By Tom Wachunas
"I learned how to compose, how to tell a story. There's no way I could have done what I did later if I hadn't had all that men's adventure magazine work." -Mort Künstler
EXHIBIT: Mort Künstler: “The Godfather” of Pulp Fiction Illustration / at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA), 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / organized by the Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY and toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC / THROUGH JULY 3, 2021 / Facemasks required–
Visit www.cantonart.org/reservetickets 330.453.7666
Tuesday - Thursday: 10 am – 8 pm /Friday - Saturday: 10 am – 5 pm; Sunday: 1 – 5 pm / Regular Admission: Adults - $8, Seniors (60+) & Students (with ID) - $6 / Children (12 & under) and Museum Members – FREE / FREE ADMISSION on Thursdays
BACKGROUND, excerpted from CMA MAGAZINE: “Mort Künstler is recognized as America’s premier painter and chronicler of authentic American history, especially noted for his incomparable renderings of Civil War events. The artist began his career, however, as an illustrator during the golden age of pulp fiction books and magazines… In a sense, he became “The Don” of illustrated pulp fiction, a title that alludes to that prodigious writer of pulp fiction, Mario Puzo, and his illustrious novel The Godfather. Puzo had a work ethic akin to Künstler’s, and the two collaborated on many assignments during their years working for Magazine Management Company, Inc. Künstler created the original visuals for Puzo’s Mafia saga, which influenced future depictions of Vito Corleone, including Marlon Brando’s iconic portrayal of The Don in the 1972 Oscar-winning film The Godfather…
Let’s start with considering three quotes. First this, from American photographer Aaron Siskind (1903-1991): “In any art, you don't know in advance what you want to say - it's revealed to you as you say it. That's the difference between art and illustration.” Next, from American writer and comic book artist Brian Stelfreeze: “I think there's art, and then there's illustration. Art comes from a deeper place.” And then this, from American painter Frank Stella: “…But, after all, the aim of art is to create space - space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration, space within which the subjects of painting can live.”
Folks have been yakking about the supposed difference between “fine art” and “illustration” for centuries. In the quotes I cited here (and there are myriad others that I could have chosen as examples), there’s the snarky hint of illustration thought to be merely something. Something diminutive and inconsequential, something shallow, something weightless. As if to categorically declare, from the highbrow pulpits of aesthetic snobbery, that art is art and illustration is illustration and ne’er the twain shall meet. To that I say balderdash and baloney, fiddle-faddle and flapdoodle, humbug, hooey, hogwash and hokum. And lest I forget, piffle and poppycock and thank you very much Merriam-Webster.
Illustration can signify many things to many people, depending upon taste and context. In the context of painting, for example, it seems to me that the practice of illustration has been too easily stigmatized as commercial entertainment. Perhaps the most laughable dismissal of illustration as art lies in the idea that illustrators lack originality because their imagery is nothing more than a translation of a written story. Tommyrot and twaddle. On that basis, why shouldn’t we write off countless representational painters through the entirety of art history - including all those beloved Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical painters of old, for example - as mere hacks?
Consider one more quote, from British illustrator Quentin Blake: “I suppose illustration tends to live in the streets, rather than in the hermetically sealed atmosphere of the museum, and consequently it has come to be taken less seriously.”
Ironic, isn’t it? Here we are, in a museum, seriously filled with “mere” illustrations. Paintings. Most of them show a marvelous mastery of the gouache medium (opaque watercolor). Mort Künstler’s compositions, drawn from stories, are exciting visual adventures rendered with stunning precision and a compelling flare for the theatrical. Come look. If you find them “entertaining,” more power to them, and to you. It’s an offer you shouldn’t refuse.