Henry Tanner Lets Jesus into PAFA

This is not the first time this has happened to me.

I went to PAFA’s show featuring Henry Tanner (which was much better than the Van Gogh show up the street). When we were finished, Gwen wanted to go to PAFA’s little store. They had a small display of souvenirs for the special exhibition of works by one of PAFA’s great alumni and one of Philadelphia’s most famous African American artists, also one of the great impressionist-era painters of religious themes.

In the store there was not one post card or poster of any of Tanner’s religious works! — at least none that we could find! There was not even one poster of the huge, famous  painting they were displaying of The Annunciation. So I am displaying a few of them on my blog today in Tanner’s honor and in protest!

The Annunication. Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

A print of The Annunciation already hangs in my house, so I did not need a poster. They should still supply one, I would think! The show had only been going for five days when we got there, so I doubt there was a run on the store by Christians. They apparently decided to de-emphasize his major attribute as an artist – he believes. Like I said, I have had this experience in museums before.

The name of the show is “Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit,” so that might reveal their viewpoint. If you go to the website they made for the show, you can see that it is also carefully denuded of his major and most famous attribute on the face page. There are no religious themes allowed. They have apparently decided “modern spirit” means “no Holy Spirit.” But Tanner was definitely bringing his old, AME spirituality into the modern era with his art, which is one of the most interesting things about him, and which is what made him famous in his day.

In the painting Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds, which I was also thrilled to see was in the show, Tanner’s experimental techniques, the unusual perspective, his application of on-site knowledge of the Middle East, and the color choices are all very interesting and avant garde.

Angels Appearing before the Shepherds. Henry Ossawa Tanner, ca. 1910

But we should also talk about his unusual new visualization of an angel. There is a lot of theology and science mingling in the painting. There is apologetics in the painting, even evangelism. It is dishonest to deconstruct it and leave out the major parts because the curator is viewing it from an ascendant philosophical perspective that despises the former. To be fair, the cool new IPod commentary they supplied included commentary by Mother Bethel’s pastor, no less. But it still seemed a little like tokenism, to me.

And let’s not forget the women. The depiction of Salome in the collection is worth the trip. But I especially liked the painting of the women hurrying into that unearthly light on Easter morning.

The Three Marys. Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1910

The painting to which I most related, however, and had never seen, was of Jesus and friends on The Bethany Road in the moonlight.

The Bethany Road. Henry Ossawa Tanner, ca. 1905

It is a lonely scene. Maybe it is something like a dream I am remembering. I felt a little lonely, surrounded by the “modern spirits” of PAFA. I was glad to remember I was walking through the show with Jesus and finding Tanner’s faith with which to resonate.

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About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope. Graduate of Fuller Seminary, Doctoral student at Eastern University.
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6 Responses to Henry Tanner Lets Jesus into PAFA

  1. Pingback: Overcoming the fear of getting out there | Rod's Blog

  2. Mindy says:

    I came to this exhibit with not much to go on and absolutely loved it. To see these paintings in person was wonderful and breathtaking. To see such an eloquent display of work by such a worthy artist and to witness the faith that underlies what he did will leave a permanant mark in my life’s timeline. Thanks, Rod, for celebrating Jesus in the PAFA and thanks, Jeff, for making it happen. Peace…

  3. Hi Rod,
    Thanks for your review of the Tanner show. I am a lecturing fellow at PAFA for the Tanner exhibition, and a major aspect of my job (given my combination of both academic training in art history and at seminary) is actually to give lectures at churches and Christian organizations around the Philadelphia community about Tanner’s work (including Christian schools, as well as Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, United Methodist, AME, AME Zion, and nondenominational churches). I have presented Tanner’s work, with the museum’s support, through an “illustrated Bible study” that views his paintings through the lens of the scriptural passages and theological themes that inspired him, and portrays them as “incarnational” images of the divine and human intersecting to portray God as Emmanuel, “God With Us.” So, in this way and many others, I think PAFA has in fact done more than anyone before in taking the sort of steps necessary to engage with Tanner’s religious works in a sincere, honest, and fair manner — one which goes beyond the story of Tanner as a man (see the PMA exhibit on Tanner from 1991), and focuses most of all on his art and Tanner as an artist. If you read Alan Braddock’s essay on “Christian Cosmopolitanism” in the book accompanying Modern Spirit, you can see that trend clearly. (Unfortunately, the gift shop offerings are not representative of these major strides.) If you know of a church community who would benefit from hearing more about Tanner, I would be thrilled to speak to them.
    Sincerely,
    Jeff Richmond-Moll
    Lecturing Fellow
    Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
    215-972-2042
    http://www.pafa.org/tanner

  4. Jonny Rashid says:

    I think I’ll try and see that PAFA exhibit — though I also loved the Van Gogh one up the street.

  5. marquita says:

    I never heard of this remarkable artist or saw his work before this. Thank you. The pictures are beautiful and moving. I’m going to research him and share him with my family.

  6. Rachel Sensenig says:

    I have appreciated Henry Ossawa Tanner’s work, and hadn’t seen The Bethany Road either. Thanks for sharing, Rod. I’m glad his faith shows up beyond what PAFA thinks might be marketable to us ‘modernists.’

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