Artist Mort Künstler

Uploaded by usnationalarchives on 22.10.2012

Jim Gardner: Good evening. I'm Jim Gardner, executive for Legislative Archives, Presidential
Libraries, and Museum Services here at the National Archives. And it's my pleasure to
welcome you to the William G. McGowan Theater for tonight's special program with acclaimed
historical artist Mort Künstler. We're honored to have Mr. Künstler here with us tonight,
and we'll shortly welcome him and Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell
Museum, who will interview Mort on stage and take us on an illustrated journey through
his distinguished career as America's premier historical artist.
One of the things we like to do when we have an audience captured in McGowan is to tell
you about upcoming events. The -- on Wednesday of next week, September 19, at 7:00 p. m.
in this theater, we will commemorate both the 225th anniversary of the U. S. Constitution
and the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812 in one panel discussion, "The Constitution
and the War of 1812," moderated by veteran newsman Roger Mudd. The program is the 2012
Claude Moore Lecture, presented in partnership with James Madison's Montpelier. Then, on
Thursday, September 27, at 7:00 p. m., we will present the Sixth Annual Charles Guggenheim
Tribute Program, a screening of his 1979 short documentary "John F. Kennedy 1917-1963." The
film will be followed by a discussion featuring presidential historian Tim Naftali, Kennedy
Administration eyewitness, Harris Wofford, and Jay Lash Cassidy, editor of the film and
longtime friend and collaborator of Charles Guggenheim. To learn more about these and
all of our public programs and exhibits, consult our monthly calendar of events. And there
are copies for you in the lobby, along with a signup sheet so you can receive the calendar
by regular mail or email.
Tonight's program is presented in partnership with the Congressional Battlefield Caucus.
And I would like to thank our next speaker for suggesting bringing Mr. Künstler to the
National Archives. Congressman Steve Israel represents New York's 2nd Congressional District,
including the communities of Huntington, Babylon, Islip, Smithtown, and Oyster Bay. He was first
sworn into Congress in 2001. The congressman is a member of the House Leadership, serving
as the Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In March of 2012, he was
appointed to the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Council, serving with seven other members
of Congress. With a serious passion for military history, the congressman formed the Congressional
Battlefield Caucus during the 109th Congress and continues the tradition through today.
Israel has been a passionate and relentless advocate for veterans and military families
throughout his tenure in Congress. He served for four years on the house armed services
committee and has made nine visits to U. S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congressman
Steve Israel: Thank you all very, very much. Thank you, Jim Gardner, for the extraordinary
work that you do. And I know that my dear colleague Roscoe Bartlett, representative
from Maryland, is on his way. Votes just ended, so we're running a little bit late, but Roscoe
told me that he was planning to join us. It's also great to be here with Paul Hawke, who's
the chief of the American Battlefield Protection Program, and Bill Vodra from the Civil War
Trust, and my wonderful friend, who many of you may not know, but I hope you will get
to know, Tom Suozzi. Tom was a county executive in my hometown and ran for governor, did an
extraordinary job, but also has one of the deepest commitments to history and education
that I've ever seen. And he was the guy who actually introduced me to Mort. He just accompanied
me to a trip that we made to Gettysburg. So Mort being here today is nothing that I did
or, quite honestly, nothing that the Archives did, but it is everything that Tom Suozzi
did to bring him here.
I'm going to be very brief, because we want to hear from Mort. He's waiting backstage.
He's excited to come out here. And you want to hear from him and not me. So let me make
a couple of quick points to set the stage for Mort's discussion. Going to tell you a
story about how Congress operates and how I fell in love with the history of the Civil
War. I have never claimed to be the smartest member of the United States Congress, although
if you listen to some of my colleagues, you know the competition ain't that stiff. But
I do, immodestly, claim to be the most serious student of history, and military history in
particular. I'm a voracious student of military history. I wrote a book on military history,
which made history by itself as being one of the worst sellers ever on I
just love history.
And here's how I became almost obsessed with the lessons of the Civil War. I used to be
on the House Armed Services Committee, and I noticed something after several years on
that committee. Generals and admirals would come in to testify, and they would read from
their testimony, and it was usually fairly sterile and somewhat bland. But if you developed
a kinship with them, if you built a relationship with them, if they began to feel some faith
in you and have some confidence in your ability to listen to what they were saying and not
repeat it to the media, they'd give you the real deal. And so I would -- made a point
after senior military officials would testify of getting to know them, having them come
up to my office and visiting with them and having dinner with them or coffee.
And I became friendly with this one general, Gen. Bob Scales, who was the Commandant of
the U. S. Army War College in Carlisle. And he came to testify on Iraq. At the time, mostly
everything that we were doing in Iraq was going wrong. This was at the height of the
violence and the insurrection. And Bob testified, and I called him up and said, "Bob, would
you mind coming to my office and talking a little bit more about your testimony?" He
said, "Sure, I'd love to." And he came to my office and closed the door, and I thought
he was going to pull the drapes and take the phones off the hook. And he said, "Congressman,"
he said, "do you want to know what's going wrong in Iraq?" And I said, "Bob, please tell
me." He said, "Well, I would like to tell you, but I'd have to take you." And I'd just
been to Iraq literally a month before, been there nine times. I said, "General, I just
came back from Iraq. I can't go there so soon." And he said, "Oh, no, Congressman, I don't
want to take you to Iraq to understand Iraq. I want to take you to Gettysburg to understand
Iraq, because everything you need to know about strategy, doctrine, tactics, communication,
operational art, everything you need to know about Iraq, I can show you in a day in Gettysburg."
And so I went with him, and we spent a day there, and it changed my life. I mean, really,
it changed my life, because I came back understanding that the lessons of history really do repeat
themselves and guide our future.
Now, here's how Congress operates. So I decided, based on that visit, Jim, to Gettysburg, that
I was going to form the House Civil War Caucus. You know, we have caucuses on almost everything,
and that's okay. You know, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, you have areas
of interest, some arcane and some significant. If you have an area of interest, you try and
get like-minded members of Congress to focus on those areas. So I decided I was going to
form the House Civil War Caucus to teach my colleagues the lessons of the Civil War so
that they would understand what we needed to do in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
And I was getting a great response. I was getting Democrats and Republicans, conservatives,
liberals. Great response. People were signing up for the House Civil War Caucus like crazy.
And then I realized that I committed a mortal sin. I'd forgotten to ask the ranking member
of the Armed Services Committee, Ike Skelton, who was my boss on the committee, to join
my House Civil War Caucus. And that's a serious blunder, because, as you know, everything
in Congress is based on seniority. And so I found Ike on the floor one day. Some of
you may remember Ike was just the greatest military historian in the Congress and the
father of professional military education. I found him on the floor one day, and I sat
next to him; I said, "Ike -- " you know, I have, like, a total of three terms under my
belt. Ike has a total of three decades under his belt. I said, "Ike, I have formed the
Civil War Caucus, and I would like you to sign up for it." Now, Ike is from Missouri.
And he sat next to me, and he peered over his glasses, and he said, "Israel, I will
join your Civil War Caucus when you call it the War of Northern Aggression Caucus. And
so we talked about it, and we compromised, and today it is known as the Civil War Battlefield
Caucus. So you don't have to pick sides.
Final point about Mort. I have, proudly, hanging in my office his rendition of Chamberlain
at Little Round Top. Tom Suozzi and I visited Little Round Top just a few weeks ago. And
it's just a marvelous, marvelous painting of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th
Maine at Little Round Top in that moment where Chamberlain was reported to have simply said,
"Fix bayonets; charge." And when people come into my office, and I don't care who they
are -- constituents or my colleagues or candidates -- and they talk about how hard things are
and what an uphill battle it's going to be and how rough it is, I point to that painting
and say, "We got it easy. Look what they had to deal with. That's hard. What we deal with,
it's easy. If they could that, we can do this." And so I'm very happy to say that Mort Künstler
inspires me every single day and inspires my colleagues and people who come into my
office. It is a unique privilege to be able to represent Mort and to reflect his central
-- his central mission, and that is preservation. Our future is guided by the preservation of
the past, and nobody has preserved the past in more visible and more dramatic and more
compelling forms than Mort Künstler. Thank you for spending the evening with him. I know
that you're going to learn a lot. Thank you all very much.
