Editor's note: The following essay, written in September 2001, was rekeyed and reprinted on November 4, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Brauer Museum of Art, Valparaiso University and Rolf Achilles. The essay was previously included in an illustrated exhibition catalogue for the exhibition Konrad Juestel Retrospective Exhibition, held November 15, 2001 through January 6, 2002 at Brauer Museum of Art. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact Brauer Museum of Art through either this phone number or web address:



 

Konrad Juestel: Painter, Craftsman

by Rolf Achilles

 

Probably long before Vasari wrote about artists he knew and admired, there was an interested audience in the lives of artists; some probably even wrote down their thoughts but they've gotten misplaced. In the past two hundred years or so, there have been outbursts of interest in what artists do and why they do it. Throughout that time, artists themselves have wondered too. And then, of course, there is the fashion of being an artist. Being in the right locales, wearing the right clothes with a casual air of knowing, drinking the right drink, buzzing the buzz, or just declaring oneself an artist is sometimes all there is about being an artist, to many. But what really is an artist? Is it like breathing? Can anyone and everyone do it?

Meeting Konrad Juestel in his home and then walking with him up an embankment over a freshly clipped lawn to his immaculately clean studio, seemingly built around a printing press, drives these questions quickly out of mind. Others replace them. What is someone who doesn't just talk art, but does art, makes art everyday and has no glib explanation for it other than "It's what I do." What is it about an artist who just does what he does and has done so for most of his breathing life? And what is it about an artist who dips from one culture into another with the ease of a seasoned pearl diver seemingly always surfacing with a treasure. Is it will? Is it talent? Both? And what about an artist who takes up another culture, another language, another temperament? Is it natural? Have artists not for centuries changed cultures, learned to buy their groceries while aligning their new learning to their old?

Such a man, such an artist, is Konrad Juestel. Born in a year that now seems quite distant, 1924, and in Wagrain, a village nestled below the towering Dientener Berge and the Radstaedter Tavern in a valley cut by a minor tributary to the Salzach, a place made famous by the burial of a poet in 1848, Joseph Mohr. His poem Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, first sung in 1818, has since been translated into dozens of languages. In English, it is known as Silent Night.

Konrad Juestel has for many years lived on several acres of hillside in the rural bits of Valparaiso in a house he designed and built. His nearby studio is a three-dimensional painting; each outside wall is an abstraction, seemingly fending off the lure of a distant compass. While this may seem exotic, it is not, because Konrad Juestel has led a life that is based on choice as much as chance. Hearing him tell of its diversity, it may seem odd that he is here, along an edge between farmers' fields, ponds, and a university city. For all his seeming diversity, Konrad Juestel has always remained true to his calling, to create, to build, and to paint. Build and paint he has, while doing many other things of great interest.

Although it was not in harm's way, Wagrain was part of a turbulent world when Konrad Juestel was born. His grandfather ran the saddle and harness shop, while his parents managed the village's restaurant, and like all alpine village inns, it was the gathering place for everyone and any event. In the 1920s the inn must have been a sanctuary during the political storms blowing over distant Vienna, especially those frenzies of many stripes fanned by the 1918 collapse of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire. For Konrad, it was a time to learn, not from books, but from people. He seems to have learned from everyone. By the early 1930s even in an alpine village, horses gave way to automobiles and Konrad's grandfather focused on another interest, interior decoration, providing wallpaper, drapes, carpets, and upholstery to a variety of customers who had been enjoying the seclusion of Wagrain for some time.

World War 1I saw Konrad in the army, the German army, as a member of an elite ski patrol on Mt. Blanc, in the French Alps. After being a prisoner of war for some nine months, Konrad returned to Wagrain and his parents' inn. Here he met his future wife, Cristel (born 1929, married in 1947), a displaced person whose father had been a doctor with his own hospital in Poland hard on the Ukraine.

All the while his interest in drawing and painting grew. And before the iron curtain settled hard, he traveled as much as was possible in post-war Europe. Trips took him to Latvia as well as Italy. Moving to Salzburg, 65 kilometers from Wagrain, Juestel worked as a designer and painter. Entering a local exhibition proved fortunate when the most famous of Austria's artists, Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) was particularly struck by Juestel's bold painting style. Kokoschka summered in Salzburg at the time as head of a summer art school for young artists that he called Schule des Sehens (School for Seeing). The focus of the school was not on traditional academics but rather on the artist's inner vision as it saw its subject matter. This approach was an extension of Kokoschka's own vision which catapulted him into the spotlight in 1908, after meeting the great Viennese architect Adolf Loos who introduced him to Viennese society, resulting in many portrait commissions and deep psychological interpretations in an expressionistic/ realistic style. Like Juestel, Kokoschka had been a natural talent as a young artist who also cultivated his writing skills with several published plays and stories, as well as set designs. Kokoschka may have seen aspects of his youthful self when he invited the young artist to study with him at his academy, and Juestel did for several months. These months of close association with a living master who signed his work OK helped Juestel find his own artistic voice and a role model of sorts. It may just be this contact with Kokoschka and the energy he conducted into various art forms, including several significant set designs in the 1950s, that led Juestel to take up the life he soon did.

The post World War II years were difficult. Austria had been on the losing side, and much of the country was occupied by Soviet troops. Art was not one of their concerns, but it was to Austrians who remembered their land's rich traditions. Soon, exhibitions were mounted in Zurich, London, Brussels, and Paris, presenting a historical panorama from the Austrian Baroque to Makart, Klimt, and Schiele. In 1947, the first Exhibition of Modern Art was held in Vienna. Under the patronage of the French, it included works by Picasso and Braque. Many Austrians were shocked. At the same time, the French Institute of Innsbruck, some 100 kilometers west of Wagrain, held several contemporary French art exhibitions and is today recognized as one of the birthplaces of the Informal style of painting in Austrian.

