Picturing the Banjo, an Exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington

Washington (D.C.), USA – Picturing the Banjo will be the
first exhibition to underscore the banjo’s symbolism in American art from the
eighteenth century through the present day. Organized by the Palmer Museum of
Art at The Pennsylvania State University, Picturing the Banjo will debut at the
Corcoran where it will be on view from December 10, 2005 through March 5, 2006.
The banjo is one of the most frequently encountered icons in American art.
Historians and curators have amply documented the evolution of the instrument
itself, yet its recurring imagery in paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and
decorative arts, has escaped prolonged scholarly engagement. “For more than two centuries, the banjo has played an integral role in American history and culture and has inspired an eclectic array of artists,” said Sarah Cash, the Corcoran’s Bechhoefer Curator of American Art. “A highlight of the Corcoran’s own collection is Richard Norris Brooke’s best-known work, A Pastoral Visit, which exemplifies the frequent presence of the banjo in visual representations of the African American community. The banjo bridges the aural and visual histories of America from its use by African Americans on antebellum plantations to its enjoyment by Anglo-Americans in their Gilded Age parlors.”

From the stringed gourd instrument brought to this country by West African slaves in the eighteenth century, to its presence in the nineteenth-century minstrel show and the Gilded Age parlor, to its depiction in twentieth-century African American self-portraiture, the evolution of the banjo illuminates several national sagas and histories, including racial typing, minstrelsy and the rise and fall of vaudeville and other popular entertainments. Artists have seen the banjo as a Janus-faced cultural monument, capable of denoting such themes as simplicity, ridicule nostalgia and authenticity.

Picturing the Banjo features 72 works on loan from 41 collections and examines the visual representation of the banjo, probing the icon’s aesthetic and cultural usage in American paintings, drawings, photographs and other artifacts. Included are banjo images by such artists as Thomas Hart Benton, Mary Cassatt, Charles Demuth, Thomas Eakins, Eastman Johnson, William H. Johnson, William Sidney Mount, Norman Rockwell and Betye Saar. Also on display are equally important works by some lesser-known practitioners, including Helen Corson, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Clare Rojas, Thomas Hope, D. Morrill and William Henry Snyder. The exhibition also includes a handful of musical instruments, including several “presentation banjos,” which were meant to be seen but not played. Other decorative art objects – including a banjo “chair” and accompanying tambourine stool – round out the exhibition.

The exhibition is divided into seven thematic categories. Early Artistic Prototypes explores the origin of the banjo’s depiction in British and American art and its appearance in works dating from the early eighteenth century, including Hans Sloane’s A Voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Neves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (1707-1725).

Performing Race and Type
showcases a wide variety of images in which the banjo appears as a racially and ethnically charged symbol. From antebellum sheet-music covers, to Reconstruction-era Currier & Ives prints, to paintings by Eastman Johnson and Thomas Hovenden, the image of the banjo is used to classify and enforce racial and regional differences.

The works in the section entitled Self-Performance challenge the often
denigrating typecasting exemplified by the previous grouping. Works by artists
as disparate as nineteenth-century genre painter, William Sidney Mount, and
twentieth-century illustrator, Miguel Covarrubias, portray the banjo player as a
master of the instrument’s manual and mental complexities. The subjects of these
works evoke the themes of pedagogy, spirituality and intellectual engagement.

The objects grouped in the fourth section, Ambivalent Banjos, show how
artists incorporated images of the banjo into works designed to neutralize – and
romanticize – relations among people of different socioeconomic and racial
backgrounds. The images in this category, such as William Ludlow Sheppard’s wood
engraving An Artist Selecting an Instrument (1874) and Norman Rockwell’s
painting The Banjo Player (1926), enlist the instrument to at once pay homage to
and belittle its players.

Parlor Games and Objets d’Art explores the banjo’s integral role in the
Gilded Age domestic interior and in still-life paintings. Several
presentation-grade instruments on display were in fact made for display rather
than performance. Alongside paintings, prints and watercolors will be a number
of rare historic instruments, including a six-bracket, scalloped-rim Boucher
banjo (1845). Some of the other instruments on display feature elaborate
carvings of gargoyles and idealized nudes, and fingerboards inlaid with
photographs, Masonic devices and bejeweled designs.

