Since the earliest pioneering days of Montana, the natural landscape has been the primary font of inspiration for this region's artistic identity. Ironically, it was western Montana's most iconic vistas that also served an important role in introducing European, largely urban modernist ideals into our local aesthetic identity.
For that - and, of course, for much of the impetus behind the establishment of Glacier National Park - we can thank the Great Northern Railway.
As history buffs know, it was the Great Northern that ultimately intervened to assure that Glacier National Park was established by Congress after two previous attempts failed. According to Brandon Reintjes, curator of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at the University of Montana, it was also the railroad company that brought modernism to western Montana, in a broad-reaching effort to market Glacier to well-heeled eastern tourists as "America's Switzerland."
"I would argue that many artists in the state are inheritors of European modernism because this was arguably the first influx of that influence into this state, thanks to the railroad," said Reintjes. "Whether artists directly acknowledge that, that aesthetic legacy certainly exists."
This week, the Montana Museum of Art and Culture opens a new exhibit timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Glacier National Park. Built around artwork from UM's sizeable permanent collection, and supplemented by loans from individual collectors as well as the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (successor to the Great Northern Railway), the exhibit traces the contours of artistic development in western Montana, filtered through the resplendent lens of the Crown of the Continent.
"We really tried to focus on a couple of main themes in putting this exhibition together," explained Reintjes. "One was the strong aesthetic legacy that's surrounding Glacier that's found both in American Indian traditions and the work of early pioneering artists, as well as artistic contributions brought about by the patronage of the Great Northern Railway. So we're really looking at those twin formative sources to put together this exhibit."
To those ends, the exhibit explores the wealth of Glacier-inspired art created by members of the area's several Native American tribes. At the same time, it features the work of artists who, at the behest of the Great Northern Railway, came to Glacier from parts far distant, bringing new perspectives on the area's dramatic landscape and colorful people.
As an example of the latter, Reintjes points to the work of Julius Seyler, a German artist who, at the behest of Louis Hill, head of the Great Northern Railroad, visited Glacier during the summers of 1913 and 1914. Already well-respected in Europe as a leading Impressionist painter, Seyler was entranced and inspired by what he found in Glacier - and in particular by the traditions and colorful regalia of the Blackfeet Indians. During his time there, he produced a significant body of work that applied then-avant garde techniques to portrayals of some of America's deepest Native cultural traditions.
"In his paintings, you have these crazy juxtapositions of him trying to render these beautiful traditional beaded passages in this expressive style," said Reintjes. "So he's doing masses of color and expression of the whole ensemble, and as a result you're getting this whole confluence of two cultures and two aesthetic traditions coming together. It's really fascinating."
Reintjes said he hopes that the exhibit will add an important aesthetic and cultural context to the historical and biological legacy being celebrated during this summer's Glacier centennial.
"Through the aesthetic outcomes of these visual representations of glacier, they represent how Glacier looms in people's minds," said Reintjes. "You really see what kind of psychic and emotional space it occupies in different ways. People can talk about Glacier and relay their enthusiasm; but when you see them produce a work of art in response to the tribes they met or the places they saw, it says something very different, which is an important element, I think, in Glacier's history and significance."