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Tuesday, 8 November 2011

New Kid in Town


Met's Loss, PAFA's Gain
By Richard Carreño
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
Curators, even at the stellar Metropolitan Museum of Art, can blunder. Such was the case early last year when the Met presented at an ambitious retrospective of 19th-century American art that, not surprisingly, drew plentifully and wisely from permanent collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Of course, we encountered the usual Philadelphia 'persons' of interest: Thomas Eakins, Charles Willson Peale, Winslow Homer, and the like. But, to my mind, there was a conspicuous omission. Nowhere to be found in the 'American Stories' show was the masterful African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), a PAFA graduate and Eakins acolyte. Some one had dropped the ball.

That oversight is now about to be corrected. Thanks to PAFA. And the La Salle University Museum of Art.

The biggest nod in the new-found Tanner recognition -- call it even a revival -- goes to PAFA, which will launch a gargantuan public meditation early next year on the Tanner oeuvre. That bow to the long-neglected artist (viz the Met show) will be 'Modern Spirit,' an exhibition curated, organized, and brilliantly marketed by PAFA with accompanying publications, lectures, and even a children's book. The show will be at the academy from 28 January to 15 April, then will soldier on later in the year with the Tanner banner to the Cincinnati Art Museum and to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

Why, then, credit to the La Salle Museum? How about Mary (1898), a little-seen iconic Tanner oil that will surely be one of the show's highlights?

In all, 114 objects will be in installed in PAFA's Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building, involving works on paper, photographs, and sculptures. Show-stoppers will include Tanner's arguably most important work, The Annunciation (also from 1898), on loan from the PMA; and a far-flung entry, The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896), one of three from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

Otherwise, PAFA is being coy about additional loans, noting that paintings will come from private sources as well as public institutions. '...[S]uffice it to say that we that we've been overwhelmed by the support and enthusiasm of Tanner family members, the AME church, and our colleagues at other art museums,' a PAFA spokeswoman e-mailed me.

Will important works from the St. Louis Art Museum and the Brooklyn Museum be there? Will The Thankful Poor, owned by Bill Cosby, make it?

PAFA has announced that The Banjo Lesson (1893), the well-known template of Tanner's early African-American genre period, will not be there. The picture is owned by Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia. Why it will be missing in action was not explained.

Loans from prominent institutions are nothing new. The PMA is particularly noted for its generous loan policy. But La Salle, a hardscrabble Catholic university in the hinterlands of North Philadelphia? Hmm.

Step forward a newly-launched synergy between the La Salle Museum and Philadelphia's arts community. Indeed, make that the world's. (The museum has also loaned its Tomb of the Virgil at Posilipo, Naples [1784], by Hubert Robert, an 18th-century French academician, to a current show at the Palazzo Te in Mantua, Italy).

For most Philadelphians, the La Salle loans are probably no more surprising than that La Salle University even has a free-access art museum. Especially, one with such world-class treasures as its top-notch Tanner -- and other works by Edouard Vuillard, Rembrandt Peale (Charles Willson Peale's son), Georges Rouault, and, maybe most intriguing of all, by Tintoretto (Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman).

La Salle also has one of few small works in Philadelphia by the brilliant 20th-century Anglo-American sculptor Joseph Epstein, a bust of his daughter Kitty Epstein. (The PMA has Epstein's mammoth Social Consciousness [1953], a not-to-be-missed outdoor work on its West Terrace).

All in all, La Salle's is the only permanent collection in Philadelphia, apart from the PMA's, that includes paintings, drawings, and sculptures from the Renaissance period to the contemporary. In other words, a smallish version of the PMA. OK, real smallish. But even as that, who knew?

For one, Klare Scarborough, the museum's newly-appointed director and chief curator. In fact, turning La Salle's low profile around has been one of Scarborough's principal missions. A former consultant and project manager at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, Scarborough has slipped easily into another new role as La Salle Museum's biggest cheer-leader.

Getting the La Salle Museum on the world stage includes sharing the museum's patrimony 'with people who might never have the opportunity to visit La Salle's campus' off West Olney Avenue, according to Scarborough. (Be forewarned: Finding the museum, located in the basement of a nondescript academic building, can involve a lively search. Another Scarborough mission: Locating a new home for the museum).

Fortunately, Scarborough's brief seamlessly meshed with that of Anna Marley, the academy's curator of historical American art, who cast an uncharacteristically wide net, for PAFA, that is, in retelling Tanner's journey from interpreting black culture in early work through his later growth and stature as, finally, an expatriate artist in Paris.

The upcoming show pulls out all stops, thus also differing from the typical, more modest PAFA exhibit. In fact, 'Modern Sprit' has unabashedly adopted many of the trappings of mega-museum blockbuster. This remember at an institution, despite its high-octane standing, is still a pocket museum, limited in its role as a showcase of America art.

Still, PAFA visitors will not be faulted if they see the imprint of a PMA blockbuster, similar to those once ring-mistressed by the Anne d'Harnoncourt, the late Philadelphia Museum director and impresario. Expect 'the most complete scholarly' Tanner catalog ever, written by experts including PAFA's Marley; an 'array' of educational programs; a 'technical' study of Tanner's materials and methods developed in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution; and a juvenile tie-in in the form of a book written by the well-respected children's author Faith Ringgold.

In fact, the academy has technically already kicked off the show, with a joint-sponsored Tanner symposium that was held 9-10 November at the Musee d'Orsay. Earlier, in October, PAFA jump-started things with a public preview at La Salle.

Despite these bells and whistles, I can't help but think that Marley was really just itching to grab Mary for its artistic and narrative merits. This work, like The Annunciation, captures Tanner in his maturity. By the late 1890s, Tanner was a fixture in Parisian art circles. From African-American genre pictures, new influences in France molded his work, the artist discovering nuances in academic salon painting and even in then-emerging Impressionism. Ultimately, Tanner fully realized himself as a Modern, combining realism and luminous light in technique with themes prompted by mystically-driven Orientalism.

Tanner's religious faith drew him to depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Thanks to funding from Rodman Wanamaker, a rich scion of the Philadelphia department store family, Tanner got to contextualize these biblical scenes on site with visits to the Middle East. In Mary, the infant Jesus and his mother are seated on the floor of a adobe hut, with the baby enveloped in swaddling. Mary gazes soulfully upon her child. The mood is somber. Is Tanner foreshadowing Jesus' death?

In the last 40 years of his life, Tanner returned to United States infrequently. He was celebrated in France, and the Cross of the Legion of Honor, awarded to him by the French government, just hinted at the prestige in enjoyed in his adopted country.

From African-American painter in Philadelphia, born as his native land was just then struggling through the Civil War and its racially-charged aftermath, Tanner found France to be a place where few people had interest in his 'complexion.' In a sense, France allowed him to become a post-racial painter. There, he said, 'I am simply M. Tanner, an American artist.' He died in Paris in 1937.

'Modern Spirit' will be exhibited at the Cincinnati Art Museum from 26 May to September 9; and at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts from 14 October to 6 January 2013. Mary will return to La Salle shortly thereafter.

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