Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit

Posted in Anthologies, Arts, Biography, Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2012-03-30 01:39Z by Steven

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit

University of California Press
February 2012
304 pages
Paperback ISBN: 9780520270756
Hardback ISBN: 9780520270749

Anna O. Marley, Curator of Historical American Art
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

This beautiful book, companion publication to the exhibition of the same name, presents a complex overview of the life and career of the pioneering African American artist Henry O. Tanner (1859–1937). Recognized as the patriarch of African American artists, Tanner forged a path to international success, powerfully influencing younger black artists who came after him. Following a preface by David Driskell, the essays in this book—written by international scholars including Alan Braddock, Michael Leja, Jean-Claude Lesage, Richard Powell, Marc Simpson, Tyler Stovall, and Hélène Valance—explore many facets of Tanner’s life, including his upbringing in post–Civil War Philadelphia, his background as the son of a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal church, and his role as the first major academically trained African American artist. Additional essays discuss Tanner’s expatriate life in France, his depictions of the Holy Land and North Africa, and the scientific and technical innovations reflected in his oeuvre. Edited and introduced by Anna O. Marley, this volume expands our understanding of Tanner’s place in art history, showing that his status as a painter was deeply influenced by his race but not decided by it.

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Painting the World’s Christ: Tanner, Hybridity, and the Blood of the Holy Land

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Religion on 2011-06-30 21:23Z by Steven

Painting the World’s Christ: Tanner, Hybridity, and the Blood of the Holy Land

Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: a journal of ninetheenth-century visual culture
Volume 3, Issue 2 (Autumn 2004)

Alan C. Braddock, Assistant Professor of Art History
Tyler School of Art, Temple University

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s global vision of Christ circa 1900 projected an ideal of hybridity that embodied the artist’s personal resistance not only to racial stereotypes but also to racial thinking as such.

In 1899, Henry Ossawa Tanner painted Nicodemus Visiting Jesus (fig. 1), based on a story from the Gospel of John in which Christ tells a Jewish Pharisee of miraculous visionary powers available to those who are born again. By signing the painting “H. O. Tanner, Jerusalem, 1899,” the artist touted his firsthand knowledge of Palestine, where he spent eleven months on two separate trips between 1897 and 1899. The Nicodemus is one of several paintings with biblical subjects that Tanner produced around 1900 after expatriating himself from the United States. Frustrated by pervasive racial discrimination on account of his African ancestry, Tanner left Jim Crow America in 1894 to live in France for the rest of his life, except for occasional family visits to Philadelphia and artistic expeditions to Palestine and North Africa.

By 1900, Tanner had become an international success—exhibiting regularly at the Paris Salon, winning awards, and attracting more critical praise than many American artists, including his former teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Thomas Eakins. In 1897, Tanner’s The Resurrection of Lazarus (fig. 2) was exhibited to great acclaim at the Salon, awarded a medal, and purchased by the French government for its Luxembourg Gallery of contemporary art. Expatriation in Europe actually enhanced Tanner’s artistic reputation in America during these years, for he exhibited often in New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. In 1900 the Nicodemus was purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy and awarded the prestigious Lippincott Prize. Yet it was only in the European art world and in biblical subject matter that Tanner found what he called “a perfect race democracy.”…

…The present article focuses precisely upon Tanner’s ambiguous racial construction of Christ circa 1900, a topic overlooked in previous scholarship on the artist but one having significant consequences for our historical understanding of his work and more broadly for how we interpret American art and identity from an international postcolonial perspective. Put simply, I argue that Tanner and his biblical paintings at the turn of the twentieth century—especially the Nicodemus and others depicting Christ as a figure of universality—offered a critique not simply of racism, but of “race” itself as an epistemological category. In that respect, Tanner’s work offers an important international model for de-colonizing art by interrogating race at a moment when the dominant culture in the United States was deeply invested in segregation and difference. Those investments, of course, were articulated most famously in the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896, allowing individual states to establish “separate but equal” public facilities based on racial difference. Such institutionalized segregation prompted W. E. B. Du Bois to identify the “color-line” as the “problem of the twentieth century.”

For Tanner, however, the problem was not simply one of crossing or negotiating the “color-line” in painting but rather how to put that line, and the very idea of race, under erasure by highlighting the elusiveness—and therefore the universality—of Christ’s identity. What makes Tanner’s case especially interesting is the relationship that obtained between his pictures and his person, seen here in a photograph of around 1900, when he was about 40 years old (fig. 4). Tanner was a relatively light-skinned man whose complexion and physiognomy did not conform to stereotypical conceptions of blackness, but rather prompted a variety of (often overlapping) racial identifications, including “mulatto,” “Latin,” and even “Aryan.” In the eyes of many contemporaries, Tanner and his work were complex hybrids that resisted clear racial definition, in a manner akin to the universality of Christ and the demography of the Holy Land. My purpose here is to examine the visual and historical evidence of that resistance by closely reading a selection of Tanner’s paintings in relation to various writings by contemporary critics and by the artist himself…

Read the entire article here.

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