Civil War commemorated through art
by Amanda Stegall
Apr 10, 2011 | 2894 views | 0 0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Artist Mort Künstler tells the news media about his painting “Angel of the Battlefield,” which is part of a special Booth Western Art Museum exhibit entitled “Mort Künstler’s Civil War Art: For Us The Living.” 
SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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Mort Künstler's passion for art is not only obvious through the visual details in his work, but also in the animation of his personality. "All I ever wanted to do was make a living painting pictures," said the historical artist during a media interview at the Booth Western Art Museum. "I have achieved infinitely more than I ever dreamed I would."

Participating in the celebration of the 150th anniversary for the Civil War, the Booth has opened an exhibition highlighting Künstler's portrayals of the chaos. The museum's Civil War gallery is home to Künstler's "War is Hell" and holds the same name as the signature piece. This exhibition, titled "Mort Künstler's Civil War Art: For Us the Living," will be open until Sept. 4.

"Back when I found the Civil War, it was like a pleasure because I had been doing a lot of Western paintings and epic events in American history, and I was very successful at it," Künstler said, reflecting on the early days of his career, "and when I discovered the Civil War I found that there were literally millions of events that were never recorded. The artist is really the only one who can come up with something exciting. [When you take] a bunch of little sentences that don't mean anything at all, it becomes a very dramatic picture."

While working with National Geographic, Künstler was introduced to the American war. In working to ensure accuracy, Künstler stated that "they spared no expense" and he visited several museums and battle sites.

"I had to go to Baltimore to a museum and find out how to take these [train] engines apart, how do you put them together, how were they transported, what was necessary," Künstler said, describing the tedious process and the intensity of the research required for accuracy. "I climbed the step ladder to get to the angle I wanted, and it was another one of these chores where it just became impossible."

When creating the image of well-known figures this artist does not follow a photograph as his guide. "I get as familiar as I can with the person and look at as many photos as I can, but the knack I have, I think, is the studying of those portraits," Künstler said. Instead of simply copying the photograph into his art, Künstler will create a clay sculpture in the vision of the photo. This technique allows the artist to choose which angle the person will be viewed from, and lighting can be changed at the artist's discretion.

Continuing his comments on precision, Künstler stated that accuracy is always important. "It has been a driving factor for me," he said, "and at this point in time-- you know the 150th anniversary, in this age of a communications revolution-- an awful lot of people can check up on you very easily."

Taking the accessibility of information into consideration, an extra level of difficulty is established. "My best pictures, from my standpoint, are the most difficult," Künstler said. "I'm twisted in what makes it a good picture . . . [so] I don't see the favorites the way other people do."

After discovering the time period and numerous events to depict, Künstler said he wanted to create the best portrayal of Gettysburg ever made. "It turned out people call it that," he said, "but what a tough road to go down." While researching the war, less common written recordings were brought to light and Künstler humorously stated that these events had never been portrayed before and he reacted saying, "Wow, what an easy way to do that because I'm automatically doing the best one ever done, the first one ever done, but also the worst one ever done." Almost every picture he paints now details an event that has never been visually shared.

So what makes a painting "good"? Künstler's view lies in the passion and dedication of the artist.

"I think that talent has a lot to do with it but the drive to the love of it does the trick," he said. "Either you do it to make a living or you do it because you feel like you can do it better than it's ever been done. How many times can you do a western painting, how many times can you do a lone cowboy going over the mountains on a pack horse? Unless you feel you're going to do it better than anyone else did."

The exhibition includes 40 major paintings and 80 of Künstler's preliminary sketches. A fully illustrated book, bearing the same title as the exhibition, is available in the Booth Museum store for $35. For more information about the exhibition, visit the museum website at or call 770-387-1300.