A Look at the Wild | Review of “Carl Rungius: Painter of the Western Wilderness” by Jon Whyte & E.J. Hart (1985) Glenbow-Alberta Institute/Douglas & McIntyre

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I recently came across a collection of art books for sale. While I missed the Andy Warhol catalog that sold for $40 (online listings had it starting at $700) I purchased a copy of Carl Rungius: Painter of the Western Wilderness and was rewarded immensely on an intellectual and emotional level.

Page 1 Foreword by Robert Bateman

A wise man once said that when you come upon a masterpiece of art, you feel you are seeing it for the first time, and is should look as if it had been done without effort. The effortless look of a work by Carl Rungius conceals the experience and talent of a brilliant artist. Although most of his paintings deal with big game amid big mountain scenery, there have been many times when his fresh point of view or dynamic composition have given me the feeling that I am seeing the subject for the first time. In his chosen genre, his artistic accomplishments have never been surpassed. His knowledge of his subject matter was enormous. Rungius not only worked hard at understanding the anatomy and habits of the animals he painted, but he also loved his association with them. Although it may seem strange to some, his passion for hunting was an extension of that love.

While I had been exposed to Rungius’ work before, I never really considered his work in a collective manner. And there is much more to his life that his artwork. We learn about his early life, where is dissected stray cats in order to learn and understand the positioning of muscles and tendons. And while this may seem crude in many ways, it shows a level of understanding that Rungius had of biology to create his giant works. And that was one of many difficult undertakings he took to create his art.

Page 31 A Heart In The West

The keen eye of Rungius the draughtsman had difficulty determining the line in this landscape. Line dominated landforms in the familiar wooded hills and vales where he had grown up. Here was one line only, the horizon, which heat shimmers frayed and tattered. No line distinguished the way grey green sage interrupted the sallow, pale lustre of the shortgrass, nor the way hill turned from sunshine into brownish-purple shades. Here no perspective provided depth and distance. More than once he thought a hill was nearer than it was, but, after travelling all day, it appeared no closer than it had that morning.

The West’s wild space; its bold light, dusky hues of lavender in the sage, tints, of rose and rust in the rock and soil, deep dolomite purple in distant mountains; the skies’ clarity, pure cerulean against sharply distinguished cumulus clouds: these crescive awarenesses flooded in on him during the slow trip north – new hues, new colours, a palette he had never used before.

Scanned image from Page 97 "Polar Bear," 1918, oil on canvas, 152.4 cm X 190.5 cm, Collection Glenbow Museum"
Scanned image from Page 97 “Polar Bear,” 1918, oil on canvas, 152.4 cm X 190.5 cm, Collection Glenbow Museum”

But there is more to Rungius than his art work. Readers are given insight to his life and how – not matter at what age he was, – he was willing to try new things and be active. His perspective on the wilderness may have been unique but it has grown into what we think the wilderness is. And this book helped give insight into the person who gave us that view of the hinterland.

Page 144 Down to Business

In 1937 an official of the city of Berlin visited Carl in Banff and chattered on about improvements in the Nazi regime was making to his old haunts in Germany. Usually at ease entertaining guests from far-flung parts of the world, he found himself wanting to be rid of this man. Politics was a topic that rarely appealed to him and he had lost what little interest in it he ever had shortly after he arrived in the United States. At the first opportunity, Carl ushered his visitor out into the garden before tactfully bidding him good-bye. When they paused, the German said in a confidential tone, “Mr. Rungius, you are German-born, and the United States is but your adopted country. Why don’t you return to the Fatherland where you belong? Over there you would be welcomed and given many honours. We need people like you. Why, I am sure that Goering would give you permission to hunt on one of the Imperial preserves.”

Carl turned and swept his arm in an arc encompassing the Canadian Rockies surrounding them. “These are my hunting grounds,’ he declared. “I will come when your fuhrer can offer me better than these, an greater freedom!”

Scanned image from page 68. "Zero Weather," 1908, oil on canvas, 61 cm X81 cm, Collection Glenbow Museum
Scanned image from page 68. “Zero Weather,” 1908, oil on canvas, 61 cm X81 cm, Collection Glenbow Museum

Carl Rungius: Painter of the Western Wilderness by Jon Whyte & E.J. Hart proved to me to be a very profitable and enlightening read. Definitely an item I plan to look at over and over again!

Link to the Glenbow Museum

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