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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ludwig Mestler

Judengasse Street, 1933, Ludwig Mestler
One of the most persistent stereotypes applied to artists (usually painters) is that of the Bohemian ne'er-do-well barely surviving in some dirty, cluttered, unheated attic, struggling, literally, to keep body and soul together. The shorthand term for such an unfortunate creature (usually male) is that of the proverbial "starving artist." We might lament such an image and I could carry on here discounting it by enumerating dozens of such artists who have gone on to overcome their circumstantial adversity by achieving eventual acceptance, even great wealth. Sometimes it happens even within their own lifetime. However, just as often, probably more often, in fact, just the opposite happens. The artist gives up, accepts some menial day job, perhaps struggling on, but more often figuratively "dying" as an artist. Drug and alcohol abuse may follow or worsen. In their weakened state, severe illness may strike. In some cases, even suicide ensues. Friends try to help but to little avail. The artist dies and is buried in a pauper's grave with a marker no larger than a stepping stone.
Ludwig Mestler
I'm not being melodramatic here. The Austrian artist, Ludwig Mestler, is a near perfect example of what I've just described. Mestler was born in 1891. He grew up in Vienna where his father was a choir singer at the Imperial Opera House under the direction of Gustav Mahler. Young Ludwig came of age showing a talent in art as well as music. Insofar as his parents were concerned, neither childhood interest seemed appropriate as the basis for a career, so they sent their son to the Technische Universität Wien (Technical University of Vienna) where he reluctantly studied architectural engineering. He graduated in 1916 with the equivalent of a Master's Degree in architecture. After three years in the military, Mestler worked for another seven years as an engineer, eventually earning as much as $80 a week.
In 1923 Mestler left Austria, sailing for the United States. Four years later he became a registered architect in New York. Shortly thereafter he married, though the union lasted only three years before Mestler deserted his wife and New York City in search of a better, more fulfilling life as an artist. Bad move. He couldn't have picked a worse time. The stock market (and virtually every other market) crashed, unemployment skyrocketed; Mestler was unable to find a job of any kind. He took this to mean he should redouble his efforts concentrating on his skills as an artist, particularly in watercolor. The major problem was, he didn't have much in the way of skills as an artist. Architects seldom paint except as a means of rendering their buildings in color. Thus most of what little work of Mestler's which survives is architectural.
Kirche im der Krim,
etching by Ludwig Mestler
Even though he'd just become an American citizen, Mestler took the next boat back to Austria where he felt what little he'd saved working as an engineer would last longer. Although he was probably right in that regard, and he apparently lived quite frugally, Mestler's studies in painting, drawing, and engraving at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, while allowing him to produce an enormous quantity of work on paper, did little to boost his career as an artist or improve his financial situation. However, Mestler was nothing if not persistent, and if fact might have eventually achieved some recognition and success except for one fact--Adolph Hitler. As an American citizen, (and more importantly, a Jew) Mestler was forced to leap from the Austrian "frying pan" only to land back into the "fire" of the American Great Depression.
This time Mestler landed in Boston where he had some modest success placing his watercolors in a couple traveling shows, even selling a few works. The problem was, Mestler had a much higher opinion of himself and his work than the Depression era art market would allow. He once turned down $250 for the purchase of one of his watercolors by the Boston Museum of Fine arts. With the advent of the WPA, Mestler was able to work and eat, but little else. When that ended, he became ill and found himself the beneficiary of public charity, which offended his sense of personal dignity. Friends found him a job, once more working as an engineer (which he hated). Despite the Depression, he quit after three months.
This time, deeming himself a failure as an artist, Mestler took up the study of his other childhood interest--music. This was about 1940. He was nearing fifty years of age--talk about your mid-life crisis! Moreover Mestler knew little or nothing about music theory. He played no musical instrument, and in any case, was only interested in composing. Despite some small successes, which did little to pay the bills, the music world proved to be little interested in Mestler's compositions. Now existing on welfare, Mestler continued pursuing both art and music, longing to get away from the city to the solitary peace of the proverbial "cabin in the woods." While the welfare people were willing to keep the "starving artist" from literally starving, they were not inclined to pay for vacations in the Adirondacks.
Mestler was reluctantly willing to accept a welfare check in order to avoid toiling at non-artist jobs. He resented furiously when friends tried to find him jobs. Yet welfare, which Mestler considered public charity, put him in a humiliating position. His sensitive nature found his situation unbearable. As time passed, Mestler grew bitter and unhappy, beset by feelings of frustration, futility and failure. Feelings of depression and paranoia evolved. During the winter of 1958-59, Mestler slipped and fell on ice, suffering a brain injury. He died soon after and was buried as a charity case. Friends took up a collection and bought him a small headstone.
It would be typical at this point to relate that following his death, Mestler's work gained the appreciation and popular acclaim he was unable to attain during his lifetime. That's not the case. Although today, his work hangs in two or three museums in the U.S., his name and work are virtually unknown in art circles. You may have noticed the scarcity of images seen here as compared to what usually accompanies my literary indulgences. That's because what you're seeing is pretty much the sum-total lot of what's to be found. Let's face it, Ludwig Mestler, despite his greatest efforts, was not a great artist, nor even a very good artist. He had some talent, and had in not been for Hitler, or had he stuck with architecture, he might have been a notable success. But the very persistent traits which allowed Mestler to endure in the face of severe adversity also caused him to stubbornly refuse to face the reality of his own limited talent and existence. There's a lesson in that for all of us.


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