Nobody can deny that the fine arts are thriving in Missoula. But it might come as a surprise to many that Missoula has long been regarded as a regional center for world-class art. As early as 1937, the Art Museum in the Women’s Club Art Building on the University of Montana campus – the precursor to the Montana Museum of Art and Culture – was hailed as “the first art museum in the inland Northwest” by Newsweek and Art Digest.

Today, the collections first assembled in exhibits in the Women’s Club building – now the International Studies building – and a great number of works acquired since are part of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at the University of Montana. MMAC is now preparing the third of its major exhibitions of masterpieces since 2010.

Figurative Modernists: Picasso, Chagall and other Masterpieces from a Private Collection is an exhibit opening Oct. 3 at the Melloy Gallery in the PARTV Center at the University that will feature unique figure studies by some of the biggest names in late 19th and early 20th century Modernist art movement. Names like Pablo Picasso, Jean Arp, Marc Chagall and Giorgio De Chirico are more usually associated with the major museums of New York, Paris or Berlin. But through the generosity of a private collector, a unique selection of masterpieces will be shown in Missoula.

“This exhibition spans many of the aesthetic movements that make up Modernism”, says Museum Director Barbara Koostra. “But an important subtext to the exhibit is that each piece connects to a different area of the arts.” The central them of the human figure is the center from which each piece deals with the interdisciplinary world of the arts. Music, opera, dance, visual art and literature are all represented.

Works like Le Jouer de luth/The Lute Player, ca. 1917-1918 by María Blanchard, Sonia Delaunay’s 1907 portrait of the French painter Charles Dufresne, and Léon De Smet’s The Russian Dancer Vera Nemchinova Performing Les Biches, ca. 1925 each offer not only a unique aesthetic representation of the human figure, but a celebration of the larger art scene of the period.

One can expect to see in the exhibit “works that run the full range of Modernist schools and styles,” says Art Curator Brandon Reintjes. Historical movements like Art Deco, Surrealism, Constructivism, Cubism, and Expressionism are all represented. There are two works by Pablo Picasso featured in the exhibit. The earliest is a portrait of his first wife Olga from 1923 which demonstrates beautifully the “return to Classicism that sought to reveal the human form as whole again after the carnage of the First World War.” The second, a 1956 portrait of his second wife, Jacqueline Roque, employs a much more reduced and abstracted style which many associate strongly with Picasso.

A companion exhibit of Modernist Prints will run in the Paxson Gallery which features works from the Museum’s Permanent Collection and select loans and focuses on the intersection of visual and literary arts. Works in this exhibit are by Modernist artists like Chagall, Le Corbusier, Maillol and Matisee who worked with famous authors and publishers like Fernand Moulot and publications like Tériade’s Verve Art Review in the 1930’s.

The exhibits open October 3 and runs through February 8, 2014 in the Melloy and Paxon Galleries. A number of related events are scheduled, including a lecture by UM Professor H. Rafael Chacon on The Centrality of Figure in Early Modern Art on November 4th at 7pm in the Masquer Theater. A second lecture, planned in collaboration with the President’s Lecture Series on November 18th, will feature Stephanie D’Alessandro, the Gary C. and Frances Comer Curator of Modern Art at the Art Institute of Chicago giving a lecture entitled, Picasso, Matisse and the 1913 Armory Show in Chicago. On December 3, Professor Chacon will be leading a tour through the exhibit. A second guided tour with MMAC Curator of Art Brandon Reintjes will be offered on December 21. Each tour is limited to 28 people.

Leland Buck is the Missoulian's Online Editor. Follow @lelandbuck on Twitter or reach him at or 406-523-5212