PAFA to Mount Definitive Exhibition on Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Tanner by Thomas Eakins
Henry Tanner by Thomas Eakins

A major exhibition of artwork by African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner will premiere at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), on view from January 27 through April 15, 2012. Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit will contain over 100 works, including 12 paintings that have never been shown in a Tanner retrospective and the only two known sculptures that Tanner completed. The exhibition also includes Tanner’s famed Resurrection of Lazarus, from the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, a career-making canvas that earned Tanner his first international praise when it was exhibited in 1897 and which has never crossed the Atlantic.

Showcasing Tanner’s paintings, photographs, prints, sculptures, watercolors, and drawings, Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit is being organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where the artist studied from 1879 to 1885, and will tour to the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

“Henry O. Tanner is a transcendent figure both in art and in the history of America,” remarks Harry Philbrick, Edna S. Tuttleman Director of the Museum. “His compelling story and rich body of work will make for a superb national traveling exhibition.”

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit will delve into the life and career of Henry O. Tanner from his upbringing in Philadelphia in the years after the Civil War; through the artist’s training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; his success as an American artist at the highest levels of the international art world at the turn of the 20th century; his role as an elected leader of an artist’s colony in rural France; his unique contributions in aid of servicemen during World War I through the Red Cross in France; his modernist invigoration of religious painting deeply rooted in his own faith; and Tanner’s depiction of the Holy Land and North Africa. The exhibition will also present the first scientific and technical analysis of his artistic materials and methods.

“This exhibition will allow visitors to walk alongside Tanner as he explored the world, leaving Philadelphia for the mountains of North Carolina and bustling Reconstruction-era Atlanta, to the bright lights of Paris and the exotic and spiritual landscapes of Palestine and Egypt,” says Anna O. Marley, PAFA’s Curator of Historical American Art. “Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit reveals the artist as a talented modern man whose training, intelligence and faith equipped him to surmount the difficult realities of his time and propelled him into a lifetime journey of personal and artistic discovery.”

Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Arch - Brooklyn Museum Via Wikipedia
Henry Ossawa Tanner – The Arch – Brooklyn Museum Via Wikipedia

The most substantial scholarly catalogue to date on Tanner’s life and work will accompany the exhibition. This book includes 14 essays written by established and emerging scholars from the United States and France, and is being published by University of California Press.

After premiering at PAFA, the show will travel to the Cincinnati Art Museum, from May 26 – September 9, 2012, and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, from October 14, 2012 – January 6, 2013. Curator of the exhibition, Anna Marley, is currently co-organizing a scholarly symposium on Tanner and African American Art in France, to be held at the Musée d’Orsay, November 9-10, 2011. Exciting education and community events will occur at PAFA throughout the run of the exhibition, including a Community and Scholars Day, March 4-5, 2012, and free admission on Sundays while the exhibition is on view.

Also  in conjunction with its major exhibition of works by Henry O. Tanner, the PAFA presents After Tanner: African American Artists Since 1940, on view January 28 – April 15, 2012. Tanner  was a mentor and role model for younger artists during his lifetime and has been a source of pride for many generations of artists since his death. An exhibition drawn largely from PAFA’s collection and supplemented by several major loans, After Tanner: African-American Artists Since 1940  broadly celebrates what Tanner’s career inspired and made possible in its wake.

“It is important to remember that Henry Ossawa Tanner’s career bridged the 19th and 20th centuries,” says Robert Cozzolino, Senior Curator and Curator of Modern Art. “He navigated a period of rapid change in the art world. While he has been firmly associated with 19th-century styles, PAFA’s Tanner retrospective will show how modern he was and what an extraordinary experimenter he was with regard to imagery and technique.  Younger artists took note and admired the integrity with which he managed his career. After Tanner is an opportunity to consider the innumerable channels for expression Tanner’s example opened up for African-American artists working in the wake of his career.”

Some of the artists included in the exhibition sought out and met Tanner, including William H. Johnson (in 1926) and Hale Woodruff (in 1928). Other artists, such as Reginald Gammon made paintings in homage to Tanner. Gammon’s 1967 portrait of Tanner, based on a 1930s photograph, was a highly personal image for the artist, made on a panel given to him by his friend Romare Bearden. A double homage to two important figures in American art history, it is an icon of creative power and lineage. Faith Ringgold

By Henry Ossawa Tanner (Musee d'Orsay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Henry Ossawa Tanner (Musee d’Orsay) [Public domain , via Wikimedia Commons”]

celebrates a key moment in Tanner’s biography — the moment when he decided to become an artist – by imagining it in a recent print commissioned by PAFA.

Others, such as Bearden and Alma Thomas, took up religious themes that meant a great deal to Tanner, and reworked them by using new materials and a modernist visual language unique to their time. Contemporary artists such as Laylah Ali, Willie Cole, Glenn Ligon, Quentin Morris, and Kara Walker explore identity and a complex cultural past in ways that Tanner could not have imagined.

The installation runs parallel with Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit, upstairs from the exhibition in the Annenberg Gallery of the Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building. On Sunday February 5th at 2PM artist Willie Cole, whose work Branded Irons (2000), is featured in After Tanner, will give a lecture at PAFA in the Hamilton Auditorium of the Historic Landmark Building.

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit is organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Presenting Philadelphia Area Sponsor: Exelon Foundation.Presenting Foundation sponsors: The Terra Foundation for American Art, and the Henry Luce Foundation. This exhibition has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Because democracy demands wisdom. Leading support from the Mr. & Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, Inc. Major corporate support from PECO. Participating support from the Edna W. Andrade Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition and publication do notnecessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

About Eric Miller

Eric Miller is co-founder and contributor to Urban Art & Antiques. His website is ericmiller.me

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