Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Modernism (pt. 7)

A late Realist who appeared on the art scene near the Turn of the Century was the African American Henry Ossawa Tanner, whose works took from Modernist and Impressionist art theory to reinvent biblical traditions for the Modern Era.  These works stray far from the Baroque pomp and circumstance of Renaissance-esque masterworks that glorified religious saints and martyrs with immense, tapestry-like paintings of epic scenes.  His famous painting here retells a well-known narrative tradition of biblical history: the Annunciation (which is when the Archangel visited Mary to tell her she was going to give birth to the Messiah).
Painted in 1898, this work takes an entirely changed perspective on the biblical story.  We can cite scores of Northern European Renaissance works that showcase the Annunciation as a prolific event, something all-glorious and eye-popping, but here it's a simple, humble girl in a dingy room being met by an ambiguously drawn light (representative of Gabriel, the angel).  Where are the majestically spreading clouds, the host of singing angels, and the illustrious Holy Virgin of those altarpiece paintings which we so fondly remember?  Tanner does away with all of the prestige of Christianity and dares to call faith an act of humility.  Here the late Victorian philosophy of Imperialistic, White-Man's-Burden Christendom is shattered under the pretense that biblical narratives and parables should be artistically represented in a light that emphasizes the humility to be attained in the Christian life.  Raised by a staunchly religious father who was himself a Methodist minister, Tanner chose to primarily paint biblical scenes during the greater part of his career, and it is due to these that he is most well-known and highly regarded today as an important figure in the creation of Modern art.

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