A legacy that inspired a generation of artists

Tanner's influence on Harlem Renaissance explored at BMA

Art preview

June 07, 2006|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

Henry Ossawa Tanner, whose large and varied body of work, including landscapes, portraits and atmospheric images of religious subjects, made him the first African-American artist to win an international reputation, inspired a generation of black artists to pursue professional careers.

But the artists who took up Tanner's mantle did not necessarily adopt the master's painting style or his ideas about the artist's role in society. They were products of a new century, with a new outlook oriented toward modernity and the unprecedented social conditions it had created.

The art they produced, astonishing in its diversity and range, contributed to the great cultural flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, when black artists, writers and musicians set out to create a new image of the African-American - urban, sophisticated, socially aware - to fit the rapidly changing times.

Now Tanner's legacy for the artists of the Harlem Renaissance is the subject of Henry Ossawa Tanner and His Influence in America, a terrific exhibition of more than 40 paintings and other works by those who followed in Tanner's footsteps that opens today at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Many of the artists in the show are now recognized "Old Masters" of African-American art - pioneering figures such as Hale Woodruff, Horace Pippin, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, James Van Der Zee, Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett.

Others, such as William H. Johnson, Dox Thrash, Charles White, James Lesesne Wells and Beauford Delaney, are less well-known but nonetheless made significant contributions to what would become the first important African-American arts movement.

The show represents the second half of the BMA's in-depth appraisal of Tanner's achievement, which began in December when the museum presented Tanner and the Lure of Paris, a show of similar proportions that focused on how Tanner's French contemporaries influenced the development of his art. (It closed last month.)

Both exhibitions were ably organized by guest curator James Smalls, an associate professor of art history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. (On Saturday at 10:30 a.m., Smalls will be joined at the museum by Tanner's grandniece, Rae Alexander-Minter, for a reception and talk about the artist's life and work. To register, call 443-573-1818.)

In addition to examining Tanner's legacy for subsequent black artists, the current show also explores the intellectual debates among them over such issues as realism versus abstraction, the representation of racial identity and the meaning of the African past.

Tanner (1859-1937) grew up in Philadelphia and attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied under the great American realist painter Thomas Eakins.

In 1892, Tanner journeyed to Paris to further his studies, and eventually he decided to settle there permanently. He came to feel that, unlike in his native country, in France he might be judged solely on his achievements as an artist, rather than by the color of his skin.

Several of the artists in the current show followed Tanner's example by traveling to France to further their studies. At least two of them, Woodruff and Johnson, made a point of seeking out Tanner, who graciously opened his studio to them and offered encouragement and advice.

Woodruff, for example, was a former editorial cartoonist and graphic artist who, during the 1920s, studied for four years in Paris, where he tried out a variety of modernist styles. His painting Normandy Landscape (1928), which depicts two lines of trees whose spindly trunks take on the abstract, decorative character of a Japanese print, may have been inspired by a visit to Tanner's country home in the region.

Today, Woodruff is probably best known for the series of stark, black-and-white linoleum-cut prints depicting aspects of Southern rural African-American life that he created during the 1930s.

Several of those prints are also on display in the show, and they suggest how Woodruff sought to combine the modernist techniques he had learned abroad with the concern for social realism that he found among his fellow African-American artists after his return home.

Johnson was a graduate of New York's National Academy of Design who, like Woodruff, traveled to France in the 1920s, where he was strongly influenced by the vivid, "fish-bowl" optical distortions of the expressionist painter Chaim Soutine.

Though Johnson greatly admired Tanner's achievement, he had no desire to emulate the older artist's conservative, Post-impressionist style.

Instead, Johnson produced a series of increasingly abstract works, culminating in paintings like Come Unto Me Little Children (1939), a depiction of Christ rendered in bright yellow and purple hues with flat, simplified forms and textile motifs that recall the folk traditions of African-American quilt-making.

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