells me that no Red Sun should shine alone, and no man or woman should go through life without a kindred companion either.

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