Storied Strings at The VMFA: These Strings Tell Stories (And Kill Fascists)

by | Oct 10, 2022 | ART, MUSEUM / GALLERY, PINNED

If you visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on a regular basis, you will no doubt be familiar with its extensive and varied collection; their remarkable permanent collection of artworks is over 50,000 strong. However, the ever-changing featured exhibition is often a hidden gem inside this world-renowned art museum. Over the last several years, the VMFA has played host to everything from the Terracotta Army, a collection of sculptures depicting the armies of the first emperor of China, to Congo Masks, a series of masks from the Congo region of Central Africa. This fall, for its latest featured exhibition, the VMFA is turning its gaze to the guitar and the role this musical instrument has played in inspiring not only American painters, but also manufacturers, and those who decided to pick one up and use it as an instrument of freedom and expression. Featuring over 100 works of art, from the 19th century to the present, as well as around 35 different musical instruments, it is a playground for those who understand and love the guitar, and a unique experience for those who are seeking to learn more.

The guitar is an instrument with a rich and complex history, one that plays a wide-ranging, versatile role in today’s music. However, it originated as just one of several simpler chordophones that developed over multiple centuries. In its earliest recognizable form, the guitar most likely developed in Spain during the 15th or 16th centuries. The instrument we know now, in the early-21st-century United States, is almost unrecognizable compared to its original incarnations from over 500 years ago. Over the past century, people like Les Paul helped develop the solid-body electric guitar, which has gone on to be a defining sound in American music of all genres: rock, pop, hip hop, and more. Storied Strings focuses less on the history of the guitar as a whole, though, and instead chooses to focus on how the guitar has inspired American artists over the last three centuries, and on the craftsmanship and artwork of the guitar itself.

Walking into the first room of the VMFA’s Altria Gallery, one is greeted by multiple artworks from the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as a few vintage guitar specimens. This includes a rare vintage Gibson Mandolin-Guitar, among other examples of the instrument as it developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As you move into the next rooms, you will begin to see exhibits highlighting the guitar as a tool used by marginalized groups to give voice to the woe of disenfranchisement. These vary from a picture of Bob Dylan playing guitar in an alley in 1963 to film footage showing Muscogee Nation musician Tsianina Redfeather Blackstone playing for a group of wounded soldiers in England in 1918. Although many of the installations do not feature the music itself, there are a few that show off the music of famous American Musicians of the 20th Century. Perhaps the most impressive of these is the installation featuring legendary 12-string guitar player Huddie William Leadbetter (A.K.A. Lead Belly).

Goodnight Irene, 1952, Charles White (American, 1918–1979), oil on canvas, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 2014.28. © The Charles White Archives.

Farther into the exhibition, one will happen upon a yellow striped couch reflecting the painting it sits in front of, featuring two women reclining on a couch playing guitar. This installation has two Yamaha nylon-string guitars hanging on the wall, and invites attendees to pick them up and learn how to play. Now if you are an avid guitar player like myself, when this kind of situation presents itself, the inevitable need to show off rears its ugly head. So I snatched up one of the guitars and began playing Study in E Minor by Francisco Tárrega.

It was at this point that I was approached by the exhibit’s curator Dr. Leo G Mazow, who picked up the other guitar and asked me with vigor “you wanna hear some rock and roll?!” He then proceeded to play a variety of 1970’s guitar licks. Dr. Mazow and I talked about his extensive curation process, as well as some of his early inspiration for the exhibit — including the famous photo of Woody Guthrie with his guitar that says “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS.” Having a vested interest in the influence of music and musical instruments on American culture, Dr. Mazow is the author of Thomas Hart Benton and the American Sound, as well as having curated the exhibit Picturing the Banjo while he was Curator of American Art at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University.

Mazow spoke at great length about his love of the guitar as an instrument for social change, pointing to its accessibility and relative affordability. He mentioned that the guitar has a decently low barrier for entry to be able to strum out chords that accompany the player’s voice; with only four chords, the average player could perform a majority of pop songs, or even a Bob Dylan tune. All of this leads to the guitar’s role as an egalitarian answer to the often expensive and inaccessible world of the classical musical tradition.

Jessie with Guitar, 1957, Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889–1975), oil on canvas, 42 x 30 ½ in. Jessie Benton Collection © 2022 T.H. and R.P. Benton Trusts / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

One of the most interesting features of the exhibition is at the very end, where the VMFA has teamed up with In Your Ear Studios to construct a fully functional recording studio. Over the course of the next five months, the VMFA has lined up a roster of world guitar players who will be cycling through to participate in what the VMFA has dubbed Richmond Sessions ‘22-’23. A joint interview/recording session, they will be launching on the VMFA’s Youtube Channel on October 12, 2022, and releasing a new recording every other week until March of 2023. Richmond Sessions ‘22-’23 will have everyone from Retrosphere’s Seamus McDaniel and Cat Dail to one of my personal favorite guitarists, Tommy Emmanuel. The VMFA will not be publicizing the dates that the artist will be present, in order to prevent overcrowding in the small exhibit space and to avoid potential damage to the one-of-a-kind artworks in the museum. That said, if you’re lucky, you may stumble upon one of your favorite artists at work during your visit.

Near the end of the exhibition I ran into Paul Bruski, Chief Engineer of In Your Ear Studios, who will be acting as engineer for Richmond Sessions ‘22-’23. Bruski and I talked about the gear that was used to equip the studio and make it record-ready, with microphones, sound boards, and monitors provided by Ear Trumpet Labs, Sennheiser, and Neumann. He also went on to speak about the mystic air surrounding musicians, how the creative process can often seem like magic, and how he has the desire to lay that bare for the public so that the work of an artist might be more accessible, thus furthering the image of the guitar as an instrument of the masses.

Tickets are on sale right now for Storied Strings at the VMFA. The exhibition, which began on Saturday, October 8, will be on display through March 19. Tickets are $16 for adults, $10 for students and youth, and free for VMFA members. Order them at the VMFA’s website, and be sure not to miss this one-of-a-kind exhibition of the guitar and the lives and work of those who made them, played them, and were inspired by them.

Top Photo: Coachella Valley—Mexican Laborers around Camp, 1935, Dorothea Lange (American, 1895–1965), gelatin silver print, 9 15/16 x 8 in. © The Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Paul S. Taylor, A67.137.94601

Andrew Bonieskie

Andrew Bonieskie

The 2022 Weekend Editor of RVA Magazine, Andrew Bonieskie is a writer and composer living in Richmond, Virginia. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in music and a minor in creative writing Bonieskie has gone on to score feature and short films, released a book of poetry, and frequently performs lead vocals with the band Pebbles Palace.

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