Jim Gardner: Now it's my pleasure to introduce the participants in our program this evening.
Mort Künstler is a leading contemporary painter of Civil War scenes. His work is valued for
its dramatic intensity and for an extraordinary level of authenticity based on extensive historical
research. He studied art at Brooklyn College, UCLA, and the Pratt Institute, worked as an
illustrator for Newsweek, Saturday Evening Post, Mad magazine, and Boys' Life, and then
moved to depictions of historical topics for National Geographic. A commission from CBS
TV to do artwork for the miniseries "The Blue and the Gray" sparked his close association
with the Civil War.
Joining him on the stage this evening will be Laurie Norton Moffatt. She is director-CEO
of the Normal Rockwell Museum. Ms. Norton Moffatt is a leading Rockwell scholar and
authored "Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalog." She oversaw the expansion of the Norman Rockwell
Museum, which opened its new Robert A. M. Stern Building in 1993. During her tenure,
she has invited national reconsideration of Rockwell in the American art history canon
and initiated discourse on the role of American illustration in the nation's visual culture.
She is the founding vision behind the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, a scholar's
research program of the Rockwell Museum.
Now I'll be joined by Mr. Künstler and Ms. Norton Moffatt.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Good evening. We have an image. Well, Mort, we're going to have
a conversation tonight about your art and your life and, I think, the history of this
country. You are considered America's foremost painter of historic and heroic subjects, and
you have painted and learned the history of this nation from the Revolutionary War to
the space shuttle flying up into the sky. You've painted from the depths of submarine
on the bottom of the ocean to the moon. And you are especially known for your work chronicling
the Civil War and being a painter of America's history. So let's see where it all began,
when you were a child in Brooklyn, and how you came to be the painter of this country's
So we have some early drawings. You want to tell us about these?
Mort Künstler: Sure will. Whether I was fortunate or not, I don't know, but I was a sickly kid,
and it kept me in my room, in my bed. And this is a very early drawing that I did of
my room from the bed, as you can see it. I think I was probably about six years old at
the time. There are a few other pictures on the --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: When did you discover that you liked to draw and, you know, really
-- were you always given art supplies? How did you come to be, you know, having these
early sketches and keeping them all your life?
Mort Künstler: Well, I think that the -- I showed a talent at an early age. My father
-- the name Künstler means "artist" in German.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: "Artist," yes.
Mort Künstler: So obviously goes back, and I have my genes to be thankful for. And my
mother encouraged me. This picture we're looking at is also a childhood picture, the first
time I ever painted a picture. It was a copy of a painting that was on the wall in our
house. And for some reason, my father had original art in the house too, small little
paintings by unknown artists. And he was an amateur artist.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So when did you actually start your art training? Did you train formally
in school?
Mort Künstler: Well, I certainly did. I went through three different colleges, specializing
in art. This picture is another childhood pictures that's interesting. Growing up in
Brooklyn, I was a big Dodger fan, and I used to copy the pictures out of the newspapers
of the Dodgers, and I finally put them all together on an 18"x24" sheet, and through
some sort of circumstances, via an uncle who knew one of the ballplayers, I was allowed
into the clubhouse, and they all picked their images out and signed them. So this picture
is probably one of my most valuable paintings, because it's got the signatures of hall of
fame guys on there.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: It's doubly famous.
Mort Künstler: I did a whole bunch of them for three years running.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Well, I understand your father wanted to raise you both as an
artist and an athlete. How do you feel -- or do you feel that your athleticism helped you
understand the adventure scenes that you came to paint later in life?
Mort Künstler: I think that I certainly had an athletic career, but I really don't know.
I don't know. I think I have a feel for action, without a question. Again, these pictures
we're looking at here, the one before in the suit of armor was a picture that I painted
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was going to Pratt. And the following picture
shows me on a trip where I went to Mexico and painted a watercolor every day. I rode
around Mexico on a bicycle, as a matter of fact, and stopped on the road. Here's another
watercolor. That was done in Veracruz, as I remember. And I ended up very adept at watercolor
at the end of the summer. I did at least one watercolor every day.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: You did a picture a day?
Mort Künstler: I was in great physical shape, besides, because Mexico is just up one mountain
and down another, and up and down. This is another watercolor from Mexico of the city,
or town, of Taxco. That's a very famous spot. It was a very famous tourist spot at one time.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So when you finished your years, your time in Mexico, and finished
art school, you began to work for the magazines. Tell us a little bit about what illustration
art was like at that time and the publishing world and for artists and what kind of commissions
you received.
Mort Künstler: Well, the natural thing I wanted was to paint pictures for a living.
It was the only goal I had. And I just figured out that if I went for the least expensive
art, or looked and saw where art was done where I felt I could do better; I would show
my samples to the art director. And at that time, the men's adventure field was burgeoning,
you might say, and that had a whole hierarchy of its own. At the top of the line was True
magazine. It had writers -- this is a True illustration, and illustration for True. This
is the very first one, as a matter of fact. And they had writers like Ernest Hemingway
and Sax Rohmer, and it was quite prestigious to get there. And then they had the lower
end. I worked my way up through that system, so to speak, to where I was doing fairly well
with it. I did book covers as well, and sports became something. Another area of painting
was the box covers for the plastic kit companies, like Aurora Plastics. This picture of an F6F
Wildcat from World War II is just symbolic of a whole bunch that I did, almost every
aircraft that ever flew.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So this might have been the beginning of the historical accuracy
and attention to detail that you had to give to paint these so accurately.
Mort Künstler: I guess so. I never realized it at the time. Yes, I think it probably is
so, absolutely. These pictures are of "The Man from U. N.C. L.E." And they were also
box covers Aurora Plastics.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: At the same time.
Mort Künstler: I did, I think, more of those than any other artist, about 70 or 80 of them.
And they've become a collectible now. I guess if you stick around long enough, the works
are collected by people.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: They're all collected. So this men's adventure category of art, who
was reading that? Who was the audience for this work?
Mort Künstler: Well, here we go again with more of the plastic covers. But this is a
sort of part of the subject matter. Outdoor Life, I believe, still exists.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: It does.
Mort Künstler: And the subject matter was such that you had to be good at certain things,
and the more varied you were, the better off you were.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So what did you have to be good at?
Mort Künstler: So I became pretty good with bears.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Bears, I know. Look at this bear.
Mort Künstler: I became good with the big cat, and that was a big category. And there
was Sports Afield that I did a lot of work for. There was Outdoor Life.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Ooh, and then there was pulp fiction.
Mort Künstler: And then I became very good at bears. Yes. So that added another category.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: This was another category.
Mort Künstler: Between the two bears, I was working away.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And this was a very popular genre at the time, the pulp fiction,
and all of the art of that time.
Mort Künstler: Absolutely. This is a typical one, aviation, again, which was box cover,
so it fit naturally. And a picture of this type, if you could divide the picture in half,
you would see where there was room for the fold, and there were blank areas for the copy
and text. So designing these illustrations was not an easy task. It was more or less
the same problems Michelangelo faced, believed or not, except his page size was different.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: He had to fit into those ceiling pockets, like up here. So you
were given direction. You had to leave room for the copy. You had to make it fit the layout
of the box or the magazine.
Mort Künstler: You had to allow for the fold so that there was nothing of special interest
right in the middle. You had to allow for the title and the copy, and making it dramatic.
And I just sort of felt that if I could make it as exciting as possible, that was the key
to it. And it led from one picture to another. World War II was a very popular subject.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Yes, you did many of the World War II inspired stories. Was this
a popular subject matter in the literature at the time that you were painting?
