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Indepth Arts News:

"Picturing the Banjo"
2005-12-10 until 2006-03-05
Corcoran Gallery of Art
Washington, DC, USA

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. 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.

"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).

Portrait of Theresa Vaughn playing a
Fairbanks Electric No. 2 banjo
c. 1895,
6 x 4 1/4 inches
Collection of James F. Bollman

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