Museum to show Kunstler’s work

Artist and illustrator Mort KuŸnstler speaks to the media Friday morning at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester regarding an exhibition of his 60-year career. The exhibition, which opens today, includes his magazine work that is backdropped behind him that was created in the mid- and late 1950s. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER — Residents of the Northern Shenandoah Valley might best know prolific artist Mort Kunstler for his vivid depictions of Civil War scenes in and around Winchester. But many might not know his 60-year career also includes illustrations for movie posters, book covers, men’s adventure magazines and ad campaigns.

The exhibit “Mort Kunstler: The Art of Adventure” opens today at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester. It kicks off off with an artist signing of prints, books and an exhibition catalogue from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. today.

Visiting the museum Friday from his home in Oyster Bay, New York, Kunstler reflected on a career that continues to surprise even him.

“I think I’m the luckiest guy in the world, because all these years I’ve done what I love,” he said.

The left-handed artist gained an interest in drawing as a child, later studying at the Pratt Institute in New York. He began his career as an illustrator at the fast-paced New York illustration studio, Neeley Associates, before leaving three months later to become a freelance artist.

Artist and illustrator Mort KuŸnstler speaks to the media Friday morning surrounded by a gathering of his original oil on canvas civil war paintings at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester. Kunstler's exhibit starts today and runs through August 2 which features an array of his works over the past 60 years. Rich Cooley/Daily

Earlier works in the exhibit include illustrations he drew for men’s magazines, and depict men’s encounters with fierce wild animals, or tell stories of action and intrigue in a single frame.

In his story illustration for “British Girl,” 1959, a woman in black lingerie crouches on a window ledge, hiding from a group of businessmen visible through an open window.

In his illustration for the story “Trouble at the Printer,” 1962, a seated balding man wearing a visor drops a magnifying glass and notepad to the floor, apparently struck unconscious by a second man leaning over him, teeth bared, his left hand balled in a fist and his right still conveying its open handed crime.

Asked in the mid-1970s to do a cover for “Mad” magazine, Kunstler still remembers his answer.

“I said I’m not doing a cover from them. It’s beneath my dignity to work on a comic book,” he told his agent. But after reconsidering, he said he would do it under the assumed name, Mutz.

Mort KuŸnstler shows off his 1972 poster for "The Poseidon Adventure" during his appearance at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley on Friday. The KŸunstler show starts today and runs through August 2. Rich Cooley/Daily

His first illustration for “Mad” was a back cover for the women’s liberation movement, depicting the Statue of Liberty holding a tablet that read “women’s lib” and, instead of a torch, a bra.

“Well, they loved that,” Kunstler said. Next, he scored a front cover for “Mad,” a take on the movie poster for “Jaws,” showing “Mad” mascot Alfred E. Neuman, swimming above a shark that commented, “Yecch!”

“I was asked to do every ‘Mad’ cover after that,” Kunstler recalled. Only he declined, because the magazine refused to return his original illustrations to him. “It’s too bad, because I would have had a lot of fun doing it,” he said.

Kunstler started painting historical war scenes in 1981, when commissioned as an illustrator for advertising campaigns. CBS used one of his paintings for the official logo of its miniseries “The Blue and the Gray.”

Inspired by artists like Norman Rockwell, Kunstler said he puts near endless effort into his depictions to make them as accurate as possible.

One of his most famous renderings shows George Washington crossing the Delaware River in oil on canvas that he painted in 2011 and came as a result of inaccuracies in the famous 1851 oil-on-canvas painting by the German-American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, in which Washington and his troops sail to New Jersey in a row boat.

In Kunstler’s painting, Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware in a flat-bottomed ferry boat during a stormy night.

“[It’s been] published more than any other,” he said, “[and] I didn’t want to do it. I was commissioned.”

Before his research turned up the inconsistencies in Leutze’s painting, Kunstler said he thought all he might do differently is turn the boat around and have them sail from left to right.

Kunstler uses the skills of talented historians to guide him in the background of his paintings, saying, “It’s pretty easy to be authentic, if you’re not lazy.”

Still, each painting often takes him six weeks to two months, depending on the complexity.

“The more complex the picture is, the more difficult it is to tell the story,” he said. “That is my goal, tell the story.”

The exhibit will run through Aug. 2 and feature more than 80 works by Kunstler and organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Kunstler will return to the museum for a public discussion of his work from 2 to 3 p.m. July 11. The cost for the discussion is $5 for members of the museum and $12 for non-members. The program fee includes a tour of the exhibition. Space is limited, and registration is required by July 9.

Contact the museum at 540-662-1473, ext. 240, or at http://www.theMSV.org.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com