“Urban Landscapes” Looks at City Living Over the Past Century
Artwork: Richard Estes, (American, b.1932), Baby Doll Lounge, 1978, oil on canvas, 36 1/8 x 60 in., Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire. Museum Purchase: The Henry Melville Fuller Acquisition Fund, 2014.48. © Richard Estes, courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York.
Life on earth is a curious thing. For the better part of history, people lived off the land. That is, until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, which changed the very landscape of life itself. In 1800, only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in cities—but as industrialization took hold of every facet of modern life, a new culture of urban dwellers emerged.
Manchester, New Hampshire, is the quintessential example of this transformation in lifestyle. Long before Europeans came to colonize the land, the natives of the Pennacook tribe called it “good fishing place,” in reference to the Amoskeag Falls on the Merrimack River. In 1807, Samuel Blodget set up a canal and lock system on the falls to ships navigate the waterway, as well as provide water power to fuel industrial development. For at his heart, Blodget held a singular vision: to create a Manchester of his very own. His dream came true when Manchester was incorporated in 1846, and has since gone on to become one of the most stable urban centers in the United States.
As such it offers a distinct perspective on city life, one that is beautifully rendered in Urban Landscapes: Manchester and the Modern City, at the Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, on view now through August 29, 2016. The exhibition, which features more than 100 objects by artists including Jerome Liebling, Berenice Abbott, Garry Winogrand, Catherine Opie, and Richard Estes, spans a century of life in America.
The exhibition explores three themes including People in the City, City as Stage for Activism, and Modern Architecture and the City. In this way, we look at the various aspects of urban life, including the intense proximity of people and its impact on the way in which people live their lives in relation to each other. We see a place where worlds converge and collide, giving us new understanding of the way in which human beings adapt to their environments.
Taking it one step further, Urban Landscapes looks at how this cross-pollination of the populace sets the stage for political activism. As the Great Migration drove waves of black folks north throughout the twentieth century, they were met with the open hostility and a wide array of discriminatory practices. As African American soldiers returned from serving in World War II, they took to the streets in mass demonstrations and strikes to demand justice, much as the worker’s rights movements of the 1920s and ‘30s had done a generation earlier.
The exhibition brings it home with Modern Architecture and the City, which gives us a look into the way private spaces are constructed for personal and professional use in the urban setting. In many ways, form follows function, as American architect Louis Sullivan understood. In the cityscape, the key feature is the building and the way it sits on the block, defining both the interior and exterior experiences of life. As such buildings become an integral part of the city, in the way that they become characters themselves, taking on a personality that defines the locale.
Taken as a whole, Urban Landscapes reminds us of the joys of city life, of the beauty of these extreme man-made environments that are coming to dominate the earth. As millions converge on the same location in the hopes of a better life, everything has changed: 2008 marks the first year the world’s population split evenly between urban and rural areas. Projections place 70 percent of the population in cities by 2050—reminding us that the future of the city remains to be seen.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.