BOSTON, MASS. – The visual artistry of guitars is the focus of “Dangerous Curves, ” that recently opened at the Museum of Fine Arts. The 130 instruments on display demonstrate both the mainstream development of the guitar and branch developments that prospered for a few decades before withering. About half of the instruments were created since World War II.
Guitars are popular and recently a number of coffee table books have been written on the subject. However, scholarly research on the development of guitars is limited. MFA musical instruments curator Darcey Kuronen commented, “My specialty is early American instruments. Two years ago we decided to do a guitar exhibit, and I assumed there was plenty of scholarly material on the history of guitars. We soon discovered there was plenty of published material, but most of information is recycled and superficial. The history of the guitar is a significant topic that has been seriously under researched.”
Kuronen addressed the scope and focus of his show. “Several years ago there was huge exhibit at the Smithsonian that looked at the guitar’s development during a seventy-year period, and considered the musical, visual, and technological evolution of the instrument. We chose to take a wider scope that reviewed the entire four hundred-year history of the instrument, and a narrower focus that followed the visual development apart from technological innovations. Our thinking was that in a fine arts museum we should focus on the visual arts and leave the technological aspects to a scientific museum.”
The catalog for the exhibition is yet another coffee table book, but Kuronen believes the photography is different and contributes a sharper stylistic emphasis. He stated, “The catalog has a photographic perspective that departs from the other guitar books on the market. We show details and unusual vantagepoints to depict the visual development of the guitar. The catalog has been available for several weeks, and I have received many compliments from professionals about the fresh perspective of the photographs. In the bigger sense, those photographs emphasize distinguishing features of specific guitars. I genuinely feel that our catalog has heightened an awareness of the visual style of guitars.”
Kuronen lamented that the catalog did not provide more historical answers about the evolution of the guitar. He explained, “We had two years to prepare the exhibition. At the most basic level, we needed to sift documented information from unsupported material that had been published. We have properly researched the descriptive material, but we have not had the time to research key questions about the evolutionary process.”
He then noted, “We received vital assistance on descriptive reviews from scholarly collectors such as Richard Bruney. Richard is a guitar maker [luthier] in Evanston, Ill., and he has been the leading researcher of classical guitars. However, an incredible amount of time is needed to determine a small amount of information about baroque makers. It has even been time-consuming to document the date of a guitar maker’s death in Twentieth Century America.”
Kuronen continued, “From a scholarly point of view, our exhibit establishes a baseline that another museum can build upon. There is now one account with a descriptive outline. However, it is true that many significant questions remain unanswered. In two years, there simply was not enough time to find substantive answers to those questions.”
Kuronen described the experience he wants the public to have at the exhibit. He enthused, “My hope is that visitors will leave the museum saying, ‘I had no idea! I never realized their had been such a fluidity to the design of the guitar. The instrument has been stretched to accommodate an extreme range of styles.’ I also hope people will enjoy the opportunity to view rare instruments seldom if ever on view in America. Even guitar enthusiasts will not have had a chance to view a Stradivari guitar, baroque guitar, or harp guitar before. I hope they will experience and appreciate this wonderful opportunity.”
Through most of its history, the guitar has been a folk instrument that has been used informally and only incidentally documented. In contrast, classical musicians have extensively used violins, and have written about their use. The guitar is thought to have originated in France and the Iberian Peninsula during the mid Sixteenth Century, but only sketchy information about the evolution is known.
The earliest guitar in the exhibit was created by Belchior Dias of Portugal about 1590. However, like other of the Sixteenth Century guitars, it has been extensively restored. In the Twentieth Century the neck and entire top were replaced.
A less restored early guitar is a circa 1690 example attributed to Jacob Ertel of Rome. As the illustration shows, this guitar had the basic conformation that we associate with guitars. The hollow body has two chambers or bouts, and the upper bout was more narrow and shorter than the lower bout. A soundhole was located near the waist and extended into the upper bout. A set of strings was anchored to the top of the guitar body by a bridge, and the upper ends of strings were tightened with tuning pegs located in the headstock that extended above the neck.
On closer examination, however, the guitar differs significantly from the modern guitars. The maximum body width is a little over nine inches, less than two-thirds of the width of today’s acoustical guitars. Rather than six strings, this guitar has five pairs of strings. The frets on the fingerboard (the topside of the neck) are tied loops of gut that are adjustable in contrast to the rigidly inset frets in today’s fingerboard. The soundhole is decorated with a pierced parchment insert. Extensive mother-of-pearl inlay descends to the headstock and neck and then encircles the body with both geometric and baroque details.
The top view misses the most striking visual field of the guitar. The bottom and sides of the body and neck are inlayed with tiny squares to create a parquetry design corresponding to a square tile pattern seen in some Renaissance floors. This is one of a dozen guitars in the exhibition that is displayed in the round, and the view of its backside is memorable.
There are only two guitars by Antonio Stradivari known to exist, and one of those is in the exhibition and also visible in the round. The most striking feature of the guitar is the phenomenal selection of woods. The sides and back are fashioned from tiger maple with wonderful figure that is comparable to that seen on Stradivari’s violins. No other early guitar in the exhibit features such fine maple. The top of the guitar has extremely fine-grained spruce that probably grew on the shaded northern slope of a mountain near Cremona. Today, American luthiers travel to Newfoundland searching for wood of similar quality.
