Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Modernism (pt. 9)

Henry Ossawa Tanner's work also anticipated the Harlem Renaissance.  The artist himself was black, raised by a mother who was born a slave but who had escaped North through the help of the Underground Railroad.  Tanner is regarded today as the first African American artist to earn international acclaim during his lifetime.  His paintings would add inspiration to the cultural expression of the Harlem Renaissance in New York and Paris during the 1920s, and one of the artist's most famous images of this theme of black appreciation is his 1893 painting entitled The Banjo Lesson.
It shows black people living casually in their spare time, an outlook totally new for its time.  We see a small boy sitting on the lap of an older man (maybe his grandfather) who is teaching him to play the banjo.  It's a quiet, humble scene of no manifest significance (and yet bearing all the significance of its historical context), and it is such to generate an understanding sympathy in the heart of the viewer toward the figures in the work.  Like the Realist artists who painted peasants and lower-class farmers, Tanner chose to paint the minority as a statement of truth—that this is an expression of the real world and actual black people living around the world.  As an artist, this was his chosen subject; but as a man, this was his born condition.  In that regard, his famous painting The Banjo Lesson is in many ways a self-expressive work of who Tanner identified himself with and where he came from as a child born from an ex-slave.  The painting also contains its own stylistic elements of light and line, but those features borrow more from the Impressionist art style, which we haven't looked at yet—but we're about to.

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