Monday, April 2, 2012

Empathy, Religion and the Other: the art of Henry Ossawa Tanner

The show of Henry Ossawa Tanner currently at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is focused more on his religious paintings, and almost not at all on his paintings of Black American genre subjects. Of these, the most famous is the painting “The Banjo Lesson,” which was shown during the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 1990-91 show of the artist’s work.

Alas, there are only a few of those American genre paintings, for when Tanner left the U.S. for France, he became a painter of religious paintings, and intriguingly, the life of the Muslim quarter in Palestine. In Paris and his retreat north of there in Etaples, he notices the religious life of Christianity in the town square; he pictures fishing as fraught with religious symbolism and metaphor; he paints the supernatural glow of a cool redemptive light that usually visits a humanized world of warmth. Even his early quick portrait of his father Benjamin Tanner, a Bishop in the A.M.E. church, already shows a cool turquoise blue crucifix resting on the breast of the bishop in an otherwise warmly lit ambiance.

The humanism of religious people is part of this work’s power, but there are other aspects and ways to its unfolding. The empathy with the other by which he tells the tale of redemption is exemplary. Christ for him is a wonderfully magician-like, mesmeric, tall individual. He is indeed a miracle worker, and his disciples are shown in two different responses to Christ in the painting “The Pilgrims of Emmaus:" the wonder-filled face of astonishment, and the purpose-filled seriousness of deep conviction. Neither of these two understands the mysterious figure seated before them. The grapes on the table tell the proverb of their struggle, their wisdom to come, even their martyrdom. They have yet to endure much in order to understand and imitate the magician of metaphysics.

There is inherent in Tanner’s view the appearance of the other as a mystery and private fact of life. Women are, in these paintings, the real religious figures of divinity, deep understanding, and human empathy. The woman standing behind the disciples in “The Pilgrims of Emmaus” seems un-needful of redemption. The mother teaching her son in “Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures” seems a true source of love and wonder. The mother in “Mary” looking down at her infant, or off into the light that visits the manger in “Holy Family,” or into the tomb abandoned by the risen Christ on Easter in “The Three Marys,” each seems fully human, fully realized, and without any needs of zealotry or theological conviction.

There is so much to notice about this record of human thought, how it actually differs in the sexes as they struggle to understand, or do something about, the fate of living and dying. In the great painting “Return from the Crucifixion,” the stragglers – mostly women – trudge from the scene of the three crosses, over a precipitous landscape of three different lights. The one they tread toward us is a gnarled and knotted hill of despondent grief, the middle one a landscape of dried streambeds searching their lost ways toward nowhere, but the far bluffs catch the promise of day’s last light under a warm blue sky. How has the story of what we are left with after the execution of Christ ever been better portrayed?

As to the great painting of “The Resurrection of Lazarus,” I must first applaud it along all these lines mentioned above. Every figure in this painting is perfectly drawn and painted to show a story of human emotion, thought, experience, concern. The light of day coming from the cave entrance is strangely cold and filled with the blaze of justice and divine truth – a truth of power and miracles, but not easy sympathies or understandings. The light in the crowd, the light of Christ and Lazarus and the human scene at the grave is warm and sympathetic. All eyes are turned in fear, or hope, or grief to the missed loved one, and he – does he actually awaken in this painting, sitting propped up in his grave as if tiredly making his way back into life? Or is he actually succumbing to death in the presence of his family? Isn’t this what this great painting is actually about? Not the act of rising, but of dying? And in this moment of mortal passage, what isn’t miraculous about the presence of love, a love that rises even from the grave to live eternally? This, the soul of the person, this tender Lazarus, his hand falling in weakness to its knuckles by his side, this man so unlike a disciple, so uninterested in the miracle itself, only gently conveyed to the pity of us and Christ for our consideration and love – this is our most successful meeting with the other. For these are not people like us in any other way than their humanity. Their dress is different, their living arrangements are different, their climate is different, their hair is different, and yet we love them and understand them.

Sermons in words can only get us to think of these things. Paintings like these make us feel the truth for which sermons are written. There is no difference between a miracle and a painting, and when we were children and felt these things were true about paintings, we knew a truth before we were ever taught why it is true.

And so we come to this art to know that the human being is a miracle in a miraculous place; the place of those exquisite nocturnal skies, as the one in “Christ and His Disciples on the Road to Bethany” that Tanner spreads out in their infinity, yet close to the playing out of our dramas and concerns. It is both sincere and modern, this view that seems to be about religion, but is actually about inclusion, and scrutiny, and the reckoning with strange powers, and the overarching family of our large and enduring human love, our world-wide community.

John Sevcik

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit
at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Broad and Cherry Streets,
Philadelphia, PA

Show continues until April 15, 2012