Mort Künstler: I would say that it was certainly popular with the men's adventure magazines.
The titles -- the stories also ran in other magazines, so I use it as a broad term. I
did some work for the Saturday Evening Post, for Good Housekeeping. And American Weekly,
I did an awful lot of work for. And I was always called on, for some reason, to do the
mystery -- or I guess I had a knack for it. But World War II was a very popular subject
with the readers. And without trying to name-drop, Mario Puzo, the famous author of "The Godfather,"
was an editor. And we were quite friendly, and he used to say that World War II was the
good war, not for any moral reasons, but that it sold.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: People wanted to read the stories, yeah.
Mort Künstler: And he said that Korea was the bad war, and Vietnam was the bad war.
But it was strictly readership and what they wrote back about that he was interested in
at the time.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Well, and the other aspect that was changing during those later
wars was television was taking readership away from the magazines and changing the field
considerably, wasn't it?
Mort Künstler: Well, that certainly changed everything. Television money went -- the money
that went into the print media was now going into television, so people were starting to
get their fiction over television. And this is a string of World War II pictures that
we're looking at now, and I always did seek accuracy, of course, and it was fairly easy,
because the armed forces had public relations offices, and I always found their office,
and they helped me in whatever way they could. And the Marines were especially good. They
-- I remember, one time, they sent a Marine over with a -- gee -- an M1, or I forget.
I also, to make sure the pictures were authentic, I began collecting weapons and costumes. I
had all sorts costumes --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: That's a great tradition for many artists, to have a costume collection
or the props and objects. Norman Rockwell did, for example. And so you have such varied
subject matter. What kinds of costumes and props do you have?
Mort Künstler: Well, for the World War II period, I had whatever I could. I'd go to
gun shows and buy them. And as a matter of fact, I even had a tommy gun at one time,
which became illegal. But I eventually sold --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: The Künstler arsenal.
Mort Künstler: But it makes it so much easier to make it authentic, of course. And it was
kind of fun. But I sold all of it once I stopped doing the World War II illustrations. They
sat in a storeroom until I said, "What do I need this for?" There are all these people
or dealers that are willing to come and buy whatever you have.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Other collectors, yes.
Mort Künstler: And I have not collected Civil War stuff at all, just -- I shouldn't say
that. I have quite a number of weapons, of course. This is World War II again. This is
a picture of D-Day. The one before it was a different layout, the one with the red background
that we just saw. That was a vertical picture of zeroes, kamikaze planes attacking American
battleship. It's a vertical because that was a paperback cover. And the paperback company
saw these illustrations and called me, and I did various covers for them.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So let's talk about that a little bit, the range of media, if
you will, that your images were reproduced on. You had the magazines, the paperback books,
the box covers you were talking about. Any other kinds of printed material you were on?
Mort Künstler: Well, I did some advertisement, not very much. Just about -- I was not soliciting
work anymore, and people would come to me.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: I understand you were working 12-, 16-hour days for a while.
Mort Künstler: Yeah. Record for me was, I guess, every day for six or seven weeks, 12
hours minimum. That's a long time.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: That's a long time.
Mort Künstler: But I have to say that I really loved it, and it was almost a compulsion.
I couldn't believe I was making a living painting pictures, first of all. And I was just afraid
it was going to go away, so there was never a deadline I would miss.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: But I understand there was a time when your family said, "We need
some of you, your time as well." And you were able to balance your work patterns a little
more after that.
Mort Künstler: Well, that led to -- Debbie had bought -- Debbie, can you stand up? All
right. She's here. She was ready to leave me, because it was just ridiculous. She had
bought tickets for a show in New York, and it was a Saturday night probably, and I said,
"I can't; I've got to work tonight and tomorrow." And she really got angry at me. And we went
to the show, and I found out that on Monday -- that I was supposed to deliver the painting
on Monday, and I called on Monday morning and said, "Do you want it today and bad or
tomorrow and good?" And so they gave me an extra day, and I really worked hard all day
Sunday and Sunday night. I couldn't make it, and I got it in there on Tuesday, delivered
it, and they called, and they gave me another painting to do, and they gave me another urgent
deadline, and two weeks later I came in with a cover painting for Argosy, I think it was,
and there was the cover that was in such distress and so late, still sitting on an easel in
his office. I began to realize that these guys were just covering themselves and making
sure they were not going to be late for the printer. So I began to realize that it wasn't
life or death all the time. I didn't have to believe them.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So I think this was an important turning point for you, actually,
to gain better life balance, have time for your family, your children, and still be the
fabulous artist and in-demand that you were by that time.
Mort Künstler: Yes.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And I think -- you know, I've worked a lot with Norman Rockwell's
life and career, and he, too, was compelled to paint all the time and hardly took time
out for birthdays or Christmas, and was back to the studio. And I think that's a quality
of our best artists, that they're just driven to paint, and it's what you do, and it's what
you love, and it's, I'm sure, wonderful that your family understands that.
Mort Künstler: Well, what it led to was a great adventure for us, because we finally
decided that people were seeking my work so much, and I was only in the field about 10
years -- we moved to Mexico. We had been there on our honeymoon and liked it. We'd been there
on an auto trip the following summer. We took off. And then, once we started to have trouble,
we thought, "Gee, it's not necessary to paint all the time." And we literally moved down
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And how long did you live there?
Mort Künstler: We lived there for almost two years with our three children. And it's
probably some of the happiest days we ever had. And we began to realize, though, that
we were going to be foreigners. Our kids were starting to talk in Spanish to each other,
and they would play under the dining room table in Spanish.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And you couldn't understand them.
Mort Künstler: No, I spoke Spanish pretty well. I could understand them all right. But
I think that there was just a sense that we had to go back home. And when we moved, we
said we were going to give it from six months to forever, and the six months turned into
a year and half.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Couple of years. And what year was that that you were there?
Mort Künstler: 1961 to '63.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So that was another -- these are just a few more of your adventure
Mort Künstler: This one was for the Saturday Evening Post.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Little more family, wholesome style there.
Mort Künstler: Yeah. But it was the same period. And this is a Sports Afield cover.
You could see the title, if you could imagine, it's saying Sports Afield across the top area.
That's why it's sort of blank up on the top.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So your charging tiger.
Mort Künstler: This is an interesting picture. It's the Homestead Steel Strike, and it was
done for True magazine, which was sort of top of the line of the adventure magazines.
And it was a very famous strike, and famous in union history. And the Pinkertons broke
the strike with Winchesters. They came up in a barge, just the way you see it. And it
was one of the early paintings I did. You can see the hallmark of a lot of my work today,
where it's sort of putting little pieces together and creating a lot of different characters.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: A lot of activity going on.
Mort Künstler: It's kind of what I love to do.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And I noticed in your work that your people are very individualized.
They're each a different person. They're not a type. You take the time to paint individual
Mort Künstler: Well, I use the same model for every picture, interestingly, and I change
their builds. I change their -- I'll use whatever it takes to get to the final result. But the
creative part of making up the characters is something I really cherish to this day
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Part of the storytelling.
Mort Künstler: -- and I love painting pictures of famous personalities in angles that no
photo existed. It's, I guess, something that interests me a great deal and that I'm pretty
proficient at.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: We'll talk about that in one of your pictures coming up. Now, this
interested me.
Mort Künstler: This was another World War II picture. This was for Argosy, another very
good magazine. I remember -- I don't think it was -- no, Philip Wylie was --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Well, I understand that the Secret Service came to you to commission
Mort Künstler: Yes, yes.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Tell us about that.
