Katy Burns: A Granite State gem

Monitor columnist
Sunday, November 12, 2017

One of this country’s most beloved artists – if one not always esteemed by critics – was New England’s own Norman Rockwell, who gained fame and a modicum of fortune with his prolific production of paintings memorializing ordinary American life.

Much of his bread-and-butter work was for magazine covers and calendars. For years he was dismissed by his fellow artists as a “calendar artist” turning out kitsch.

Today Rockwell’s beguiling work is increasingly esteemed and is sought for museums. It commands prices well into the millions.

Another distinctive artist of an earlier generation was Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, scion of a family of minor French aristocracy, who in a prolific but short lifetime created paintings and lithographs depicting a lifestyle as memorable – if a whole lot less wholesome – as that in Rockwell’s “calendar art.” He was drawn to the bars and brothels of the bohemian neighborhood of Paris’s Montmartre, and he particularly celebrated prostitutes and dancers.

He, too, was scornfully dismissed by some of his fellow artists, and in 1901 he died at the age of 36 of complications of alcoholism and syphilis. But even by the end of his life he had become popular with ordinary people, and Lautrec’s work – as distinctive in its own way as Rockwell’s – draws big prices and large audiences today.

Now Granite Staters have a limited time – through Jan. 7 – to enjoy a collection of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters and prints at Manchester’s Currier Museum of Art, a true gem of the state’s cultural offerings.

The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters From The Museum of Modern Art includes more than 100 posters, prints and books memorializing and even celebrating the 19th-century City of Lights demimonde. The works are artfully displayed through several rooms and are both identified and explained. The exhibit is a brief introduction to a time and place that captured the imagination of literary and artistic communities in this country as well as in Europe.

And the exhibit also offers an excuse to revisit (or perhaps visit for the first time) the Currier Museum, an 88-year-old institution often called the best small museum north of Boston – and one of the best cultural and educational bargains in northern New England as well, with an $80 annual household membership offering (among other benefits) unlimited admission for two adults and all family members aged 17 and younger.

The museum opened its doors in 1929 in a pleasant, leafy neighborhood near downtown Manchester as the Currier Gallery of Art. It occupied the site of the mansion of Moody Currier (a lawyer, banker and one-time New Hampshire governor) and Hannah Slade Currier, his third wife. A generous bequest from the Curriers funded the building, a rather grand affair that has been considerably enlarged and updated in the early 2000s in an expansion and modernization that saw the museum close for two years.

Its permanent collection boasts European and American paintings (including works by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, O’Keeffe, John Singer Sargent and Andrew Wyeth), decorative arts (including some fine furniture), photography and sculpture.

Its special exhibits have included everything from a stunning and moving display of news photographs (many haunting, others searing) from the battlefields in Vietnam to the marvelously detailed drawings of America’s most famous ornithologist, naturalist and painter, John James Audubon, who two centuries ago painted not just birds but other animals in naturalistic settings.

Other special shows have included the curious art of contemporary paper-cutting, paintings focused on the 19th century Mount Washington region, and “Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe,” capturing “300 years of fabulous footwear.” It featured historic and contemporary shoes as “stunning architectural creations and works of art in their own right.” I might add as “notorious instruments of torture” as well.

Several years ago, the Currier had a special exhibit of the paintings and prints of once-phenomenally popular illustrator Maxfield Parrish, who plied his trade in our own bucolic Plainfield on the Connecticut River, and in March the museum will host an exhibit of the works of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, an American sculptor who achieved near-rock star fame just over 100 years ago and was Parrish’s neighbor in nearby Cornish.

The modern Currier is a lovely building, with its lobby and gift shop (of course there’s a gift shop! This is 2017!) awash in light from a wall of windows. In the center of the building, there is a charming casual cafe also flooded with light from a large glass skylight.

The exhibit rooms and corridors are appropriately muted, with sun banished, but they offer warm backdrops for the collections, and there are unobtrusive benches scattered throughout for contemplative viewing or just resting. And the museum isn’t big enough to be intimidating or exhausting.

The Currier has an added attraction, the Zimmerman House, in north Manchester. It’s the only Frank Lloyd Wright building in New England open to the public, and the museum schedules limited tours of the property.

Plus, the museum offers educational programs for both adults and children in the hopes of fostering museum-goers of the future. Throw a bowl or two or weave a basket, Mom, Dad! Learn to draw something besides stick figures, kids!

Above all else, though, the Currier Museum of Art offers a soothing respite from the ever-increasing cacophony of discordant news and noise that seems to fill the very air these days. You can wander at will, enjoying the exhibits, or, if you’d like, just sit and contemplate the peace and beauty of the place.

Try it.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)