What does art look like? Or rather, sound like?
A stunning new exhibition at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts' "Dangerous Curves: Art of the Guitar" answers both questions with ringing clarity. It is the first comprehensive museum exhibition ever to celebrate the design of a single musical instrument.
The 129-instrument collection was artfully assembled from the personal collections of musicians, collectors, and institutions like the Gene Autry Oklahoma Museum, the Smithsonian, and the Musee de la Musique in Paris. It features ancient and modern instruments from lutes, lyres, and guitar/harps hand-crafted for emperors and princesses, to a contemporary banana-yellow funk machine for the artist once again known as Prince. It is an eye- and -ear-opening display.
"Dangerous Curves" traces the history of this popular and portable instrument from the earliest examples in the 17th century to the digital sampling guitars of today.
Darcy Kuronen, the show's curator explains, "By highlighting the remarkable artistry and variety that characterizes the guitar, 'Dangerous Curves' explores the relationship between art, music, and popular culture." Actually, it's better than that. These "axes" are way cool.
The wondrous baroque-era creations (1590-1880) more than hold their own against the more-familiar architecture and furniture design of the time, with their impossibly delicate details and inlays of abalone shell, mother of pearl, and ebony. One guitar depicts scenes of greek mythology, another (from 1840) commemorates the return of Napoleon's ashes to Paris.
Multilayered rosettes of lace-fine wood carving are suspended in the instruments' sound holes, celebrating not only the expert luthiers' art of the time, but also functioning as finely tuned sound chambers, projecting the sweet bell-tones of the strings.
It's easy to forget, while admiring these fantastic and decorative objets d'art, that they are first and foremost musical instruments, and were engineered and crafted to function primarily as such.
Whether actually played or merely displayed as a prized possession, these examples of early instruments have graced many a drawing room over the centuries for their sheer grace and beauty.
The odd and odder are also sprinkled throughout. Perhaps the oddest is a French guitar from 1693 whose body is an entire sea turtle shell, which reverberates as the gut strings are plucked. A close second might be the 1880's model featuring an enormous tuba horn jutting from the guitar's sound hole, an attempt at better sound projection which, thankfully, didn't catch on. There's a two-headed guitar, a three-necked model, and an inflatable electric guitar, based on the acoustic properties of insects, which seems inspired by "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
Or try a delicate Hawaiian guitar with an artfully painted sunset and swaying palms, cowboy guitars galore, a 1962 electric guitar sporting that era's automotive tailfins, and an all-plastic model by a company called National, that - you guessed it - is shaped like the good old USA.
Each attendee receives a headset audio tour narrated by folk favorite James Taylor with commentary and music by a few special guests like electric guitar inventor/pioneer Les Paul, Eric Clapton, and jazz great Django Reinhardt.
Even for the non-enthusiast, this is a show that celebrates form, function, imagination, and craftsmanship at its finest.
And you can dance to it.
'Dangerous Curves' runs through Feb. 25 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
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