This article is part of our dedicated Museums section on how art institutions reach new artists and attract new audiences.
Guitarists and their music — from folk singers to rock and roll stars and protest songs — figure prominently in American history and culture, but the instrument has a remarkable heritage of its own.
“The guitar itself can have meaning beyond simply being beautiful or making music,” said Mark Scala, chief curator of the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, where “Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art,” on display May 26 through and August 13 explores the symbolism of the guitar in American art, from late 18th-century salons to contemporary concert halls.
More than 165 works are on display: paintings, sculptures, photography, works on paper, illustrations, videos, music in multimedia presentations and musical instruments, including a rare cittern, a popular string instrument in the 18th and 19th centuries, and pioneering guitars by Fender, Gibson and C. F. Martin & Company.
Twelve thematic sections, with names such as “Cowboy Guitars,” “Iconic Women of Early Country Music,” and “Hispanicization,” intertwine how artists and photographers have used the guitar as a visual motif to express the American experience and attitudes, from thorny issues of race and identity to the aesthetics of guitars themselves.
Artworks in “Leisure, Culture, and Comfort: 18th and 19th Century America,” including a 1771 painting by Charles Willson Peale, the earliest image in the exhibit, depict old-fashioned scenes of women playing or passively holding guitars for pleasure.
“The guitar was seen as a symbol of cultivation and refinement, a sign of domestic achievement, such as needlework or writing poetry,” said Mr. Scala. But throughout the show, many images of guitar-playing women counter this gender stereotype, he said, by exuding self-confidence, independence, creativity and even sexual liberation.
“Guitars are kind of equal opportunity facilitators,” said Leo Mazow, curator of American art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, who organized “Storied Strings,” where it recently closed. (The exhibit will be adapted for the Frist, primarily to reflect Tennessee culture.)
He attributes the instrument’s popularity to its portability, affordability, easy-to-learn repertoire, and ability to host many different genres:
The “Blues and Folk” section will focus on the role of both idioms “in the formation of a voice that emerges from the people, music that is often put together to express identity or encourage change,” said Mr. Scala. Works featuring such figures as Lead Belly, Odetta, and Josh White appear here. Romare Bearden’s 1967 collage, “Three Folk Musicians,” a nod to Picasso’s “Three Musicians,” said Dr. Mazow,’ is a powerful work as it contrasts the guitar with its Western European origins against the banjo with its West African origins, yet carries little to none of the racially anguished baggage that the banjo does.
Dr. Mazow said one of his favorite works was Thomas Hart Benton’s 1957 “Jessie with Guitar,” by the artist’s daughter. “Each birthday he drew or painted her,” he explained, “and this painting is based on sketches made on the morning of her 18th birthday.” Based on conversations with Jessie, who died in February, he said, “This guitar provided the elderly dad with a way to bond with his young, hip daughter, who was something of a folk sensation.”
“There is a change coming” will highlights the guitar as a vehicle for political change, featuring images and videos of musicians — such as Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez — who “protest the hypocrisy of America’s social and political systems,” said Mr. Scala. Dorothea Lange’s 1935 photo “Coachella Valley” shows a Mexican worker playing guitar in a California camp, and Annie Leibovitz’s 1984 photo of Bruce Springsteen used to promote his “Born in the USA” tour will be to be seen.
“Making a Living” examines the role of money in music, “from historical paintings by blind street artists to today’s ultra-rich stars,” said Mr. Scala. Highlights include a 1912 oil painting of Robert Henri “Blind Singers”, a 1941 photo of Walker Evans “Blind Man with Guitar”, and more recent images of Chet Atkins and the Carter Sisters performing at the Grand Ole Opry, and Dolly Parton on her Tour bus.
“Personification” will explore how the guitar is commonly associated with the human body, using words to describe it like “neck” and “waist” and sometimes phallic connotations. A photo of BB King hugging his guitar named Lucille reflects how the guitar can also be a kind of extension of, or avatar for, the human body, Mr. Scala said.
“The Visual Culture of Early Rock and Roll” features electric guitars from the 1950s and 1960s, including a 1959 Les Paul, instruments played by Eric Clapton, by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and footage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe playing electric guitar , a musician credited with transforming black church music. “Most of the guitars in this section were played by male rock ‘n’ roll stars,” said Mr. Scala. “I wanted to show her influence on the early development of rock ‘n’ roll, breaking through the gendered notion of the ‘guitar god’.”
Several design milestones have contributed to the guitar’s appeal as a visual icon. “The first American guitar manufacturer, CF Martin,” said Dr. Mazow, right after arriving from Germany in 1833, “is very concerned with aesthetics. There are several parts of early Martins, such as the ornate deck ornaments around the sound hole, that are not structural at all.” More than a century later, a 1954 Fender Stratocaster, which will be on display, is believed to be the first custom model, he said. “It takes us back to a time when one of the best electric luthiers decided that aesthetics count .”
Paul Polycarpou, a guitar collector whose rare pink Stratocaster appears on the show, said, “It’s art you can play.” Mr. Polycarpou, former editor and publisher of Nashville Arts Magazine, arrived in Nashville from England in the 1980s to play guitar while touring with Tammy Wynette. “It’s really ground zero for guitarists,” he said of Nashville. “Not just in country music, but in all genres, be it jazz, rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll or bluegrass.”
The Frist recently opened a companion exhibit, “Guitar Town: Picturing Performance Today,” on view through August 20, featuring works by 10 local photographers celebrating the Nashville music scene, featuring images of guitarists performing at venues across the city.
“Across America, if you have a story to tell, the guitar will help you tell it,” said Mr. polycarpou. “That’s what makes it such a powerful symbol. Who can forget Elvis Presley rocking that guitar? You can’t forget that image of a young Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” on a black and white television. You won’t forget that once you see it. It is that powerful.”