With guns dominating the news cycle, it may seem odd for an art museum to present an exhibition focused on them, but thats just what the Georgia Museum of Art
at the University of Georgia is doing. An exhibition largely consisting of longrifles and titled Artful Instruments: Georgia Gunsmiths and Their Craft opened at the museum December 2 and runs through February 25. The project of the museums curator of decorative arts, Dale Couch, and guest curator Sam Thomas, of the T. R. R. Cobb House, in Athens, the exhibition includes 18 19th-century longrifles as well as two pistols, powder horns and a miniature cannon on loan from private and public lenders.
Decorative arts, as opposed to traditional fine arts like painting and sculpture, focus on functional objects. Most often, they include furniture, silver, pottery and the like, which range from the plain versions of these items that would have been found in a yeoman farmers home to highly refined and decorated versions from the wealthiest estates. It may seem strange to include weaponry in this category, but early gunsmithing incorporated many crafts, including silversmithing and casting as well as woodworking.
Less prosperous than its neighbor states immediately to the North, Georgia produced decorative arts that have historically been overlooked. Couch points out that these rifles represent the quintessence of craft in 19th-century Georgia and says that the objects in this exhibition are some of the finest artistic achievements in the state at the time. The museums Henry D. Green Center for the Study of the Decorative Arts attempts to shed light on Georgia craft, particularly items that have received less attention.
Thomas points out that, in 1979, one of the Foxfire publications wrote, These finest pieces work as intricately as Swiss watches, are as rugged and durable as Rolls-Royces, and are comparable artistically to fine paintings, music, or sculpture. Interestingly, they have the additional dimension that comes from their being, almost paradoxically, instruments of deaththe tools by which enemies were slain, the frontier was conquered and tamed, and the table was filled with game. The fascination they hold for us is undeniable.
Nearly 40 years later, that phrasing may now seem insensitive, but the longrifle remains a uniquely American art form. Developed in the early 18th century, it was more accurate than a musket but slower to load, and the rifles in this exhibition predate technological advances that led to quicker loading firearms. Its role in key battles in the American revolution and its association with the frontier have led to considerable mythology surrounding it, including James Fenimore Coopers novel The Last of the Mohicans, which features a character nicknamed longrifle.
Although they began as more purely functional objects, the human impulse for decoration prevailed, and the rifles on display in this exhibition feature elaborate inlay in brass and silver. Gunsmiths engraved patchboxes, trigger guards and other areas with scrollwork that often served as a kind of signature.
Thomas writes, The history of firearms is full of examples of invention and evolution, but no gun bridges the worlds of history, technology and art like the American longrifle. Nowadays it is rare to encounter an original longrifle outside of private collections which makes it all the more important to document the ones in small museums or sitting in barns and attics.