Mort Künstler: Well, what it was, was a story illustration, and it was exhibited in a show
-- oh, some gallery or college, university, I think, a gallery. World War II, on the anniversary
of World War II. And this was one of the pictures. And shortly after, I got a call from the Secret
Service, and I said, "What did I do? I mean, you're here from the Secret Service." And
it turned out that it's the first time they'd ever seen a picture of counterfeiting, and
this was a famous case that they had, and that they had broken successfully. And they
inquired about it, and they ended up -- actually, two of the -- or a group of Secret Servicemen
bought it and then eventually gave it as a gift to the Secret Service, and it hangs a
the headquarters to this day.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And I understand you told them you had a little bit of experience
with counterfeiting and shook them up for a moment.
Mort Künstler: Oh, yes. Well, they took me out to dinner. Boy, you're remembering my
dark past. They took me out to dinner, and they were telling me about the case and how
excited they were. And prints were made; 150 limited edition prints were made. I think
there were 150 offices in the Secret Service at that time in the United States, and they
had a print made for each office, and I signed them. And they brought me down to Washington
for a presentation, and I still couldn't get over this, that a Secret Serviceman accompanied
me down to Washington, and I couldn't get over it. But it seems that that was the only
way I could go, is if a Secret Serviceman took me and accompanied me. And later, after
the presentation, they took me out to dinner, and I said, "You know, I was a counterfeiter
once." And their jaws dropped, you know. And they really said, "Oh, no, he doesn't realize
-- " they told me later, "He doesn't realize that he's going to be accountable for everything
he says. We're going to have to lock this guy up." I said, "Yeah, you know, when I was
about eight years old, they had the knothole club at Ebbets Field for the Brooklyn Dodgers,
and they had the little cards for the kids that they gave out in school. And I would
-- they were color-coded. One would be yellow; one would be pink; one would be blue. And
if your best friend had a blue one and you had a pink one, you couldn't go to the game
together. So I got cardboard, and I put watercolor on. I counterfeited the knothole tickets.
And then I finally made it into a business. I probably got a penny. I once said I got
a dime, to one of my friends. He said, "Are you kidding? Who had a dime?" So it might
have been a nickel. I don't know. But that was my counterfeiting job. So they all relaxed
after that.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So you're okay.
Mort Künstler: I didn't go to jail.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: They let you keep painting. Well, we see your work change a little bit
in the 1960s, quite a lot actually. You took an assignment with National Geographic, and
you had a completely different kind of commission that you'd had previously.
Mort Künstler: Well, the experience was totally different in that True magazine always wanted
the truth and as accurate as possible, but within limitations. I could go to New London
to get onboard a submarine and see what it looked like if it was a submarine scene. But
the Geographic would go to no -- I mean, there was nothing they would do that cost too much.
They would send you anywhere to get it right. And this picture that we're looking at is
the discovery of San Francisco Bay, a Spanish expedition with Mexican soldiers, el dados
de quera [spelled phonetically], leather jacket soldiers and leather armor, marched up from
Mexico aiming for Monterrey, and overshot Monterrey. And, in fact, any of you who have
been to San Francisco might be familiar with Portola Boulevard [spelled phonetically].
This is Gaspar de Portola discovering the San Francisco Bay, and that's Mt. Diablo across
the bay. And I actually visited the site, which -- the marshland that you see in the
painting overlooks the airport at San Francisco to this day, of course. And I then went to
Tucson, Arizona, to consult with an authority on the leather-jacketed armor and the uniforms.
He was the expert on that expedition. And what resulted from that is I presented the
Geographic painting before I delivered it to an agent by the name Laverty, Frank Laverty,
and Frank and Jeff Laverty became my agents for art and put me into the world of advertising
art. There are thousands of advertising agencies all over, and there's no way that an artist
is going to be able to solicit for that kind of work. And it was always a very desirable
field. In Norman Rockwell's day, they vowed to not do advertising. They thought it was
not the right thing to do. They felt story illustration was more important, when there
was story illustrations to do.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Well, we have some advertising art coming up. Let's go to it
and --
Mort Künstler: This is an interesting piece here, the advertising art, because brings
back my old friend Mario Puzo. This picture was done for the Literary Guild, which I don't
know if they exist or not. I don't know if the Book of the Month Club exists anymore.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Oh, I don't know either. It's probably downloaded electronically now.
Mort Künstler: But this is -- the movie came out in '73, and I did the very first pictorial
version of the Godfather for -- I think it was Male magazine, who Mario was an editor
for. And then when the book was picked up by the Literary Guild, I created this character
after reading the script. The first one was done out off a paragraph, totally different
character. But I think you could see -- this was done in '69, the movie in '73. And I was
told that this was the criteria for the Marlon Brando character.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: The model for the film, yeah.
Mort Künstler: And I think you can see, so it's kind of a unique picture that I have
a lot of fun --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: I think that's interesting about your work, that you were working at
a time that you were working in the intersections of film and print and books and television
product, advertising, and that illustration was inspiring and infusing all of those media,
and you were moving back and forth in all the different genres.
Mort Künstler: I always thought of them as painting pictures. It didn't matter where
they'd be. I just loved doing -- Newsweek used me a good number of times, and they would
not use art very often, but it was usually when there was an event that took place and
they could not get photographs. They would almost always want to use a photograph, and
they wanted their own photographs, so they would not use a stock photo. So, in this particular
situation, obviously, you couldn't get a photograph like that. This is a natural for a Newsweek
cover. And I think there are some others that are coming up.
This, interestingly, was in the '70s --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: This could be as contemporary as today, sadly.
Mort Künstler: Yeah, exactly. And this was the West German, at the time, raid on Mogadishu,
where hijackers had landed an airliner, and they went in -- the art director at Newsweek
always called it the Entebbe Raid, but it wasn't. It was the Entebbe-like raid on Mogadishu
by the West Germans, and it was more successful, actually, because they killed all the terrorists
but did not wound a single passenger that was held hostage. And I figured out how they
did -- by going to the airport and getting permission on an angle that would be dramatic
for that cover. And I could see just how the West Germans came up from the rear. There
was a blind spot from the cabin, even with the mirror, where you could, single file,
come up and then come out.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And that's the angle you chose your picture from.
Mort Künstler: And I didn't take that exact angle, but I realized that's the way it was
done. This is an interesting picture. It was done in 1975 for the bicentennial of our country.
It appeared in 1976. It was on the cover of Army magazine. That was, I know, still published
today. And I was down to Washington to confer with them on it. And it was also used as a
limited edition print. And, interestingly, this is a painting that Debbie owns, and it's
a very masculine-looking picture, I think, and kind of -- men would be -- would appeal
to it. But she just happened to love that picture, and she took it out of a very early
show of mine.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Well, we have a few end-of-the-magazine-era images to look through
Mort Künstler: Well, this is a kind of interesting story. I was called, via my agent, to do a
Mad magazine cover, and I said, "Come on, I'm not going to do that stuff," and I turned
it down. Then, that night, I mentioned it, and Jane was at the table -- and Jane, can
you raise you --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Hi, Jane.
Mort Künstler: Hola. And when she heard I turned down a Mad cover, she almost got hysterical.
She said, "I could have been the big shot in high school," and she practically cried.
So I called them back and said, "Get me the cover, but I'm going to do it under a different
name." And I worked under a lot of different names.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So what names have you painted under?
Mort Künstler: I've painted under Emmett Kaye, which is my initials, Emmett Kaye, M.K.
I painted under Martin Kaye, I guess, and Mort Künstler, and Mutz.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So who did this?
Mort Künstler: Mutz.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Mutz did this?
Mort Künstler: Yeah. M-U-T-Z. And they did a parody of this cover. It became a sort of
an iconic image.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And what year was this? Do you remember?
Mort Künstler: Mad magazine did a parody of it themselves in a special issue, and they
had the signature as "Nutz."
Laurie Norton Moffatt: 1976.
Mort Künstler: Yeah, and they must have did it at the end of a decade or so. It was picked
Laurie Norton Moffatt: I'm trying to remember if this preceded or followed "Jaws."
