Friday, February 17, 2012

Modern Spirit: Henry Ossawa Tanner

Sometimes it takes a while to catch up with the obvious. When there are obstacles like race and gender it usually takes even longer. Henry Ossawa Tanner, (African) American artist, is having one of those catch-up moments at his alma mater, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, with the retrospective Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit. PAFA, founded in 1802 and located in the heart of Tanner's home town of Philadelphia, is this country's first art school. The school is still going strong, with a vigorous program much abetted by the Academy's important collection, housed in a landmark building by visionary architect Frank Furness. (PAFA made the news recently when the latest of Claes Oldenbug's public sculptures, Paint Torch, was installed there.) There's a lot to say about Tanner's back story - born to a former slave, forced to spend his productive mature years abroad to escape the toxic racism that plagued - still plagues - this country - but out of respect to an artist who deserves to be seen for his work alone, I want to concentrate on the art. A little background: Tanner entered PAFA in 1879 and quickly distinguished himself. A precocious, diligent student with a gift for drawing, he enjoyed the special patronage of Thomas Eakins, the legendary teacher/artist and director during Tanner's years there. Once out in the world he tried to make a living as an artist, with some success, but as for so many other African-American intellectuals and artists other countries offered better opportunities; Tanner moved to Paris in 1891. He made a successful, clearly satisfying life in France, establishing himself as a 'modern' painter known for religious subjects. Religion must have been a natural direction for him - his father was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. In fact, his best work, whether intentionally religious or not, glows with an ethereal light that conveys a transcendent spiritual aura. The Thankful Poor and The Banjo Lesson, two of Tanner's best known works (neither of them in the PAFA show) have that quicksilver kind of light that transforms the ordinary into something holy. I was surprised to realize, on seeing the show, that Tanner was in many respects a Symbolist. The late 19th century movement is a further explanation for his unearthly approach, but Tanner's work demonstrates a more grounded, sincere reason for his visions. (Picasso had a brief flirtation with Symbolism - a better known proponent was Edward Munch.) The Arch is a beautiful example of his transforming of solid reality, through light and color, into a metaphoric journey - another is But The Boat Was Now in The Middle of The Sea, a particularly fine sample of Tanner's accomplished brushwork and composition. His personal retellings of Bible stories can explain the 'modern' to contemporary audiences who might not recognize such an academic style as revolutionary in any way, but works like The Annunciation and The Sabot Maker put a whole new spin on old subjects. The Sabot Maker, in fact, may or may not be seen as religious, but a son working with his father in a wood-worker's shop.....? It seems too obvious not to be meant as a young Christ with St. Joseph. Financed by one of the Philadelphia Wanamakers, Tanner took a very important trip to Palestine, to the source of much of his inspiration. The paintings from there are supreme illustrations of an artist at the top of his form. His long experience and consummate skill with light make him an immediate master of the strong, hot sunlight on the ancient walls, and the ensuing paintings of Bible subjects seem even richer and more evocative. Back at home - in France - Tanner survived WWI - there are some sketches and small paintings from that clearly painful time in the show. One, of soldiers lined up in a mess tent, is quickly drawn but even that has an aura of something at once real and out of time. Tanner is certainly one of PAFA's most distinguished alumni - it's odd that they include David Lynch on their roster of 'famous graduates' but not Henry Ossawa Tanner. I hope they correct that.

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