By the mid 1940s, Kokoschka, who had moved from Vienna to Prague and then to London in 1938, had a major exhibition in New York in 1940, had finally found some rest along the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. With Kokoschka having often lectured on his theories of seeing color and the psychological implications of this (especially in portraiture) long before he established the Sommerakademie in Salzburg, it was specifically during the summer program that Konrad Juestel encountered and grasped the concepts most profoundly. In Salzburg, Juestel met many other artists, all eager to develop their own inner visions. His standing in Austrian art circles rose significantly when
on 6 June 1955, he was initiated into the Berufsvereinigung der bildenden Kunste Österreichs, Ort Salzburg (the Union of Professional Practicing Artists of Austria, City of Salzburg). It was a great achievement and a proud moment. As Juestel was forming his own visual expressions and working as an accredited professional artist, a chance meeting with the American interior decorator Marc T. Nielsen prompted him to think of visiting the United States. It looked promising. After all, his artist mentor, OK, had spent some time in the US. In 1956, Juestel too came to spend some time in the U.S. on a visitor's visa. Again, possibly inspired by his mentor, Juestel had a job as a stage designer in Madison, Ohio for twelve weeks. With the commission to compose theatrical flats in a pointillist style, his natural skill as a painter was quickly revealed. The lighting engineer did the rest. It was a start. Along the way he met an Italian who had a stained glass studio in Cleveland, so Juestel painted glass for some six weeks.until the studio went bankrupt. Juestel also visited New York. For several months he worked in its famed theater world, met many people, received an equity card for his work and, most importantly, sold a few paintings. As his visa expiration date got closer, he took another trip to the Midwest, this time to his wife's sister in Evanston, Illinois. While there, he happened upon an upholstery shop and, explaining his familiarity with fabrics and woodworking, found another job. Into the shop came Virginia Phillips, an associate of Marc T. Nielsen whom Juestel had met in Salzburg only a year or so before. They talked. Juestel, with his broad crafts skills honed by months of work in the U.S., was never one to push himself into the foreground. As he tells it, he was never the creative lead, the first violin directly creating his art or his craft, but he did provide what every first violin needs, an obligato, a second who backs the first with resonant depth and independent interpretive skills essential to the dialogue. So it was with Juestel. In painting, he followed the lead of Kokoschka, creatively never losing sight of it while developing his own interpretation within its palette. So, too, it was with his great craft skills. He never really wanted to own a shop, but he did his best to make the shop shine. And shine they did.

With the Evanston chance encounters and his visa about to expire, Juestel began to dream of the possibilities the United States offered him. He returned to Salzburg and his family, but could not forget his American experiences, and before long, he applied for an immigrant visa. Along with many thousands of others making major life changes in 1958, Juestel, sponsored by Marc T. Nielsen, emigrated to the United States, this time with wife Cristine and their two sons, Robert and Konrad. They moved directly to Valparaiso to work for Nielsen as a designer-craftsman. Soon, Juestel started rebuilding an old house across the street from Nielsen's and settled down to raise a family, learn the language of his adopted country, design furniture and interiors, work in wood, paint, and make graphic works. Valparaiso was home. Two more sons, Christopher and Ray, were born in Valparaiso.

Juestel's great skill in understanding the special needs of specific materials and adapting them was put to use designing wallpapers, drapes, furniture, repairing ancient Japanese lacquered screens or Baroque sideboards -- in short, everything in any period desired in fine domestic and office interiors by Marc T. Nielsen's clients. Ever since his childhood days in Wagrain, Juestel has understood leather and to this end, he created a series of murals that won him a coveted American Society of Interior Design award in 1962. Besides having paintings and prints in several of Austria's great museum collections and having been recognized as an important native son by that country, Juestel's singular achievement in the United States is probably the design of the interior and the making of all the furniture for a library in Frankfort, Indiana,

While working full time for Nielsen's, Juestel continued to paint and added copper plate and lithographic printing to his repertoire, With a steady opportunity to exercise his skills, he could focus on the obligato position he had always nursed. Not screaming into the forefront of any art or crafts scene, Juestel quietly practiced what Kokoschka had taught. In the manner of 1950s Expressionism, a school of painting and thought to which he loosely adhered, Juestel laid down paint with great certainty, dashing here, then there, colors chosen quickly from a broad range. Juestel was not interested in the exact representation of what he saw, a camera could do that, but inspired by his mentor, Kokoschka, he placed colors such that they made the mind know the image and feel the scene without actually seeing it. As a result, his paintings have a certain lush severity in the often sharp divisions of tones, supported by corresponding abrupt changes in contrasts. There is something of another great master in the work, Max Beckmann. Juestel paints in a distinctly German tradition. While happy and cheery, there is nothing decorative in Matisse's sense in Juestel's paintings. Even when the paintings show bright beach scenes or beautifully composed flowers studies, Juestel's consummate sense of color lures the viewer into a security that is only a facade. Much the way the lead of the first violin is a solo performance until the obligato fills the air, so Juestel's bright facades lure the viewer into something of a joyous abyss, only to be drawn into the full pleasures looming behind. Though this may appear somewhat dark, it is very joyous in the same way Beethoven's chorus drowns out the lush sounds of the orchestra with "Freude, Schöner Götterfunken." Very Austrian. Very Expressionist. Very Konrad Juestel. And all this in rural Valparaiso. What a treat for the Midwest.

About the author

Rolf Achilles is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Curator of the Smith Museum of Stained Glass at Navy Pier, and a widely published independent scholar. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago.

 

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