Mort Künstler: Oh, this was, of course, after "Jaws." And what happened is I recognized,
by the way, that that would have collectible value. Finally, I began to realize that the
originals would have some sort of collectible value. And I would have done them, actually,
because they paid me very well and they were fun, but they refused to return the art. I
said, "Forget it." And the advertising art, of course, I had no --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: You're also working on advertising art.
Mort Künstler: Back to bears.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: See, everything comes to hand.
Mort Künstler: What's interesting is each one of these pictures recognized -- you have
to realize, represents, literally, 100 or 200 similar images. I did -- I can't say I
did 100 billboard, but I certainly did a couple dozen.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: You did many commissions for the same advertisement.
Mort Künstler: Here is some of the movies that I've done that were very much sought
after. They were very much sought after almost every illustrator. They, first of all, went
worldwide, and they, of course, paid very well, and it was very competitive.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Did you watch the movies before you created these movie posters?
Mort Künstler: Well, some of them, we watched a half hour or 20-minute synopses.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Trailers?
Mort Künstler: Yeah, I guess you'd call them trailers. And the one we're looking at became
so popular that it was redone, "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three." Same with "The Poseidon
Adventure." But we would watch sometimes. I understand this is a bit of a classic too
for -- it has a bunch of people that are interested in it. But they -- they would -- what they
were, they were a lot of fun, and they sure paid the bills, and I always enjoyed doing
them. This changed things for me --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: This was a real turning point painting for you, wasn't it, Mort?
Mort Künstler: Well, this was an assignment, as I recall, from Reader's Digest as a test
project for an Indian book. And it changed things for me because of the subject matter.
And it was going to be a series of paintings on ceremonials that had never really been
done before, rare ceremonials. And this is called a potlatch ceremony, where one tribe
of the Haida Indian on the northwest coast arrived at another village. And it just happened
by coincidence I had the painting under my arm, wrapped up, and I went to a show at Hammer
Galleries, and a friend of mine had a show there, and I went to see the show, and the
salesman came over to me and said, "What have you got there?" He knew me by sight but didn't
know I was an artist. I said, "It's a painting." He knew it was a painting. He said, "Who did
it?" I said, "I did." He said, "I didn't know you did artwork. Let me take a look at it."
And we unwrapped it, and without any premeditation -- this was pure coincidence -- and he took
it back to the director of the gallery, showed him this painting, and the director came out,
and I learned later that, you know, it would take two years to get a date to see the guy.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Get the director to come see your work.
Mort Künstler: And we chatted for a while, and he thought it was really good, and I got
a call from him a couple of days later asking me if I had any other work available. And
I had some western paperbacks, so I brought them in, and we talked, and he offered a show,
as I recall, which changed my career, because I was with Hammer Galleries for --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So this is when you began showing in galleries, and some of the
western work you were painting was now being collected.
Mort Künstler: And all of these paintings were really done as commissions or sold or
done to be made into prints and then sold by the galleries. It sort of reversed itself.
And instead of doing illustrations and getting the right subject matter that would work and
be sold in a gallery, all of a sudden, it reversed itself, where I was painting just
for the gallery, and then people were commissioning me.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And people were buying the paintings then, and not the --
Mort Künstler: Right, exactly. This was the beginning of a series of -- want of a better
word -- I call the epic paintings of America, where I try to do a series of paintings of
famous events in history. This is Custer's Last Stand. And I went out to the site on
my own rather than via National Geographic sponsorship, did the research. And it was
called, by the historian out there, the best and most exciting and accurate Custer ever
done. But it was a very difficult road to go down, because Custer had been done a thousand
times. And I went on to do the fall of the Alamo. I don't know if we have this -- this
is not part of that series.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: I want to go back to this, because I think that -- was this the
-- there's the fall of the Alamo.
Mort Künstler: There's the fall of the Alamo. And, again, people have done it so many times.
And then, suddenly, I ended up doing a painting for the 125th anniversary of the Battle of
Gettysburg, and it's called "The High Water Mark." I don't know if that would be the one
that's coming up.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Well, I think it's coming along a little bit later.
Mort Künstler: But I, somehow, I bumped into -- again, a coincidence -- in doing my research,
I met a publisher of limited edition prints in Gettysburg who was familiar with my work
from Hammer Galleries and from several books that had come out on my work previously. And
he said that he would publish this painting that didn't exist that I was doing the research
on. And I did this battle scene that became a very famous picture, or print. And it led
to my Civil War career, which is not exclusive, but we --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Which we're going to look at in a moment. These western pieces,
you've been likened to Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. How did you get the authenticity
and feel of the west of a century ago?
Mort Künstler: Well, I've been out there quite a few times. I literally rode over the
Bighorn Mountains on horseback, three days and three nights, camping out. And I happened
to be, this sounds crazy, a kid from Brooklyn growing up to be a woodsman or --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: You became a cowboy, is that it?
Mort Künstler: But I live on a wooded property and I've, I do everything by hand. I cut with
a bow saw and keep a wood-burning stove going all winter, and split my own wood with a maul.
On this trip over the Bighorn Mountains they thought they had, you know, some greenhorn
I guess. We went over with someone that invited me on this trip and the wrangler I guess,
who took care of the horses, when we made camp one guy would take care of the horses
and the other would set up the tent, and I said I'll get the fire going. And they figured
this was going to be a lost cause, they know they'd have to start the fire. So I very carefully
set the fire up, and it happened it was previous campsite. We were the first ones over the
Bighorn Mountains that summer, July 15. And the way you know is it gets to snow and there's
no footprints. Anyway, I could see that they knew we picked out the site because it had
been a site but no one realized that it had been used the night before. And I took some
newspaper and very carefully prepared the ashes and put some pine needles down to make
sure that it was good. Then I said, hey Carl, you got some matches? I don't smoke. So he
flipped me a match book and he said, you sure that'll be enough? And I started to see a
little bit of a wisp of smoke and I knew I could start it with my hat. I said, on second
thought, forget it. I don't need any. I went like that [makes swishing sound]. They never
got over that one. But I gained a lot from those experiences that gave me a sense of
actions that you could do and little stories within stories that you could do. And I went
and waded through rivers and, you know, whatever --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So you became the adventurer to study these works.
Mort Künstler: Well, it was a lot of fun. These are all recent --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Now this was interesting. You took on a whole new genre --
Mort Künstler: The farm series started as one picture that was commissioned by a gallery.
Interestingly, the first time I had ever been commissioned by a gallery. And it led to a
bunch of farm paintings of the old era, the horse drawn era, that led to where, to this
day we have a Mort Künstler farm calendar that comes out every year, along with some
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Some more of your western works.
Mort Künstler: These are some of the westerns that were done for galleries. Another adventure.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Oh, we've jumped to another era here.
Mort Künstler: From my show, I had my first show at Hammer Galleries in 1977. Quite successful.
The second one was in 1979, and that was also sold out. What really became a success from
that though was that the chairman of the board at Rockwell International who was an art collector,
and was also on the board at Grand Central Galleries at the time. Arrival of Hammer actually
saw the show and asked me to go to dinner and asked me if I would be interested in painting
pictures documenting the space shuttle. And at that time, no one had ever heard of it.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So you're painting the west, the settling of the west --
Mort Künstler: I thought it was a plane that rode back and forth from Boston to New York
or --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And suddenly you're flying into this --
Mort Künstler: And he explained to me, I said what's the name, because everything had
been Apollo and had different names. And it ended up as another big adventure. We did
about 30 or 40 pictures for them.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Really remarkable.
Mort Künstler: Only about maybe 6 or 10 finished oils, but a lot of studies and sketches. And
then we had the great excitement of seeing the first launch of the Columbia and the first
touchdown, which took some doing because it launched in Florida and took --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And then you had to get to California to record the landing.
