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Realism and Transcendence

Realism and Transcendence

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Published by TheLivingChurchdocs
An essay review on the exhibit Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit
An essay review on the exhibit Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit

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Published by: TheLivingChurchdocs on Jul 17, 2012
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07/17/2012

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By Dennis Raverty
Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern SpiritCincinnati Art Museum through September 9Houston Museum of Fine Arts, October-January
G
ustave Courbet, radical leader of the19th-century Realist movement in Paris,when asked to include angels in acommission, famously quipped:“Show me an angel and I will paintone.”This sums up the dilemmafaced by any realistic painterattempting to represent the super-natural. Of course, the down-to-earthRealists were mostly concerned withportraying modern life and so onlyinfrequently turned to religious subjects.However, on the rare occasions that they did,their attempts were generally unsuccessful.Edouard Manet’s
Dead Christ 
looks moreor less like any other cadaver from themorgue, and Thomas Eakins’s
Crucifixion
,despite its meticulous attention to historicalaccuracy, looks like the execution of a com-mon criminal, not the death of Christ.Despite the magnitude of their undisputedhistorical importance, neither Manet norEakins were able to rise above their materi-alistic realism enough to represent the tran-scendent dimension of these subjects.This is one reason that most commissionsfor religious art in 19th-century France wentto now long-forgotten conservative aca-demic painters rather than to avant-gardeModernists, whether they were Real-ist, Impressionist or Post Impres-sionist. The academics used ideal-ized forms based on Renaissanceprototypes, but these derivativeworks, unlike the Renaissance artthey emulated, were more often thannot maudlin or sentimental kitschthat largely have been relegated tothe dustbins of history.In a refreshing respite from this generalrule, expatriate American artist HenryOssawa Tanner, at the end of the 19thcen-tury,achieved in his
 Annunciation
whatCourbet intimated could not be realized. Hewas a realist who convincingly painted anangel. Taking an entirely new approach tothis subject, Tanner shows Gabriel not inthe anthropomorphic form of a man with
18
THE LIVING CHURCH • July 15, 2012
      C      U      L      T      U      R      E      S
Henry Ossawa Tanner
Realism and Transcendence
Tanner’s Art
Left:
The Annunciation
Next page top:
 And HeVanished Out of Their Sight 
Next page bottom:
The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water 
Below:
Thoms Eakinsportrait of Tanner
Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine ArtsMuseum
 
July 15, 2012 • THE LIVING CHURCH
19
wings, but rather represents theheavenly messenger as a sustainedilluminating presence that brilliantlylights up the small room. One thinksimmediately of the burning bushMoses saw.What is not readily apparent inreproductions is the almost expres-sionist palpability of the paint usedto indicate the angel. The paint isapplied here with lavish abandon inlayer upon layer of heavy transpar-ent colored glazes alternating withthick impasto scumbling. It isalmost as if a painting by postwar Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothkowere beginning to materialize at thefoot of the bed. At the same time that Tanner rad-ically abstracts and dematerializesthe angel, he takes great pains togive the apparition a realistic andbelievable setting. Observed fromthe artist’s travels in the Holy Land,the rug on the floor, the furnishingsin the room, even the pattern of thetextile in Mary’s garment are allcarefully observed and accuraterenditions of realistic details fromthe interior of a modest dwelling inlate 19th-century Palestine.The virgin, who appears to be aparticular and unidealized Semiticgirl around 15 or 16 (as historianstell us Mary would have been), isamazingly unafraid of this luminouspresence in her room and listenscarefully and thoughtfully to what heis saying. She is clearly free toaccept or deny what the angel isproposing; her expression com-bines intelligence, fearless self-con-fidence and at the same time hon-est humility, yieldinga grounded,ordinary, believable Mary, in starkcontrast to her ethereal and other-worldly visitor.
B
efore his move to Paris, Tannerstudied painting with contro-versial American artist ThomasEakins at the Pennsylvania Acad-emy of Fine Arts. Later Tanner stud-ied at the Academie Julian in Paris,the city where he eventually settledpermanently, returning only spo-radically to the United States. Asan American of African descent(he was born a free man beforeEmancipation but his mother hadat one time been a slave), Tannerserved as a role model for morethan one generation of African American artists visiting, living,orworking in Paris. He is one of thefew foreign artists considered byart historians to be part of the
finde siècle
School of Paris.While many of the greatmasters of the late 19th-century School of Paristurned from time to time tobiblical subjects — AugusteRodin, Pierre Puvis de Cha-vannes, Gustave Moreau,Paul Gauguin and LesNabis come immediately tomindnone of them ded-icated the greater part oftheir work to biblical mat-ters.Tanner is best known forhis iconic
Banjo Lesson
,where an old black maninstructs a boy sitting on hislap, a mainstay in the popu-lar imagination almost asemblematic as Grant Wood’s
 American Gothic
or JamesMcNeil Whistler’s
 Arrange- ment in Gray and Blac
(“Whistler’s Mother”). YetTanner only did two ofthese genre paintings of African American life,devoting the majority of hiswork to biblical subjectsand to paintings of Parisand the French country-side.The influence of Whistler,another, older expatriate American artist, is evident in manyof Tanner’s landscapes, especiallyWhistler’s subtle, evening noc-turnes. These shades of dusk serveas a cover for other disembodiedapparitions in Tanner’s work, asin the moonlit
Christ Walking onthe Water 
,where the same sort ofluminous,disembodied,verticalform seems to emerge out of thetwilight, virtually floating acrossthe water to meet the astonisheddisciples. As in his earlier
 Annun-ciation
,Tanner here represents theunrepresentable as an ethereal,radiant aura.
(Continued on next page)

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