An exhibition of contemporary Eastern European prints will give a window into art under the Soviet Union.
The show, opening Thursday at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, comprises gifts from J. Scott Patnode. He served as former director and curator of the Jundt Art Museum at Gonzaga University and cultivated a deep collection of work. His gift to the MMAC includes 127 prints by artists including Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak and Slovenian.
MMAC curator Jeremy Canwell said the works show both technical skill and ways of expressing life under totalitarian regimes.
As an example, take the masterly engraved "I Ruble" by Czech artist Oldřich Kulhánek, who created his own version of the paper currency with a half-man, half-pig.
"He's using official institutions to critique life under the Soviet regime, which was a very common practice. It was the way to criticize the regime," he said.
Other pieces by Kulhánek are more ambiguous, depicting human faces in various states of fragmentation, as though they are being erased or obscured. "There's a critique of the logic of the unknown" at work.
Czech artist Jiří Anderle used repeated images of the human form. In an email, University of Montana art professor and printmaker Elizabeth Dove said his "exquisitely rendered, but stubbornly incomplete etches of people are echoes of his experiences living under the oppression of the Iron Curtain."
Surrealism was another important tool, on display in work by Slovak artists Albin Brunovsky and Vladimir Gazovic.
"It was something that outstripped the regime's ability to control meaning. It used symbols like eggs and spiral forms that simply aren't part of the symbolic order of Soviet power," Canwell said.
Their use provides an interesting contrast with surrealism in the West, he said. While the abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock drew on the form to create pure abstract paintings, artists under the Soviet Union employed the style to "assert a kinship" with Western Europe and express themselves in a way that was "inscrutable to the authorities and the censors."
Canwell said the medium of printmaking is notable. As "unofficial" artists, they couldn't share their work in "official" state venues such as museums. They cultivated their own alternatives, such as apartments, or shipped their work to other countries — prints are more easily transported than paintings or sculptures.
Printmaking originated in Europe, too, so it functioned as a way of holding on to their own traditions in the face of totalitarianism.
The Montana Museum of Art and Culture will hold a reception for "Decades: Ceramics in the Permanent Collection” and “Contemporary Eastern European Prints: Recent Gifts from J. Scott Patnode” from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 11, in the lobby of the Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center at the University of Montana.
The MMAC and the Roxy Theater have lined up an Eastern European Film Series. All screenings are at the Roxy. Tickets are $8 for the general public and $7 for students and seniors.
• 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 22: “The Unbearable Lightness of Being"
• 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 12: “Werckmeister Harmonies”
• 7 p.m. Monday, March 5: “Three Colors” trilogy Part I
• 7 p.m. Monday, March 12: “Three Colors” trilogy Part II
• 7 p.m. Monday, March 19: “Three Colors” trilogy Part III
5:15-6:15 p.m. Thursday, April 5, Paxson Gallery, PAR/TV Center: Curator-led tour of “Contemporary Eastern European Prints: Recent Gifts from J. Scott Patnode” with MMAC Curator of Art Jeremy Canwell.
• 5:15-6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 12, Paxson Gallery, gallery walk and UM print shop tour with UM professor of printmaking and painting/drawing James Bailey.