Mort Künstler: We had to get to California, so that was good. This is a --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: We're jumping around here a bit, but we're back to --
Mort Künstler: Well, this is very meaningful for me. This is part of a series that I did
for the National Guard Bureau. And it hangs at the Pentagon today. And it's very dear
to me because it's Theodore Roosevelt's charge up San Juan Hill, and I believe it's more
accurate, I've been told, than is Remington's version was. And Remington was there, went
there, not to the battle, he didn't see the battle, knew Roosevelt, but he, well for a
number of reasons, but I also happened to live less than a mile from Sagamore Hill --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: From his home.
Mort Künstler: Theodore Roosevelt's home. So I was very excited to get this as an assignment.
I don't think that the major who gave me that assignment knew I lived that close to it --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: He didn't realize that.
Mort Künstler: And they brought the actual pistol. The actual pistol I held in my hand
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Of course, he was a great outdoorsman and adventurer as well.
Mort Künstler: It was fun. This is part of that, this is the Oklahoma land rush. Part
of my epic series that you're going through now --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Yeah, I'm moving through a few so we can get to your Civil Wars.
Mort Künstler: And again, another commission and leading to my Civil War era. This was
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So how did your Civil War series start? You had gone from painting
the west and painting all different aspects of American history and adventure, and you
received a call from PBS. Was that how your interest started?
Mort Künstler: Yes, via my agent. He changed as I've said a lot, but he, this was the official
logo for the CBS miniseries The Blue and the Gray that starred Gregory Peck and Stacey
Keach as I recall. And it was a symbolic kind of picture, and it led to a whole bunch of
Civil War paintings that I did that we --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And this led to your series, which we're going to look at. A series
of --
Mort Künstler: And we had a show at Hammer Galleries. And this is The High Water Mark
that I had talked about earlier that I did after being inspired by that first logo. And
that's where the real Civil War started because it was made into a print that became very
successful and very popular.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So how did you do your research for these pictures?
Mort Künstler: Well, I think I learned from National Geographic right from the start,
that if there's something to see, go see it. So I would always try to go. If there was
nothing to see, then I wouldn't go, because it could be a city there and you'd have to
reconstruct from maps, or old engravings or whatever. But Gettysburg fortunately, it's
been preserved. And that's what it's all about, it's to preserve our history. And so that
we can learn from the past. And the Gettysburg battlefield is a very important element in
preserving our history, and you read all the time about them looking to install a gambling
casino there. They have a Harley Davidson, I have nothing wrong with Harley Davidson
motorcycles, but I think Gettysburg should be known for why it is famous --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: It's really considered a sacred space.
Mort Künstler: -- as Gettysburg and not a gambling center. So what we're talking about
now is battlefield preservation, which also has other consequences because everyone talks
about preservation who's interested in it, but at the same time it aligns itself with
conservation. Because people don't realize this, but during the deer hunting season which
will be coming up this fall, it is acting to not only protect the fields the way they
were 150 years ago, but the deer come out of the woods when the hunting season opens
up in Gettysburg and browse in the fields in Gettysburg where Pickett charged. And they
go back to their safety zone and they know it and sense it. So it's killing two birds
with one stone. Its two great causes that should be entwined and I don't know if they
both recognize that. They don't see it.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: They're aren't married yet. So this is a beautiful portrait of Sojourner
Mort Künstler: This is a painting, I used Debbie as a model for it and it started out
as a paperback book cover. It was called Her Name was Sojourner Truth, and there are no,
there's one photograph of Sojourner Truth and I chose to romanticize her and paint her
as a young woman. The only photo is of her as about, oh 70 or 75. It's sort of a heroic
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Very heroic.
Mort Künstler: These are all parts of my Civil War paintings that are depicting --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Going through the seasons. Now I want to talk about --
Mort Künstler: This is a very --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: This one a moment. Because what really struck me about it was,
your earlier adventure paintings and the struggle and the striving that you see in this picture,
pulling these horses and cannons through the mud. How did you envision this?
Mort Künstler: This was, again, a commission. The company that developed the land where
this took place, this is called The Mud March, and it took place in Virginia not far from
here actually. In the Fredericksburg area. The union army went out in the winter and
the terrible weather and had to retreat. And this real estate developer had bought the,
prominent developer, had passed this through seven or eight jurisdictions. He owned the
property and whenever anyone had an objection, he figured out a way to get it through. So
that -- it was a golf course that he wanted to put up. He protected the area and promoted
it. So he preserved the trail that they actually traveled on and made it into a sightseeing
tour if you played golf there. It was called Cannon Ridge Golf Course or whatever.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Well, it doesn't look like a golf course in this picture.
Mort Künstler: And I went to town when he asked me to paint it because, when he described
The Mud March, it took me a year to figure out that I could make it into a dramatic picture.
I just pictured mud color until I read about it and traveled that trail through the mud
and got a feel for it. And then I realized that you could make it very dramatic with
the lightning and the animals --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Straining through the --
Mort Künstler: The tremendous struggle. I consider it one of the best paintings I've
ever done, and I almost didn't do it.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: It's magnificent.
Mort Künstler: And I almost didn't do it. It's sort of funny. I'll never forget when
Hammer Galleries, it was commissioned through Hammer Galleries with a client of theirs.
And when it came in, I got the reaction I've always used as an expression now. He walked
in, he looked, and he went, wow. And I was so thrilled with that, so now I always look
for a "wow."
Laurie Norton Moffatt: How large is it? What's the size?
Mort Künstler: It's a pretty big picture. It's about, oh I guess about five feet. I
think it's probably about 60 inches --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Yeah, I think it's important for people to understand the scale
you paint in.
Mort Künstler: Four to five feet, four or five feet wide.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So now this --
Mort Künstler: this is another special commission.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: this is a submarine that has just recently been found, if I'm
correct in remembering.
Mort Künstler: Yes, this is the confederate submarine Hunley that was the first submarine
to succeed in sinking an enemy ship. And it became quite a celebrity, you might say, of
the war. It was found intact in the bottom of Charleston Harbor after searching for 140
years or so. And this was, well it was again, visiting a site and learning everything about
it. I was there believe it or not on the day that they actually opened the watch of the
commander, Commander Dixon, who's looking at the watch because they had to catch the
time for the tide to go out for them to propel the boat. It was hand-propelled with a crank
by eight men in this manner with a little tower, a counting tower with a little glass
viewing thing. And unfortunately they, it sunk after they sunk the Housatonic, the Union
ship. And it was a mystery, but the beauty of it was that, if you can call anything of
this type beauty, but it sunk in its entirety and it was always a mystery of how it sunk.
And it was so preserved by the way it sunk that the sand seeped in and didn't allow the
crustaceans --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Preserved it.
Mort Künstler: And all kinds of sea to destroy it to the point where the wooden bench that
was all on one side of it. The boat's about so high, you could see about, I guess the
width of the stage here, that was the length of the boat. About this wide. And they, the
wooden bench that the men sat on, the edges of the wood were sharp and there was still
white paint on it.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Still.
Mort Künstler: And you could see the paint where it was worn away from their behinds.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: I did not even know there were submarines during the Civil War.
Mort Künstler: Well, it was the first one.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And I think that it's one of the things we --
Mort Künstler: Very successful and very unsuccessful. And they look --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: I think we learn from your paintings and we learn about history
that maybe we didn't know about from the images you've created.
Mort Künstler: I've learned a great deal about it. A little, a note in this of interest
is, there's a little boat in the lower right foreground that had oysters in it, and Charleston
did not suffer from hunger during the war because they were able to feed off --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: They had the oysters.
Mort Künstler: The oysters and seafood. This is a --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So we're just wrapping up your Civil War series, I think you have
one example of a postage stamp that you created, with is a great tradition of artists in the
U. S. Postal commissions of commemorative stamps, and --
Mort Künstler: Well, it's the only stamp I ever did. And anyone that says that the
government wastes a lot of money, I am sure they are correct, but they do not waste money
on artists. And, but it was a thrill and an honor to --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Moving right along, in case of Secret Service comes back now,
Mort. This was a magnificent memorial that you created, counterpoint I think to some
of your Civil War pictures. And can you tell us about it? It's in Ohio.
