Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit

Installation view of "Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit"

On view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

January 28 – April 15, 2012

By Eva Piatek


Recognized today as the first African American painter to achieve international acclaim, Henry Ossawa Tanner often struggled with racial categorizations of his work; he was discontented with reviews that frequently labeled him as a black artist instead of simply an artist. To escape such prejudices, Tanner found safe haven in Paris.  There, he reflected, “I am simply M. Tanner, an American artist. Nobody knows or cares what was the complexion of my forebears. I live and work there in terms of absolute social equality.”  His work is now back in Philadelphia seventy five years after his death for a retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts—his alma mater—where he is seen as just that: an artist. And he was a dynamic artist indeed, with an incredibly wide variation in style, technique, and subject matter.


Prior to visiting the exhibition, I knew close to nothing about Tanner’s work, other than The Banjo Lesson, a genre painting of African American life included in most generic Art History survey textbooks. Curiously, this historically significant painting is not included in the exhibition.  Whether intentional or not on the part of curator Anna O. Marley, this omission effectively reinforces the curatorial goal of transcending race and questioning preconceived notions of Tanner as a painter of African American experience.  There is so much more to Tanner’s diverse oeuvre that is worth consideration, as this retrospective of over one hundred of his works makes clear.


Rather than arrange the works in the exhibition chronologically, Marley has organized the exhibition by location, placing works together according to Tanner’s whereabouts when he made each work.  The first area of the gallery offers a brief biography of Tanner and his beginnings as an artist, training at PAFA under Thomas Eakins.  This section includes paintings of the Philadelphia Zoo and portraits of family members. Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, which has an affinity with the famous Arrangement in Gray and Black no. 1 (also known as Whistler’s Mother), is much more relaxed in pose than the Whistler painting, and pensive in a way that is psychologically captivating.  A timeline from 1860–1930 spans the gallery’s entire left wall, divided into sections that present Tanner’s biography alongside sections designated for important events in United States history and politics, Philadelphia history, art and culture, and developments in science and technology.


In the second gallery, academically painted landscapes populate the walls, highlighting the transition from Tanner’s interest in animal subjects to landscape painting.  These works represent Tanner’s time in America, particularly after he moved from Philadelphia to Atlanta, Georgia.  Seemingly out of place among the trees and mountains hangs The Resurrection of Lazarus, which immediately demands the viewer’s attention.  It was in representations of biblical scenes like these, which made no reference to African American life, that Tanner found his voice.  As in Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, he infused a psychological component into this sacred moment that engages the viewer almost as a participant in the scene.  One man in the painting stares out at the viewer, affirming our role as witness alongside the others in the composition. With such an intimate depiction, Tanner invites the viewer to see beyond the narrative and experience the miracle directly, shifting the focus away from what is seen to those who see it.


The largest, central gallery space includes works from Tanner’s time spent in Paris.  The room teems with biblical paintings that surround a central wall flanked by two large columns, together framing the most focal works – The Annunciation, and Salome. Placed next to each other, these two works appear strikingly different, yet both reflect Tanner’s interest in light, which he experiments with in subtle and dramatic ways that challenge conventional representation. Presented as an atypical work for Tanner, Salome is a classic femme fatale. Illuminated from below, her face recedes into a dark blue background with a faint hint of her white Cheshire Cat smile grinning down on us. In The Annunciation, a dramatic beam of light bursts into the room as a modernized representation of the angel Gabriel. This dematerialization of the figure appears in other religious paintings too, like Disciples See Christ Walking On Water, where Jesus is reduced to an orb-like figure floating on the horizon, water blurring with the sky and turning the world upside-down to invert heaven and earth. The color of the gallery walls – a maroon red that has the potential to repel—brings out Tanner’s moments of illumination that could have otherwise been drowned by white walls.


In the next gallery, labeled “Tanner and the French Countryside,” one grasps the experimental nature of Tanner’s later works completed in Brittany and Trépied, his style increasingly attentive to the materiality of paint.  Some works, like Fishermen at Sea, are painted with loose, thickly applied brushstrokes that one could even associate with abstract expressionism.  Another painting, The Miraculous Haul of Fishes, is imbued with heavy impasto, specifically in the area where the fish emerge from the water, as if to designate the moment of action.  Other works in the room have a more impressionistic aura. Tanner had no single characteristic way of painting, but instead constantly sought to reinvent his methods, his formal vision, and their relationships to emotional meaning.  Abstraction simply became a vehicle for spiritual revelation and contemplation.


Leaving the French countryside, the exhibition concludes with “Tanner in North Africa and the Holy Land,” an outpouring of blue-toned paintings that almost give the space the feeling of an aquarium. These paintings represent Tanner’s mature religious works, which tend towards the mystical. Some, like the scenic The Good Shepherd and The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, were made with a mixture of oil and tempera, once again emphasizing Tanner’s innovative techniques in creating a harmonious yet emotionally evocative palette.  Other works include scenes of Cairo and Tangiers that stem from traditional Orientalist representations of the exotic other. These works differ from conventional Orientalism, which involved cataloging foreign spaces and individuals with a documentary voyeurism. Instead, Tanner bestows upon his figures a universality that makes them part of the urban atmosphere he depicts.


Depicting Tanner as an accomplished, multidimensional American artist, PAFA and curator Anna O. Marley capture what Tanner hoped to achieve through his art: a spiritual and emotional connection with the viewer generated by fusing contemporary methods, experimentation, and traditional art-historical subjects.  Rather than simply tell the story of the biblical events he painted, Tanner creates experiential moments for viewers regardless of their religious beliefs by engaging their own feelings in his scenes.  Tanner’s artistic sensitivity, not his race, is perhaps his greatest legacy.


Born, raised, and still here in Philadelphia, Eva Piatek is a jack of all trades but is currently pursuing her MA in Art History at Tyler School of Art. She enjoys dabbling in the city’s art scene, has had a few curatorial gigs here and there, and hopes to maybe open her own gallery someday.