WASHINGTON — Clear your thoughts of banjo picking as happy music. Stop those toes from tapping. If you start humming the cheerful ripple of "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms," quit it. We're at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, for goodness' sake, and we're here to appreciate the banjo as an icon.
"Picturing the Banjo" is "the first exhibit to underscore the banjo's symbolism in American art," the gallery's news release proclaims. The show's 72 works include paintings, sketches, illustrations and a few antique instruments, dating to the 18th century. It was put together by Leo G. Mazow, curator of American art at Penn State's Palmer Museum. The Corcoran is the exhibition's first stop.
Sometimes a banjo is just a banjo. But not here. The gallery wants you to know that while other banjo exhibitions have been simply about the banjo, the Corcoran wasn't going to make that mistake. This show is about the metabanjo, and if that sounds like an exciting premise to you, then these three rooms divided into seven thematic categories will be heaven. For here the banjo is not picked -- it is picked apart. It is probed, prodded and pondered. These banjos are so laden with meaning it's a wonder they stick to their canvases.
Forget that outmoded notion of the banjo as mere musical instrument, as the chipper giddyap in a bluegrass band or the lilting heart of so many old-time gospel songs. And don't come expecting any nimble finger-rolling to be piped in over loudspeakers. You study the pictures in silence, and if you need help solving the puzzle of these banjo images, the descriptive wall labels are there to give you answers.
The banjo, as Mazow explained at the media opening, speaks to us about our national identity. It represents our need to understand the African folk culture whence it came. It marks "an effort to normalize the element of the Other into American musical life."
In this exhibition, the banjo is racially charged and sociologically weighty. Forget about strings and frets. These banjos are fraught. Deeply fraught. Some are even sexually fraught. Women's lib might be traced back to the banjo, if we correctly interpret Frances Benjamin Johnston's 1895 photo of a mischievous Miss Apperson in Sen. George Hearst's Washington mansion. Miss Apperson is juxtaposed with a statue of a goddess, a vision of Victorian virginity raised on a marble pedestal. Miss Apperson, however, is hardly so chaste ... for in her hands she holds a banjo. And she's having a good time with it.
As liberating as the banjo was for white women in the Gilded Age, it was just as confining to antebellum blacks, the show instructs. A banjo was shorthand for racism and enslavement. Many of the paintings in this section ("Performing Race and Type") are either demeaning to their subjects or oversimplified. The banjo, we are told, enforces the message.
In many cases, it clearly does. But in some, that interpretation feels too pat. The title figure in the 1815 painting "The Banjo Man," by an unknown artist, is a slave playing music for the entertainment of a group of white children. The text next to the work tells us this painting anticipates blacks being "imprisoned" by the instrument. We can take as a given that idyllic depictions of relaxed and happy black people are far removed from the brutal reality of slavery. But isn't it the prosperous-looking white man taking in the scene at the edge of the composition the one who is doing the imprisoning? If the banjo is truly a symbol of the chains of slavery, then why is the banjo player seated at the center of the painting, like a muse releasing the music, setting in motion an array of dancers as gracefully idealized as you'd find in any classical frieze?
We put the question to Mazow. "Did I say 'imprisoned?' " he asks, scanning the text. "Maybe that goes too far." We appreciate his flexibility. He adds that we can never truly know the artist's intention. We're with him on that.
What the banjo is not in this exhibit is fun. It is an object of reverence, certainly, in George Fuller's 1876 canvas "The Banjo Player," where you can feel the meditative concentration on the young man's face as he strums by a fireplace. Even the chicken posed at his feet seems lulled into listening.
But there is precious little joy here. Even Man Ray, the soulful doggy muse of photographer William Wegman, looks morose as he leans his graying muzzle over a banjo in "Blue Period With Banjo." The instrument is propped against a rubber Breath Sweet bone, just out of reach of the weepy-looking Weimaraner. Perhaps that's why he's so blue.