Mort Künstler’s retrospective, For Us The Living, is an expansive display of paintings inspired by the Civil War currently showing at The Nassau County Museum of Art. Künstler, an Oyster Bar resident, is an old favorite of the Museum: his 1998 exhibit drew record crowds, even beating out a Picasso exhibit. This time, Künstler offers more than 50 vignettes of landmark historical moments, including the Battle of Gettysburg and a stern President Lincoln clutching the Gettysburg Address (The title “For Us The Living” is lifted directly from the pages of that speech.)
Steadfast generals and soldiers are shown in various wartime settings: dodging enemy fire in battle, wishing to loved ones a painful farewell, trudging along on a snowy night.
The tone is decidedly folksy, bringing to mind Norman Rockwell, whom Künstler cites as an influence. Rockwell even makes a brief cameo in the exhibit, as one of his sketches appears alongside Künstler’s work.
The collection offers high-energy, vibrant images rendered with impeccable detail.
The battle scenes are breathtaking, as Künstler stunningly mirrors the fluid movement of soldiers and horses engaged in rapid fire, or charging each other, as in “Rush’s Lancers.”
The show not only displays dozens of Künstler’s photograph-like paintings, but also includes the artist’s notes, which accompany almost every work. Each note gives insight into the setting of the painting, as well as the exhausting effort that went into creating them. Viewers also have the opportunity to explore Künstler’s unique creative process, which includes visiting each historical spot and examining it in great depth: the angle of the sun at certain times of day, the placement of trees and rivers.
Künstler also owns a vast library of Civil War artifacts and relics which are used as visual reference points. The artist also relies on interviews with historians and descendants of war heroes, historical documents, and original artist renderings of battlefields to maintain the integrity of his work.
However, as visually impressive as the exhibit is, Künstler’s work has a few flaws. It’s often overly melodramatic and sentimental: With titles like “Rendezvous With Destiny” and “Tender Is the Heart,” Künstler’s paintings seem to bear more in common with romance novels than snapshots of historical scenes. Women seem like props in paintings throughout the exhibit—Kuntsler invests a great attention to detail in the faces of his male subjects, who display a range of emotions, but the women seem blank. This may be a sign of the times depicted in these images, but even a portrait of Sojourner Truth falls short. The “idealized” version of the African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist—as Künstler refers to it on his website—is barely recognizable, with a golden complexion and narrow facial features. (In his notes, Künstler acknowledges that his wife stood in as a model for the portrait.)
While Künstler’s technical prowess and meticulous style yield vivid, stunning images, it’s a stretch to call them historical.
For Us The Living: The Civil War in Paintings is on display through Jan.9 at Nassau County Museum of Art.
1 Museum Dr. 516-484-9338.