For Missoula residents, it has never been easier to get up close and personal with Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The French Impressionist painter never visited Western Montana; but right now, the paint from his palette and the sublimely delicate impressions left by his hand are right here, hanging on the wall of a small gallery on the University of Montana campus.
The mere presence of three original works by Renoir – at least one of which hasn’t been exhibited in more than 40 years – is enough to draw art history buffs from near and far to Missoula. Add in a dozen other works by some of history’s most recognized artists – including Paul Gauguin, Rene Magritte, Max Ernst, and John William Waterhouse – and the exhibit, titled “Renoir, Magritte, Gauguin and other European Masterpieces from a Private Collection,” lives up to its name.
Though not strictly chronological, the clockwise presentation of the fourteen oil paintings and one sculpture in the Meloy Gallery of UM’s PAR/TV Building roughly follows a stylistic progression that encompasses the major art movements of the past 200 years, beginning with George Romney’s lovingly soft, Classically posed portrait of his long-time muse, Emma Hart.
Three paintings by John William Waterhouse typify the subsequent Romantic era’s emphasis on drama and emotion (though, technically, they date from a later era); while a trio of portraits by Renoir highlights the shift toward abstraction, gesture and movement that heralded the Impressionist era.
Those paintings are followed by fine examples of pointillism (Théo van Rysselberghe’s “Jeune femme en robe verte”), expressionism (Max Ernst’s “Regarde”), cubism (Alexander Archipenko’s sculpture, “Gondolier”), and surrealism (two paintings by René Magritte).
The show is broadly unified by its focus on human portraiture – or, in two cases, portraits of animals. Not surprisingly, that makes for a subdued and contemplative exhibit — a tone that’s accentuated by the subdued gallery lighting and deep blue walls that frame the art.
Coming into such a space with modern eyes, it can be easy to underappreciate the historical significance of these works by historically acclaimed “masters” of the brush and palette. Renoir puts a (literally) rosy face and radiant light on his subjects that reminds us of Hallmark cards, Thomas Kinkade paintings, and the like. Rysselberghe’s portrait looks vaguely like a pixilated screen image from the early days of color TV. And a sprawling industry of Third World woodworkers have turned Archipenko’s elegantly avant-garde vision into the folk-sculpture style du jour.
Still, it’s well worth slowing down and gazing upon these works, imagining the moment of their creation – a time long before all those latter-day imitators learned the tricks of their trade.
It’s also worth taking time to read the fine catalogue, annotated by MMAC curator Brandon Reintjes (and available for purchase in the lobby), to get the back-story on some of the paintings; as several of them (particularly those by Waterhouse) bespeak historical narratives or depict notable people not immediately familiar to the modern mind.
Across the lobby of the PAR/TV Building hangs a complimentary exhibit that is unified not by subject matter, but by technique.
That exhibit, “Three Centuries of European Prints from the MMAC Permanent Collection,” traces an even broader (and equally star-studded) history of art, while simultaneously exploring the development of printmaking from its humble, early beginnings as a copyist’s trade, through its peak as a legitimized idiom of art unto itself.
Once again, visitors would do well to check their modern biases as the door. After all, in this age of photo-quality desktop printers and 24-hour Kinko’s stores, it’s easy to forget the technical challenges faced by printmaking artists as recently as 50 years ago.
At that level alone, the exhibit of 30-some prints serves as a fascinating historical exploration.
Yet, precisely because of its more diverse array of artists and subject matter, the exhibit is arguably also the more wholly satisfying of the two. Here hangs Louis Simon Lempereur’s 1765 engraving, “Le Triomphe de Silene,” a voluptuous Bacchanalia of fleshy joy; there hangs Picasso’s deliciously lascivious lithograph of an older man flirting with a naked woman (“Le Vieux Roi,” from 1959). Nearby, the unmistakable warmth and deep colors of Marc Chagall grace two reverent Biblical images, “David and Absalom” and “Jsaiah.”
Perhaps predictably given the medium, the exhibit highlights numerous artworks that focus on social commentary – some in the form of editorial cartoons, some simply prints. Early 20th century German artist Kathë Kollwitz’s “Brot!” (“Bread!”) offers a heartbreaking depiction of hunger through the eyes of a child. French Impressionist Jean Louis Forain’s moody, scribbly image of a huddled crowd pressing into the wind gives a stark counterpoint to its title, “Le 15,000 – Je ne vois pas ce qui’ils ont à s’obstiner, je n’ai jamais donné que des palmes” (“The 15,000 – I don’t see what they insist on, I’ve only given them palms.”
Ultimately, the two exhibits work together to present a diverse and fine representation of the development of modern European art over the past two centuries and more. Never before has such a hallowed list of artist names appeared on the schedule of an exhibit in this part of the country; for that reason alone, the two exhibits are a must-see for anyone who loves art.
The Montana Museum of Art and Culture presents a pair of exhibits, “Renoir, Magritte, Gauguin and other European Masterpieces from a Private Collection” and “Three Centuries of European Prints from the MMAC Permanent Collection,” at the Paxson and Meloy Galleries in the PAR/TV Building on the UM campus. Both exhibits run through March 12, 2011. Admission is free. Hours are Mondays-Wednesdays and Saturdays, 12-3 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays 12-6 p.m. (closed Christmas and New Year’s Day).