Henry Ossawa Tanner: The Presence of Light, the Absence of Space
Annunciation. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art
One of the joys of my day job as director of the Cincinnati Art Museum is that I get to spend some quality time with amazing art (although it does not happen nearly enough that I can drag myself away from administration). We are currently hosting an exhibition on the work of the painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), which has given me the chance to revel in that artist’s ability to evoke places that are both magical and to revel in the way that, through his handling of his medium, the paintings have become absolutely real.
The image that makes this most clear, and for which Tanner received many accolades in his time, is his 1898 Annunciation. In this painting, Mary does not sit in a study, bedroom, or garden, and is not a poised, Renaissance maiden. Instead, an apprehensive young girl perches in the far right corner of the canvas, huddling in a room whose stucco arches a striped blanket partially covers. The bed sheets are crumpled underneath her, and a Middle Eastern garment flows in a surfeit of folds from her slender shoulders. This is Mary as a Palestinian girl in what we today call the West Bank. She is as Tanner might have seen such women in places like this during his several trips to the area. The way he has depicted her makes a scene from the Bible into a real and contemporary place, even a hundred years after it was painted.
The amazing thing about the image is the annunciator. It is not a person, an angelic being, or a thing, but a lozenge of light, stretching along the far left edge from the top of the frame to the floor of the room. It is almost out of the scene, but dominates everything. It is an apparition. This light is heavy: it has weight, presence, and form. There is nothing ephemeral about it, nothing that negates either its own reality or that of the world around it. I have rarely seen a sense of the miraculous or the ineffable that made itself real so clearly.
Moses in the Bull Rushes. Courtesy Smithsonian Museum of American Art
Arc de Triomphe. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum of Art
That light appears elsewhere in Tanner’s work, usually with religious connotations. He made his reputation mainly in his adopted homeland of France (he did not feel welcome in America as a black person), through the painting of such scenes. At times, the light is delicate, as when it is only the slightest hint of a globe, in his 1921 Moses in the Bull Rushes, that stand in for the foundling. But the light shows up in secular paintings as well, as in the 1919 image of the Arc de Triomphe at the end of the First World War, its shrine to the fallen shining forth in memory, glowing as if it was a translucent crystal lit from inside.
Voyage to Egypt. Courtesy Cincinnati Art Museum
Against this light that has space, there are in Tanner’s paintings the spaces that disappear into abstraction, usually of a blue or green variety. They are seas, hills, or landscapes lost to night. The holy family moves through them, or fishers are lost in their depths. It matters not what their specifics are: space is continuous, while it is light that has form and presence, and people dispose themselves between those two.