NEW LONDON, Conn. -- At the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, women rule -- at least until Feb. 4, when two special exhibitions will end.
"Femme brut(e)" highlights contemporary female artists who push the limits of their media, while "From the Hand of the Composer: The Art of Melissa Manchester" invites consideration of songwriting as a form of visual art. These exhibits supplement the museum's core collections of American art and furniture, and Italian art from the 14th through the 19th centuries.
The museum is in an elegant neoclassical building with high ceilings, wide stone staircases, and glass doors -- you have a sense that the artwork has room to breathe. And the pieces collected in "femme brut(e)" need breathing room. For the most part, they are large, bold, and aggressive. A photograph by Sally Mann titled "Black Eye" shows an adorable little girl with long curls and a lace-topped dress, asleep in an oversized armchair. It's reminiscent of a painting by Mary Cassatt, except for the purple bruise under one of the girl's eyes. Alison Saar's disturbing woodcuts show "Sweeping Beauty" an upside-down sleeping beauty with a corn broom head for hair, and Ulysses hanging by his ankles. One sculpture installation, "Capsule" by Ann Messner, occupies a small room. Made of welded steel, found objects, lead, and cast iron, it is starkly gray against the light walls.
The exhibition points to the historically marginalized position of women in art, according to Sherry Buckberrough, professor of art history and women's studies at the University of Hartford, who wrote much of the wall text accompanying the artwork. Most of these artists came of age during the revolutionary era of feminism, the late '60s and early '70s, when women's roles were being challenged in every sphere, including art.
"From the Hand of the Composer" evolved from a chance meeting and ensuing friendship between the museum's deputy director and curator, Nancy Stula, and singer/songwriter Melissa Manchester. The exhibition attempts to make the creative process of songwriting visual. It includes the initial, handwritten versions of Manchester's hit songs "Midnight Blue" and "Just You and I," as well as some tunes that were never recorded. In text accompanying the exhibit, Manchester says she always writes in pencil on a sketch pad because she likes to see how an idea progresses, "line by line, scratch by scratch, word by word."
For those of us who do not read music, it is easier to follow the composer's thinking in the scratched out and rewritten lyrics than it is to decipher the melodies. But there's no mistaking the similarity between the sketches of songs and the sketches in the room next door that were the first step in the creation of an oil painting, a sculpture, or a fresco by Italian artists.
Visitors are drawn to the museum's permanent exhibit "American Stories" by an arresting portrait of an 18th-century woman peering out a window at red-coated soldiers burning the town below. Elegantly dressed in lace and bustle, her upswept hair secured with jeweled combs, she is clutching a musket. This portrait is of Abigail Dolbeare Hinman, who according to family legend was attempting to shoot Benedict Arnold during an attack on New London. The work was painted almost a century later by Daniel Huntington for her family.
With paintings and artifacts, primarily furniture, the exhibit traces the American experience from the 18th through the early 20th centuries. It includes portraits by William Chandler and Gilbert Stuart, landscapes by Thomas Cole and other Hudson River School artists, and American I mpressionism by Willard Metcalf and J. Alden Weir, as well as New England silver, Tiffany glass goblets, and Rookwood pottery.
An exhibit of ship models by Pasquale Montesi of Fano, Italy, who moved to nearby Norwich in 1898, includes all types and sizes of ships, from schooners to tugboats, with intricately detailed masts and riggings. It serves to remind visitors that the ocean has always influenced life in this port city.
Contact Ellen Albanese at email@example.com.