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  • Ken Perrotte

'Storied Strings' Art Exhibition Details Influences of Guitar in Culture, Change and Storytelling

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

The exhibition Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art is closing at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It next travels to Nashville where it will be on view at the Frist Art Museum, May 26–Aug. 13, 2023. It's well worth checking out!

An incredible exhibition related to guitars and how they’ve appeared in art and helped shape culture for centuries is concluding its run at Virginia’s Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Called “Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art,” it explores the guitar as visual subject, enduring symbol, and storyteller’s companion. The exhibit wraps up in Richmond on March 19, 2023. I wish I had gotten to it earlier.

The exhibition includes some 135 works of art, photographs, sculpture, and 35 classic, historic guitars. It is billed as the “first exhibition to explore the instrument’s symbolism in American art from the early 19th century to the present day.” It does just that, illustrating how guitars were part of colonial life, became key tools in social change, and inspired countless stories by way of musical expression and song.

In a sense, it attempts to portray the guitar as a bit of an everyman’s instrument. After all, it’s fairly portable and accessible financially. With diligence and practice, most people can figure out rudimentary chords and make music. Mastery, though, is elusive, earned by those who are willing to practice exceptionally long hours, develop and maintain the needed dexterity and – yes – have, perhaps, a sort of intrinsic musical talent.

The art in the exhibition is assembled from myriad museums and private collections. Works in Storied Strings are divided into multiple sections, including Aestheticizing a Motif; Cold Hard Cash; Hispanicization; Parlor Games; Personification; Picturing Performance; Political Guitars; the Guitar in Black Art and Culture; and Re-Gendered Instruments. The exhibition also features smaller thematically arranged niche spaces, including The Blues; Women in Early Country Music; the Visual Culture of Early Rock and Roll; Hawaii-ana; and Cowboy Guitars.

Women are prominently featured throughout, given their own “Guitar Wielding Women” space early in. While guitars were sometimes props, they could also be symbols of expression and empowerment, conveying everything from intelligence to comportment to sexuality. The 1773 painting of Lucy Randolph Burwell by Matthew Pratt depicts a wealthy young lady with her hands positioned so as to indicate “skilled playing.” Such skill is cited as an example of “the useful accomplishment that a well-bred young Chesapeake lady should attain.” The oil on canvas, “Lady at a Table,” painted in oil on canvas in 1836 by American portrait, genre and landscape artist Amasa Hewins, appears early in the exhibition. What stood out to me was the guitar leaning against the chair, French in origin, with its mustache-style bridge. Modern guitar fans recognize that style of bridge as being a hallmark feature of Gibson’s SJ-200 jumbo acoustic electric guitars of today, models played and revered by many recording and performing artists.

“Singing cowgirls” are honored -- women who featured in the rise in country music. Included are guitars and images of artists such as Lulu Belle and her Martin D-18, the Carter family, and Kitty Wells, another pioneer. Lulu Belle was a star of the radio show “National Barn Dance,” broadcast out of Chicago in 1932. Another exhibit shows some of the campfire-sized guitars of the singing cowboys, including a Harmony/Supertone “Singing Cowboys” guitar, sold by Sears Roebuck & Co., from 1938 to 1950. Stenciled guitars with Hawaiian motifs are also covered, guitars that enjoyed a certain mystique and popularity in the middle of the 20th Century

Blind performers are featured in multiple sections of the exhibition, some using their instruments to make do, simply exist day-to-day on the streets with other works showing an elevated level of performance and engagement. A 1933-1938 era photo of a blind man playing in France exemplifies how his financial well-being related to his performance abilities.

One 1948 conte crayon and gouache piece called Blind Boy and Monkey is stark in its

depiction of a decaying environment and the desperate need for some coins in the tin cup held by the player’s organ grinder monkey assistant. One thing I’ve learned from watching too many Indiana Jones and other like movies is to never trust the monkey…

The extensive Guitar in Black Art and Culture segment of the exhibition has multiple entries related to the seminal influences of Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, and the work by John Lomax, an archivist from the Library of Congress who was traveling and working to record and document American folk music, including the blues genre in the South that shaped much of it. Lomax and his son first encountered Ledbetter at Louisiana’s Angola Prison, where he was incarcerated for attempted murder. The Lomaxes get credit for discovering Ledbetter, but they and their publisher also exploited him with their 1936 book “Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly,” which portrayed him, according to the exhibit, as “mentally challenged and sexually rapacious.” An oil and graphite by Charles White rendering of Lead Belly “repurposes” the folksy photo of Lead Belly on the book, instead placing him in prison garb and shackles.

Another incredible Charles White painting, the 1952 oil on canvas “Goodnight Irene,” relates to a 1935 newsreel dramatization of Ledbetter’s bid for early release from prison with Lomax’ help. In the newsreel, Lomax records Ledbetter singing “Goodnight Irene” in his prison cell, hoping the recording will sway the governor to have mercy on a man of such talent. The painting transitions from the jail cell, showing a woman with folded arms, eyes closed, resting on the back of a chair where Ledbetter is sitting and playing. The song, according to the exhibit, was a centerpiece tune in the folk music revival of the 1940s to 1960s.

One portion of the exhibition shows how guitars and artists figured in social change and protest movements. As might be expected, artists from Bob Dylan to Springsteen are included.

Guitars played by Les Paul, John Lee Hooker and originals from the C.F. Martin Company, Fender, Gibson and others are also included in the exhibition.

One of the coolest things Richmond did relative to the exhibition was create the Richmond Sessions ’22–’23 program, a series of studio recordings by diverse guitarists who performed and recorded in a specially constructed studio right there on the exhibition floor. Seeing a virtuoso like Tommy Emmanuel playing and philosophizing about guitars, and describing his music is, simply, incredible and inspiring. “What practice does is set you free,” he declares…Get practicing youngsters.

Elizabeth Wise, a blues guitar and vocals artisan well known in the Richmond, Virginia, area is another guest performer. The full series is available on YouTube.

Finally, in keeping with “It’s never good to be late,” I sadly missed out on getting to try a specially canned Starr Hill Brewery Storied Strings Lager, a limited-edition beer celebrating the exhibition. They were sold out, apparently well before my visit to the Virginia Fine Arts Museum. I did pick up one of the two acoustics they had available for pickers to try in an early portion of the exhibition. The nylon strings sounded good in the acoustics of the alcove set aside for a little fooling around.

No guitar photos ever show someone playing a simple D - well, here it is...

General admission is always free to the museum as are many exhibit halls. The museum is at 200 N. Arthur Ashe Boulevard, Richmond, Virginia, 23220. It also has a restaurant and café. Check out the website before visiting.


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