In This Case: Guitar
August 7, 2012
In This Case is a series of ongoing posts on art in the Luce Foundation Center, a visible art storage facility at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that houses about 3,000 pieces in sixty-four secure glass cases.
Not every work of art has a secret but if it wasn’t for a tip from one of our conservators, I wouldn’t have known about the treasures hidden on the back of this folk art Guitar by an unidentified artist. Objects conservator Hugh Shockey noted a photograph and a small bronze plaque mounted on the back of the instrument while examining this piece in preparation for its installation in the Luce Foundation Center. From the 1986 acquisition documentation, there had been some speculation about the origin and construction of this piece.
Guitar was found in New Orleans by collector Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was made there. The instrument itself was constructed with heavy woods that would make it rather difficult to play. That being said, it probably was intended for musical use because the frets in the fingerboard were applied, removed, and reapplied as if the artist used a trial and error method to get the sound just right. The unique heart-shaped sound holes relate back to other folk dulcimers or hourglass-shaped instruments with fretted fingerboards played by plucking strings by hand, which were popular at the time this piece was made. The tailpiece, where the strings would have attached to the base of the front, appears to be made of a modified door hinge, which means the artist was using what he had on hand rather than carving or purchasing a standard part.
Flipping the guitar over is where it gets interesting! A wooden flap on the lower back portion of the instrument opens to reveal two handy chambers for stashing extra strings, picks, or a sandwich (which is what I would do). Above that is a photograph of a man dressed in trousers, a button-up collared shirt, a striped tie, and a hat, standing on a cliff overlooking the Manhattan skyline with the George Washington Bridge in the distance to his left. The only clues to his identity are the letters "KMC" handwritten at the bottom of the photograph. The most puzzling decoration on the back is a cast bronze plaque depicting an unknown building of Asian origin. I wonder why it's there. Maybe the artist hoped to travel there someday and this was used as a reminder or incentive while he or she played songs to make money. What do you think?
You will find Guitar located on the 3rd-floor mezzanine of the Luce Center in case 25A.
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