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Contexting Henry Ossawa Tanner
As centuries go, 21 is an unlucky number for context. It’s ostracized as “off message” from the party line “talking points” that consume contemporary politics. It’s dying on cutting room floors wherever media sound bytes are edited. Twitter’s 140-character limit might as well announce, “No context need apply.” If the medium is the message, then context seems doomed to the obscurity of art house cinema, obscure cable networks, and the side galleries of museums.
While the Des Moines Art Center (DMAC) received due kudos last decade for audience expanding contemporary shows, its side galleries provided a welcome refuge for context freaks. One extraordinary exhibition after another covered subjects from a range of perspectives while hardly ever drawing a sound byte hiccup from mainstream media. Henry Ossawa Tanner, the subject of the latest such DMAC show, would have understood.
Tanner was himself a stranger in strange and hostile lands. Born in 1859 of an escaped slave mother, he came of age during the golden age of African American culture between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Jim Crow era which can be marked from the day in the late 1880s when The Des Moines Register Sports Hall of Famer Cap Anson threatened to boycott baseball unless his opponents got “the nigger off the field” and out of mainstream American culture. Tanner owned a gallery and taught art in the Deep South during the golden days, but by 1893 he found that even Philadelphia had become too racist to tolerate. Happily for art history, he moved to Paris where he fit into a milieu that revolutionized painting.
The DMAC exhibition includes works of a painter caught between the two worlds — realism and expressionism. Some paintings contain both detailed brushstrokes of the former and the broad swaths of the latter. “Le Touquet,” depicts Pont-Aven, an art colony where Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard worked and taught younger artists. Others show Biblical events through multi cultural eyes. A visitor to both North Africa and Holy Land, Tanner depicted Jesus in “The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water” with the reverence of an Islamic iconographer. Brushstroke blurs suggest a divine light while his disciples are painted realistically. In “Christ Learning to Read,” Tanner provides context for his iconic later painting “The Banjo Lesson.”
Paintings by Louis Ritman and Winslow Homer, plus a bronze sculpture by Rodin, are included for deeper context. Ritman was a contemporary of Tanner at Paris’ Académie Julian. Tanner particularly admired and was influenced by Homer’s presentation of black seafarers. Tanner helped Des Moines collector J.S. Carpenter purchase the Rodin sculpture. Tanner married a white opera singer from San Francisco and lived in Paris till his death in 1937. Because of Carpenter’s admiration, all but one the exhibition paintings became permanent parts of DMAC collection and Iowa’s penance for Cap Anson’s infamy. Some context just will not go away.
Self described “manic artist” John Baldwin shows at The Lift through February with homage to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and other great moments in the history of mania… Mathew J. Clark, Art Pimp’s 2009 Iowa Artist of the Year, signed with Moberg Gallery to exhibit his controversial (banned from Des Moines International Airport) “Our Little Jimmy Can Do Anything If He Puts His Mind To It,” during their March show of Chris Vance… “Young Adult Identity and Consumption in Urban China” opens Jan. 25 in Cowles Library at Drake. The exhibit contrasts the consumption habits of Chinese born in the 1980s and missed the Cultural Revolution with those of older Chinese consumers. In conjunction, R. Bin Wong, Director of the Asia Institute and UCLA History Professor (regarded as the top Chinese historian in America), will discuss reasons why China and Europe took different consumer paths, on Feb. 25 in Olmsted Center. CV
Caption: Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859 – 1937). Christ Learning to Read, ca. 1911. Oil on canvas. 52 x 41 inches. Des Moines Art Center Permanent Collections; Gift of the Des Moines Association of Fine Arts, 1941.16.