Picturing the Banjo

by Robin Tierney

Having evolved from a stringed gourd instrument brought by slaves from West Africa to America in the 1700s, the banjo has been appropriated as an American icon.  A richly storied one at that, by virtue of culture-crossing from plantation to parlors, from minstrel shows to blue-eyed Bluegrass Country and then its star role in the 1972 film Deliverance.

Musical and social histories resound throughout Picturing the Banjo – the first exhibition to display the brightly melodic instrument’s symbolism in America art.  Curated by Leo Mazow at Penn State’s Palmer Museum of Art, the show debuted last week at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Highlights include A Pastoral Visit, Richard Norris Brooke’s best-known work.  This 1881 oil from the Corcoran collection inspired the exhibit, said Sarah Cash, the gallery’s Bechhoefer Curator of American Art.  Brooke hailed from Warrenton, Va., probably the setting of the scene.  As an African American family gathers at the table with the pastor, the banjo rests on a stool in the center.  The instrument that requires such manual and mental dexterity looms large as a piece of tradition – and a baggage-laden symbol, thus anchoring the “Ambivalent Banjos” section of the exhibit.

Learning the historical and cultural context of artworks imbues them with greater appeal and power.  Intrigued by the new interpretations of the Brooke painting’s social meaning that emerged while working on the exhibit, Cash reveals how a curator looks beyond the surface.

“I had never really thought about the paradox between the banjo’s central location in the painting and the fact it is lying fallow, and the mixed messages about the instrument and potentially about African Americans’ perceived marginalized status that we can possibly read in the painting,” says Cash, who has been with the Corcoran seven years.  “Seeing it in context of other American images depicting the banjo was quite enlightening.”

Among pieces that pulse with secrets and insights: Eastman Johnson’s oil painting Old Kentucky – Life in the South from 1859, two years before war broke out.  The portrayal of family and friends gently undermines stereotypes, invokes morality and suggests connections to abolitionist literature.  And rather than Kentucky, the scene probably depicts F Street between 13th and 14th Streets right here in D.C.–which was politically torn at the time over slavery.

A DC area resident for 25 years, Cash has often walked through that very neighborhood.  “Now that I know that area looked the way it did in Johnson’s paintings and was home to slaves and a whole different culture, I find it fascinating to transport myself back to that time mentally.”

While leading a tour of the exhibit, Mazow described how banjos play into the dual nature of culture–“Culture” with a capital C as well as culture, the common stuff of everyday life.  They also illustrate and illuminate the fluctuating meanings of race in American history.  As Mazow notes, surveying the exhibit begs the question, “How do stereotypes considered innocuous one day become so odious the next?”

On the exhibit walls, the banjo is alternately a reflection of a familial love of song and a racially charged symbol.  Remarkably preserved sheet music illustrations such as that for Alabama Joe (1840) have the power to captivate as well as infuriate.  Even after Civil War and Emancipation, Currier & Ives profited from disparaging images such as “Darktown Comics” of the 1880s.  Viewing their depictions of stereotyped African Americans engaged in demoralizing activities,the “Printmakers to the American People” no longer seem so quaint and nostalgic, but rather racist.

In contrast, Henry Ossawa Tanner through his 1893 masterpiece, The Banjo Lesson, reclaims the instrument from its sad emblem of demeaned blackness and restores it to a symbol of musical transcendence, self-expression and cultural pride. The oil on canvas depicts a dignified elderly man lovingly passing along musical tradition to a child.

Looking back through rose-colored glasses, handsome works by Norman Rockwell and others attempt to romanticize relations between races and economic classes.

Another fascinating piece is Frog in Your Throat, a 3-D advertising display from a Philadelphia apothecary shop.  The charming circa 1900 signage promises that the “licquorice horehound” lozenges will, like the melodious banjo, clear that froggy voice.  Fans of William Wegman’s Weimaraners will adore the 1980 print Blue Period with Banjo.

Engaging the mind as much as the eye, the works in Picturing the Banjo envelop the viewer with intense thoughts to ponder – such as how societal attitudes evolve and why enlightenment takes so achingly long.

Picturing the Banjo Exhibition
On view through March 5

Corcoran Gallery of Art
500 Seventeenth St., NW