As the guitar evolved, there were some variations that flourished briefly before falling out of fashion. The most visually beautiful of those was the lyre guitar, and France was the leading producing nation. The lyre guitar came into fashion around 1780 and faded from use around 1840. The one element of the lyre guitar that may have been incorporated into the modern guitar was the use of six single strings.
The lyre guitar was the first version of the guitar to gain a foothold in England. They were displayed in drawing rooms, and sometimes played by female amateurs. Unlike wind instruments, they could be played in a graceful manner that attractively presented the player.
Unfortunately, the lyre guitar looked more beautiful than it sounded. The guitar produced a tubby sound – low, long persisting chords lacking clear definition. When social fashion changed, the lyre guitar lacked any lasting value as a musical instrument, and it faded from use.
In the mid Nineteenth Century, the guitar reached the form we now know as the acoustical guitar. While the guitar was sometimes written into major compositions, it continued to be largely a folk instrument enjoyed by amateurs. One aspect of the folk tradition was that guitars were more elaborately decorated than professional instruments such as the violin. If the violin is a conservative instrument with little ornamentation, the guitar has been a decorative billboard.
The return of Napoleon’s ashes to France triggered an outpouring of sentiment in 1840. An extreme example of pearl and abalone shell inlay that memorialized the hero is the Antoine Anciaume guitar that is on display. The neck of the guitar is covered with column that spirals upward with each segment depicting one of Napoleon’s battlefields. On the headstock is a refined full portrait of the emperor.
An important precedent for American guitars is a Johann Georg Stauffer guitar of about 1830. When this guitar was produced, one of the shop foremen was Christian Frederick Martin. In 1833, Martin migrated to the United States, and he soon established himself as the first American guitar maker of note. Martin guitars closely resembled those produced by Stauffer. The most immediately recognizable feature was the headstock in the form of a scroll seen in profile and with all the tuning pegs to one side.
The folk instrument of choice in America from the late Nineteenth Century through World War I was the mandolin. During the 1880s Michigan luthier Orville Gibson adapted some features of the violin to his mandolins. Around 1902 Gibson introduced those features to his guitars that were intended to provide background accompaniment for the mandolins.
Gibson began to carve curved tops and bottoms for his guitars rather than following the traditional practice of using flat tops and bottoms. The production of the arched surfaces was labor intensive. The advantages were that the arch-top guitar had a distinctive appearance, and it provided a different tone.
Orville Gibson sold his company in 1902, and new owners successfully adapted the arch-top. In 1908 they produced the Style 0 Artist model with a flamboyant style that reconfigured the top section of the upper bout into a bold, asymmetrical scroll. The base side of the bout was rolled into a scroll punctuated with a white dot. The tenor side of the bout was trimmed away. Visually this created a void that emphasized the scroll on the opposite side. For the player, the cutaway provided easier access to the frets used for higher notes. Cutaways in various configurations have become common features of modern guitars.
The arch-top became a staple guitar of the Gibson line for the next six decades. Initially it was used to back up the mandolin, and in the 1920s it backed up the banjo. However with adjustments, the arch-top was configured to produce the volume needed to cut through the sound of a jazz band, and it became a popular lead instrument during the 1930s.
In 1932 the Rickenbacker A-22 model was introduced as the first commercially successful electric guitar. It was played as a lap guitar. Visually the components were somewhat discordant, but acoustically the electromagnetic pickup was outstanding. In profile, it resembled a banjo with its long neck and a disk stuck on the bottom.
The solid body guitar was introduced in 1950 when Leo Fender offered both the Esquire model and the Broadcaster (soon renamed the Telecaster) model. By the end of the decade, the solid body became the popular version of the electric guitar.
Stylistically Fender’s first solid bodies deliberately followed the profile of traditional guitars. In contrast to Rickenbacker, he seemed eager to make a visual statement: “This is a guitar.” He certainly had seen experimental models that demonstrated the stylistic license of solid bodies. Essentially, since the body no longer functioned as sound chamber, the maker was free to make a sculptural statement with the body.
In 1954 Fender produced a third solid body model called the Stratocaster with an additional pickup and a whammy bar. The fluid profile of this model adopted the prevailing concept of an integrated flowing design that was the emerging aesthetic of its time without totally abandoning the traditional guitar shape.
Gibson entered the solid body electric guitar field in 1952 with the Les Paul model. Paul had tinkered to produce a solid stick prototype in the 1937 that demonstrated his appreciation for the reduction of form possible with solid bodies. However it appears that Gibson wanted its guitars to look like guitars, and the Les Paul model conforms to a traditional guitar profile.
Since 1960 electric guitar makers have exploited the freedom of form, decoration, and color offered by the medium to create powerful visual statements. Within the range of consumer products, the guitar has become one of the most freely designed wares in commercial production.
Musical instruments and clocks differ from most other antiques in that they were intended to move and perform technical tasks. The technological component adds a level of complexity not found in paintings, furniture, or ship models. The guitar is a fascinating synthesis of music, physics, and visual art. Since the MFA has chosen to focus on the visual aspect, the bigger topic of the entire synthesis remains available for another museum.
The writing associated with the exhibit falls a notch below established standards for major exhibitions. Traditionally prominent museums such as the MFA present several tiers of exhibitions. At the core of major exhibitions are scholarly catalogs that become the foundation of their field. For example, Wendy Kaplan’s The Art That Is Life revolutionized America’s understanding of the Arts and Crafts movement, and two decades later remains the primary reference work in the field. In contrast, the guitar catalog presents description listings, but without powerful overarching essays. That is consistent with catalogs produced for second tier exhibitions.