In the opening decades of the twentieth century, many artists began to employ
banjo iconography in works that posed deliberate challenges to the stereotypical
images of the previous 200 years. Artists represented in Banjo-Wielding Women
and Instruments of Activism
mobilize banjo imagery in an effort to transcend
and confront racial barriers. Among the highlights of this section are Mary
Cassatt’s drypoint The Banjo Lesson (c. 1893), Robert Gwathmey’s Non-Fiction
(1943) and Betye Saar’s incisive mixed media work Let Me Entertain You (1972).

From the Badlands paintings of Thomas Eakins to the hybrid instruments of
William T. Wiley, artists have long explored the expressive potential of
vernacular banjo symbolism. A final category, Picturing the Vernacular, examines
the manner in which these and other artists understood the instrument as an
emblem of folk authenticity and identity.

Using the banjo as a means to explore American history from the pre-Civil
War area to today creates a unique narrative never before assembled in an
,” said Leo G. Mazow, Curator of American Art at the Palmer Museum
of Art and Affiliate Professor of Art History at The Pennsylvania State
University. “Given the Corcoran’s significant American art collection, as
well as the museum’s location near the heart of bluegrass country, it is an
ideal location in which to premiere this exhibition

Complementing the exhibition, a 200-page book,

Picturing the Banjo
, with seven essays and color illustrations has
been published by Penn State Press in association with the Palmer Museum of Art.
The publication will contain critical essays on the topic, written by Leo Mazow;
Sarah Burns, Ruth N. Halls Professor of Fine Arts, Indiana University –
Bloomington; John Davis, Alice Pratt Brown Professor and Chair of the Art
Department, Smith College; Michael D. Harris, Professor of Art History,
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Joyce Henri Robinson, curator, Palmer
Museum of Art; and Cecelia Tichi, William R. Kenan Professor of English,
Vanderbilt University. The catalogue also contains several 350-word sidebars by
social historians, musicologists, folklorists, and musicians, as well as a
checklist, bibliography and index.

Picturing the Banjo is organized by the Palmer Museum of Art of The
Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, with support from
the Friends of the Palmer Museum of Art.

The Corcoran’s presentation is supported by the Steve Martin Charitable
Foundation, Catherine Dail, an anonymous donor and The President’s Exhibition

Leo G. Mazow, Curator of American Art at the Palmer Museum of Art and Affiliate
Professor of Art History at The Pennsylvania State University, is curator of the
exhibition. Coordinating curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is Sarah Cash,
Bechhoefer Curator of American Art, with the collaboration of Emily Shapiro,
Assistant Curator of American Art.

After closing at the Corcoran, the exhibition will be on display at the Palmer
Museum from March 30 through June 25, 2006 and the Boston Athenaeum from July 26
through October 21, 2006.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art was founded in 1869 as Washington’s first museum of
art. It is a privately funded institution incorporating both a museum and
college of art and design. As one of America’s oldest art institutions, the
Corcoran is known internationally for its distinguished collection of historical
and modern American art, as well as European painting, sculpture, photography
and decorative arts.

Founded in 1890, the Corcoran College of Art + Design is Washington’s only
4-year college of art and design. The college currently offers four-year
Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree programs; two-year Associate of Fine Arts (AFA)
degree programs; Master of Arts (MA) degree programs in Interior Design, the
History of Decorative Arts and Teaching, and a Continuing Education program
encompassing more than 300 courses and 14 certificate programs for part-time
adult students; as well as year-round classes designed especially for children
and teens.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art is located at New York Avenue and 17th Street, NW,
Washington, D.C. and is open Wednesdays – Sundays from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and
until 9 p.m. on Thursdays. The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but
open on holiday Mondays. Admission to the Corcoran is: $8.00 for adults; $6.00
for senior citizens and U.S. military personnel; $4 for students with current ID
and $3 for Member guests. Admission is always free for Members and children
under 12. Admission is “pay as you wish” on Thursdays after 5 p.m. For
information about the museum, call (202) 639-1700 or visit
www.corcoran.org. For information about
the college, call (202) 639-1800 or visit www.corcoran.edu.