Mort Kunstler's "Buried Alive for Four Months"

'Mort Künstler: ‘The Godfather’ of Pulp Fiction Illustrators' at the Canton Museum of Art

Mort Künstler's adventurous art accompanied stories that were published in magazines, weeklies and paperbacks during the 1950s and '60s. See more than 70 of his original works at the Canton Museum of Art.

The woman grasps the man’s hand as she dangles above an earthen tunnel. Her panicked face looks up at him as he clings to a pipe jutting from the wall with his other hand. The painting, “Buried Alive for Four Months,” originally appeared in the September 1961 issue of the men’s magazine Stag, illustrating Richard Gallagher’s story of the same name. 

It is one of more than 70 original drawings and paintings from men’s magazines, weeklies and paperbacks on display through July 3 in “Mort Künstler: ‘The Godfather’ of Pulp Fiction Illustrators” at the Canton Museum of Art. The exhibition, organized by the Heckscher Museum of Art in New York, includes paintings depicting thrilling adventure scenes and pop culture staples. 

“Every time I did an illustration — no matter what it was — I treated it like it was going to be the Mona Lisa or for the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel,” says Künstler. 

This perfectionism and attention to realistic detail led to a more-than-60-year career for the New York-based artist. To this day, Künstler has made around 5,000 paintings that have been used in movie posters, advertisements and pulp fiction works.

“I’d read a story and make notes of possible illustrations that might work,” he says of his process. “Then I would do thumbnail sketches in charcoal on a tracing pad and make a decision on what I think would be the most dramatic moments, because basically the illustrator’s job is to stop people as they’re turning pages to look at the picture and capture their imagination.”

Perhaps none of his works captured more imaginations than his illustrations for the book The Godfather by Mario Puzo. Those works, six of which are in the exhibition, were used as visual inspiration for the film.

“The fact that it’s such an iconic film and he’s the one who created that imagery is huge,” says Christy Davis, curator of exhibitions for the Canton Museum of Art. “I think his work is something that people who may not be traditional museum visitors will find very interesting.”

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