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Updated: November 23, 2022 @ 1:52 am
She’s been a familiar figure at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester for more than three decades, but a redesign at the Ash Street institution has unexpectedly given her and many other treasures renewed attention.
“Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii,” sculpted in 1863 by Randolph Rogers, leans forward intently, cupping a hand to an ear as she leads companions through darkened rubble-strewn streets and strains to decipher the sounds of the erupting Mount Vesuvius and debris raining down on the city in 79 AD.
But the landscape behind her has changed dramatically.
A huge, circular abstract piece — titled “Sinjerli: Variation I” and created in 1968 by Frank Stella — is like a beacon, drawing museum visitors’ eyes to it and the marble statue now framed by swirls of color stretching toward the ceiling. It’s a stark contrast that somehow makes both pieces pop.
“To see (Nydia) against the Stella, people ask us, ‘Is this new?’ In a new context, she has a new voice,” said Kurt Sundstrom, the Currier’s senior curator of collections.
The second floor of the Currier looks a bit different these days. After taking down all the artwork and repainting the galleries, the Currier reinstalled its collections and recent acquisitions with a new blueprint, one that stretches through international cultures and traditions, and puts historical and contemporary works side by side in a sweeping narrative.
It’s an effort to make the galleries more cohesive. Museums often can find that after some years of adding newly purchased items to existing galleries, the overall focus can get crowded or muddled as people unintentionally gloss over familiar sights or head straight for certain exhibitions or favorite pieces.
“It’s easy to get one acquisition at a time and make it fit (in an existing gallery space) but there’s a certain point you hit critical mass. We needed to redesign the narrative we’re trying to tell,” Sundstrom said of the new layout. “It makes people pause a little bit and look a little closer.”
That cross-culture approach means the 19th-century gallery features favorites by American and French Impressionists (Claude Monet to Edmund Tarbell), alongside a new landscape by Black American artist Robert Duncanson, who worked in Virginia before the Civil War, and Chinese portraits made for American traders.
It’s a nod not only to the art but the collectors who brought home objects from around the world through international trade, and spotlights trends including a love of nature and a sense of nostalgia during times of war, industrialization, growth and tourism.
Previously, the abstract Stella piece had overwhelmed a downstairs contemporary gallery, where Sundstrom joked that it was less a beacon than a “vacuum cleaner. It sucked the energy out of the room.”
Nydia, which was inspired by a Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 19th-century novel “The Last Days of Pompeii,” used to share an upper balcony with pieces from a similar era.
In some ways, the new pairing was an unlikely choice.
“Usually we don’t put sculpture in front of a big painting like that and block the view,” Sundstrom said. “But for some reason, the two work extremely well together even though one is very geometric.”
Now both pieces stand out.
See for yourself. Museum hours are Wednesdays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Fridays and Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“You see it differently. In this context, you want to learn more about it. It makes people pause a little bit and look a little closer, and you see that interest start to develop.”
Look also for artist Alexandria Smith’s multimedia featuring wallpaper, paintings on wood, found objects and sculpture. It will be accompanied by an original sound piece titled “//windowed//” by Liz Gre. It recreates site-specific environments of Manchester and Portsmouth, and visitors’ responses will be added over time.
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