Mort Künstler: Yes --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Little hard to see in this slide, but its epic. It's the entire
history of our entire American military if I'm remembering correctly.
Mort Künstler: Yes, we got a call from a town, I guess sponsored it. Of Middletown,
Ohio, and they were sponsoring a memorial to all the people in peace or war who died
from that area. And they had, it became a 60 foot long, eight foot high black marble
memorial, and those were two drawings that I did especially for it. They wanted to use
a couple of my pieces in this design, and it was very amateurish quite honestly, and
I really didn't want to be associated with it. And they asked me if I would like to design
it, and I said to myself, that sounds like a really interesting project. We'd never done
anything like it before, but we figured out how to do it and we made, sort of an illustration
board replicas taped together with black board. And used all of our art and made room for
the names, and it became a project that was a very, a worthwhile project from an artistic
standpoint certainly. And so much so that we all flow out to Middletown for the event,
for the unveiling on July 4.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: How moving.
Mort Künstler: I don't remember the year, probably about five or 10 years ago.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: But we have a series here that shows how you make a picture. And
maybe you could walk us through your, briefly, your study stages for this piece that I understand
is one of your public's most favorite image of yours. Brief encounters.
Mort Künstler: Right. Well, a lot of people think that these things just spring out from
nowhere on a piece of canvas, but they really start with little scribbles. Thumbnails, we
call them. And this is a sheet of tracing paper that's got some of those little thumbnails
on it, and you can gradually, little by little, they look like scribbles to you, but I'm beginning
to sort of get some ideas in mind. I do have in mind a particular building in the background
that is in this town of Middelburg, and I had that in mind when I started it. And I
came up with various ideas. It's not necessarily fictional, but it's an event that could have
happened, certainly. And to do the research, I went to a museum on Long Island as a matter
of fact, not that far from my home, that had a sleigh in it of that period, and came up
with various ideas and angles and eye levels and sources of interest. You try to figure
out every method that artists have used from time immemorial, such as perspective and linear
design, light and dark, color, so that here the --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Your building's taking shape here.
Mort Künstler: See the problems that are coming up in a painting of this type where
I had to figure out, that doesn't exist today. The porch that you see on that building. It
existed in those days though, and we knew that from, I forget, probably an old etching
or something. And I had to work all that out and use it to figure out how to get it done.
We finally do a sketch with a grid on it, that was shown previously, and then get that,
when I say grid, the sketch can be about so big with small squares and then we make larger
squares depending on how big the canvas is in the same proportion as the sketch so that
everything --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So when you say "we," who's working with you?
Mort Künstler: Yeah, I get corrected that way all the time. When I say "we," I mean
"me." I do it all. Right, but I have an office, so I think we've got a team. And the team
is --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: I'm sure you have assistance who purchase your canvases and your paints
Mort Künstler: Right, right, right. No, no, I do all of the actual work --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And your supplies and make sure you have everything you need --
Mort Künstler: I don't have an apprentice or an assistant or anything of that nature.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Well, some artist do, so I wanted to be clear on how you did your
Mort Künstler: I know that. No, I do it all. I've found that --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So here's the finished piece with all of the pieces put back together
Mort Künstler: But you start out with the little things, and we just showed part of
the process.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: But all of these ideas are coming out of your imagination; you're
not looking at an earlier artist's version, an etching, or wood block print. You're coming
up with your ideas, yes?
Mort Künstler: I guess so, yes. But I've learned from -- I've stolen from all the artists
of the past.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Well, that's a great tradition in art, is to borrow and be inspired
by artists who have painted before you. Who are your great heroes in art?
Mort Künstler: Well, very much the same heroes that Norman Rockwell, who is one of my heroes,
had. Howard Pyle, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Leonardo --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Some pretty big names there.
Mort Künstler: Yeah, well he admired them all. He admired Howard Pyle especially. Also
Arthur Rackham, who I admire greatly. So many present-day illustrators.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Well, I think artists are always looking at each other's work and
getting inspired by new ideas.
Mort Künstler: Well, without question, I think that Norman Rockwell is thought of as,
in a very different way than the way I think of him. He is so good, and I think he is great
because he is one of the great designers of all time. Everyone says he's a great storyteller,
but people do not realize that the head is framed around a window, or he uses perspective
the way Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper. It's one-point perspective, and the
one point is right between the eyes of Jesus, and every visual line leads to it. Well, if
you study this, you begin to learn, and Rockwell was such a great designer of putting light
against dark. Making the most important point in the picture the brightest point. It would
be like taking a stage full of Rockettes dressed in white and having one in red in the center,
and your eye goes to her. You put her on the end, your eye is still going to go --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Your eye is going to go there.
Mort Künstler: So that's use of color. Perspective could be -- or sunlight. As in this picture
where the light is just hitting the flag. It doesn't look, I don't know if we can tell
that way, but it's a lot more dramatic on the original picture. And I mention Michelangelo
Laurie Norton Moffatt: I think that's an important thing that artists have to think about the
composition and the layout of their pictures very deliberately and very carefully. You
make it look so easy when the piece is all done, but you are directing our attention
to certain areas on the canvas.
Mort Künstler: Well, a perfect example is right her with that puddle. Designed very
deliberately, I know that it rained the night before, how can I use that information? And
that puddle is an arrow pointing to the center of interest in the figure accepting the surrender
at Yorktown is very deliberately silhouetted against the sky. The flags are very deliberately
silhouetted against the sky, and the only other figure really silhouetted is George
Washington who refused the surrender because Cornwallis did not show up to surrender personally,
and claimed he was ill. And this gets me more to present day. This is a painting that I
am sort of starting to do, some George Washington. It'll be a future book coming out in 2014
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Oh, exciting.
Mort Künstler: On my Revolutionary War, or New Nation period. And this is Washington
coming home to Mount Vernon after the war is over. And again, it's all imagination of
what you feel must have happened, or had happened, or probably happened. I very rarely will go
to another, possibly. It's probable in most cases. This is another painting that was commissioned
by a client of Hammer Galleries of Washington at Valley Forge, where von Steuben is training
the troops, and --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And that leads us to --
Mort Künstler: And that leads us to a picture --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Perhaps your most epic painting that just was released last year.
Mort Künstler: Yes, yes. There were, and I believe the man that commissioned this painting
is --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: He's here. Oh, it is a masterpiece. It's a masterpiece.
Mort Künstler: Tom Suozzi commissioned, and it came about where I really didn't want to
do the picture. And he said, but you'll do it the right way. And I said how am I going
to do a picture like that that's so iconic? It's impossible. And he says you'll figure
a way. I said, well, there's no way I'm going to do that unless I, unless it's commissioned.
He said I commission it. Sort of like Theodore Roosevelt when he formed the National Parks,
I so do, or whatever he said. But what's very interesting about this --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: but it must have been intimidating to do a modern day version of
Washington crossing the Delaware.
Mort Künstler: Well, I think that this is, I don't know that there's anyone that could
argue against any point that's in this picture because everything is very carefully thought
out, including the men on the left side of the boat as we look at it, who would have
been kneeling to form a natural railing because they didn't have railings on those ferries.
And they ferried across cannon and horses, and my reasoning was that he went across on
a boat like that with a cable and poling. And I learned this from visiting the site
again, which is standard procedure for me at this point. And Tom Suozzi went with me
on that trip. He was so curious and interested in the subject matter that he knows, I think
more than I do, certainly as much as I do about it at this point. But what's also more
interesting and something that Tom Suozzi doesn't know is that the last advertising
painting I did in 1981 was Crossing the Delaware. And I found that out later, and this was an
ad for Nynex or one of the other phone companies. And it's sort of a comic take of it.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: so we find out that everything comes around.
