Two new exhibitions are opening at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture on Thursday, both of which illuminate portions of the past that are little known or disappearing.
At the Paxson Gallery, there is an exhibition of unlikely work by the painter Julius Seyler. In 1913, the German Expressionist painter came to America for the New York Armory Show, which shifted the direction of art in America.
Seyler, who had shown his work with Matisse and van Gogh in Europe, was invited to Glacier National Park by Louis W. Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway, as part of the “See America First” campaign.
“He came into contact with the Blackfeet and it was really a transformational experience for him,” Brandon Reintjes, curator of the MMAC.
“He found his subject matter finally,” Reintjes said, noting that Seyler’s focus on the old country’s seascapes and vistas found a new expression in the wide Montana landscape.
Seyler, a graduate of the Munich Academy, also painted Blackfeet Indians in tribal dress in his own style: Postimpressionist through Expressionist. The subject matter is similar to C.M. Russell and Remington, Reintjes said, but Seyler’s looser brushwork contrasts heavily with their “precise, detail-oriented” paintings.
While visiting Austria, UM professor emeritus William Farr saw an exhibit on a German artist who painted among the Blackfeet – a surprise to the author of multiple books on the tribe. In 2010, he published a monograph on Seyler, and will be in attendance at Thursday’s opening reception from 5 to 7 p.m.
Seyler’s work is little-known, because his career was twice derailed by world wars, and more than a hundred of his pieces were destroyed in World War II. However, Reintjes said Seyler’s paintings deserve to be associated with the West.
“He’s an artist who should be central to our identity in this region,” Reintjes said.
At the Meloy Gallery, there is an exhibition of photographs by a Helena doctor, Richard Buswell, who chronicles ghost towns, mining camps and other abandoned communities in the West.
After two decades of investigating these sites, he’s narrowed his focus to black-and-white, close-range images, or “short, abbreviated poems of a place,” Reintjes said.
They are “small moments of beauty that add up to a narrative about a place,” Reintjes said.
The decaying objects are rendered almost completely alien in Buswell’s eye. Pieces of worm-eaten wood appear to be a total abstraction until you read the title. A bone looks like a somber tree stump, and the tines of a potato shovel read as a work of abstract modern sculpture.
“That’s what art does best. It challenges you to look anew at something you already thought you knew,” Reintjes said.
Buswell is a slow and methodical photographer, Reintjes said, hiking and driving out to the remote areas and only producing seven or eight pieces a year. He also shuns digital, working in 35 mm roll film.
Almost as if reinforcing the theme of disappearance, Reintjes said Buswell also is losing these sites to numerous factors: vandalism, passage of time, artifact hunters, reclamation by corporate landowners and more.
“The disappearing objects are disappearing,” Reintjes said.