If you frequent restaurants and coffee shops in the Shenandoah Valley, you can’t avoid paintings by Mort Künstler, an artist who reminds me a lot of Thomas Kinkade, though his subject is the Civil War and not cozy little cottages.
Soon after we moved to Front Royal, Jose and I started seeing these artworks everywhere—on the walls of The Daily Grind and in gift shops, hotels, and antique stores.
Typically, they depict an historical scene from the Civil War era in a style I can only describe as romantic realist cheese—think Norman Rockwell but without the cheeky humor. They have a certain glow about them calculated to elicit nostalgia and patriotism at every viewing.
Though they are schmaltzy as all get out, people here love ‘em. What Confederate flag-waving southerner wouldn’t? How glorious were the soldiers, how noble the steeds, how dramatic the sky!
These painting give folks here something grand to grab onto, scenes that read like legend and fantasy despite their historical accuracy.
Clearly, I have a bit of a complex about these paintings. We received a postcard in the mail recently announcing a new work by Mort called The Autograph Seekers of Bel Air, which depicts General Lee visiting Front Royal on July 22, 1863. It was such big art news, I put it on our refrigerator.
It is a lovely pastel vision. All that is missing from the painting is a thatched cottage, a country lane, and a few golden highlights on the river. Maybe Mort and Thomas could collaborate on something, a new piece called “Candlelit Cottage Filled with Moaning Civil War Amputees.”
As a respected illustrator of books, magazines, and advertisements, Mr. Künstler’s work does seem to be a cut above Kinkade’s technically, but sometimes it’s hard to tell.
Actually, I wouldn’t mind having Mr. Künstler’s prints scattered around town, if they were his poster and books illustrations from the 1960’s and 70s instead of the Civil War fluff.
Check out this fantastic box art for this toy from the 1960s, the “Lost in Space All Plastic Assembly Kit” complete with “one-eyed monster, giant boulders, the Robinson Family and their interplanetary space vehicle.”
Or enjoy this illustration for the “Wonder Weave Loom.” It is “excitingly different… anyone can do it…”
Mort’s movie posters also rock:
And who could resist buying these paperback books with cover art by Mort:
14 Seconds to Hell
Kill Quick or Die
But my favorite has got to be this ad for a product called “Bacchus Aftershave.” It is “The Incredible Aftershave That Conquered the World.” If this were still available, I’d buy it for Jose in a heartbeat.
To be fair, Mr. Künstler seems like a nice guy and an upstanding citizen. He contributes generously to the Timber Ridge School in Winchester, which serves needy young men. He also doesn’t seem to be nearly as strange as Mr. Kinkade, whose weirder habits and business fraud you can read about on Wikipedia. Truly, he is one of the creepiest artists who has ever lived.
All in all, I think Mr. Künstler’s early illustrations just about make up for his later Civil War indulgences. I would be proud to own any one of the prints listed above—they are beautiful and surprising, full of an authentic irony.
Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford one.