Mort Künstler: So sort of a, it's rather funny, but now it's --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: And so tell us what's next for Mort Künstler.
Mort Künstler: Well, what's next is really strange, because we received a call from a
worldwide agency, an advertising agency in London. They have offices around the world,
it's an American company. I have signed a non-disclosure agreement, so I can't say exactly
who it is, but they are, they called asking if they could use my early Men's Adventure
illustrations. And a select group, and we have hundreds if not a thousand as part of
an advertising campaign for vodka. And it's with a comic kind of twist --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So maybe this is inspired by Mad Men, a bit retro. Of going back to
your --
Mort Künstler: And they wanted this macho kind of a look, and it was kind of like a,
saving --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: The damsel in distress with the bear.
Mort Künstler: And the catch line on the billboard is going to read, "Save more women,
drink such-and-such vodka." Or a scuba diver with a spear you know, "wrestle more sharks
before breakfast, drink such-and-such vodka." The whole thing is now --
Laurie Norton Moffatt: So we're looking at a contemporary warrior here.
Mort Künstler: So now, believe it or not, they asked me for certain details that they
couldn't find and asked if I would do a painting for them. With this particular expression
where the guy is looking right at you and he's suffered through hardship, and he's done
all this to, I guess, persevere. And one of the lines on the billboard is "Augh" [spelled
phonetically], just, and the picture of the bottle. And that's going to spin out in a
year or so in the United States; it'll be all over the world. And I found I became a
very good business man, because when they talked about it, I was quiet on the phone
and the price went up to where they made me an offer I couldn't refuse, and I have had
such fun doing them. I've done seven now, and they take about a day or so.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Well, fun to visit your earlier career.
Mort Künstler: And yeah, I can't believe it that I'm painting pictures imitating my
style of the fifties and sixties.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Well Mort, thank you so much for this conversation, and thank you
for the legacy that you have created for our country and for all of us. And to be able
to learn history from and to really feel your passion that comes through your work.
Mort Künstler: I guess I have a little too much of it. I'm answering the questions before
you ask them I guess. I didn't seem to be able to control myself; I'm not very good
at this.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Thank you Mort, you were great. You were great.
Mort Künstler: Thank you.
Mort Künstler: We would like to present a gift to the archives at this time.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: How special, yes.
Mort Künstler: And it is to commemorate the Battle of Antietam, which is this coming Monday,
the 15th anniversary of the single most catastrophic day in the history of the United States, where
we had 15,000 Americans who were casualties in one single day. Dwarfing that happened
on D-Day or any other time. This is a moment of before the Irish Brigade, the Fighting
69th of New York, went into battle and charged the sunken road with terrible casualties.
And it's called Absolution After Victory, and the man with hands raised is not very
evident, but it's Father Corby, who later became president of Notre Dame. And he was
giving absolution to the men on the run. And just asking for any sign where he could give
it, and it just, as they were almost running by, and this is the way I imagined it taking
place. And Father Corby is called to this day, there's a statue of him in Notre Dame,
he's called Fair Catch Corby. So those of you know football know what that means. Fair
catch is the signal for, you can't tackle me while you're helpless waiting for the ball
to come out. And there is actually a statue and that is what, how the Notre Dame students
refer to the statue.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: The Fighting Irish.
Mort Künstler: Father Corby as Fair Catch Corby.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: well, what a magnificent gift to the archives.
Mort Künstler: And General Mar [spelled phonetically] is the one who was in charge, wounded in that
charge of course. Terrible casualties, so I would like to certainly present this to
the archives.
Male Speaker: Thank you.
Mort Künstler: I thought you -- oh I thought you were going to say that, I'm sorry.
Male Speaker: No, no.
Mort Künstler: Was I supposed to do that?
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Perfect.
Male Speaker: You did it exactly the way I'd say it.
Mort Künstler: I didn't see you there, I'm sorry.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: it's perfect.
Mort Künstler: Well, thank you.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: We have time for a couple of questions if anyone would like to
ask a question of --
Mort Künstler: I'm not good at this.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: You're great at this. This is a conversation; it's not a choreographed
theater here. Yes?
Male Speaker: [unintelligible]
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Oh, yes. Could you please use the microphones? We are recording
the program. Thank you, I forgot to mention that.
Male Speaker: Mort, when you did your illustrations, you obviously had the impetus of being commissioned
for the pieces. Once your career turned to where you were doing artwork that was being
produced as limited edition prints and selling the originals, what then became the impetus?
You know, instead of having an art director, you know, calling you or your, somebody from
the office saying you need to get these done. And you have these commissions coming in.
How did that change for you, that you were still able to produce and so, such a voluminous
amount of work?
Mort Künstler: I think that, I just, I don't know. I really don't even know how to answer
it, except that I have a compulsion I guess to paint pictures. And I get ideas from various
sources. I'd read books and they'd pop up from almost anywhere. Sometimes letters from
fans of ours, where suggestions would be made, and sometimes they'd work. Most of the time
they didn't. Most ideas that are suggested are usually good in terms of movies, but they
don't work out as an image. It could come from absolutely nothing. This picture came
from one line, I think, of Father Corby's biography. Where he said, he mentioned just
this. He followed General Mar [spelled phonetically] onto the battlefield and he gave absolution
on the run, the troops were coming the other way. I really don't know. They pop up in the
strangest ways sometimes, in the middle of the night I guess.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Well, you read a lot and are inspired by what you read.
Mort Künstler: I do read a lot, especially when I'm zeroed in on a subject. If I know
I'm going to be doing a certain subject, then I'll read a lot on it. For example, the painting
I'm working now, I'm not really thinking much about, it's painting it now and getting it
done. But the one after that I'm going to do is, I'm going to be doing Abraham Lincoln
in Gettysburg, but not giving the Gettysburg speech. It'll be very interesting I think...
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Picking another moment.
Mort Künstler: And so I'm reading on that at this point in time. And I don't know, I
have an idea though, I've visited that spot many, many times, and I've, so it takes sometimes
years for an idea to gel. I also write down when I'm reading. Ideas, I have a pad and
I'll have, you know, page 122 of Douglas Freeman's biography of Robert E. Lee. And I'll have
many, many ideas. I'm ready to do a Robert E. Lee painting, then I'll go through and,
oh yeah, I've really got to do that one. I also try to combine my trips so that I don't
waste time. So that on any given time I'll try to do research or signings or whatever.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Do we have one more question?
Male Speaker: Yup! Sorry.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Still have time for a book signing. Yes?
Mort Künstler: You're obviously doing commissions up the wazoo; you're busy as you want to be.
But if you had a choice of doing a painting that nobody actually would probably buy, what
would be your favorite thing to actually do a painting on?
Mort Künstler: I enjoy painting so much that it hardly matters what I'm painting, quite
honestly. The tougher the painting, the more I like it in many ways, because I think it's
a form of showing off. And I do very difficult pictures, deliberately because I think I can
do them well. But I had a good a time painting that head that the last picture as anything
I can think of. I don't have a burning desire to do some secret painting that, it hardly
matters. It doesn't matter. It really doesn't, I just enjoy it. I enjoyed doing the adventure
pictures. I enjoyed doing bears. Trying to do it as well as I could. I think that's the
guiding light, is whatever the picture is, I try to do it as well as I can. I've done
a lot of bad pictures, but no willingly. And very often because of time restraints, but
there always as good as I can possibly do it. I don't know if it answers the question.
Laurie Norton Moffatt: Well, Mort has a book signing for anyone who'd like to have a copy
of -- I'm not sure which book it is tonight --
Mort Künstler: It's for Us the Living, I believe. It's a collection of my Civil War
paintings, and tells the story of the Civil War in paintings and the words of the potsificence
[spelled phonetically].
Laurie Norton Moffatt: It's a beautiful book, yeah. Thank you again, Mort. Thank you for
Mort Künstler: Thank you. Thank you.