A Mosque in Cairo, 1897 Oil on canvas, 9 1⁄2 x 13 in. William M. Lewis, Jr. and Carol Sutton Lewis Photo: Joshua Nefsky

By: Keith Banner

“Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit,” currently on view through September 9, 2012 at the Cincinnati Art Museum, invokes the hush and grandeur of a nighttime cathedral with dark-toned walls and Midnight in Paris lighting, as if to set the stage for an upscale art-history coronation. Many of the paintings themselves give off an arcane, studied vibe, as does the wall-text, which states the obvious almost at every turn: Tanner was an African American artist born two years before the Civil War, and his struggles with race and racism form a looking glass for the way we see and even possibly enjoy his work.

Of course identity and professionalization comprise a huge facet of Tanner’s story, and we have to consider his professional biography in order to verify and validate its importance in the scheme of things. But the works themselves have an accomplished, hermetic feel when pulled together in this slightly pompous way, and it’s not until the last room of “Modern Spirit” that Tanner’s power as an aesthetic practitioner and a fevered believer is allowed to transcend biography and profiling.

This room has some of his most sumptuous and mysterious works in it – religious paintings that feel and look like heady explorations of faith and belief infused with an intense desire to turn religion into an aesthetic/ecstatic, as opposed to an ideological, process. “Sodom and Gomorrah,” an oil painting that dates back to 1910, has a visionary muscularity and a High Modern distillation that seems to sample both Monet and Cezanne somehow in the way the smoldering clouds of smoke wafting over the damned city become a moment of abstract frenzy. The same goes for Tanner’s rendition of “Salome,” a take on the transgressive feminine icon that offers up an obtuse headlessness amidst Tanner’s broken-stones of color. Tanner’s Salome is so beautiful she is about to disappear, dissolving into pure sensate nothingness that somehow gives the picture an overt, almost mathematical, elegiac exactitude, kind of like a Yeats poem.

In effect, that last room in “Modern Spirit” is Tanner’s penultimate suite of lush, precise, quietly ecstatic religious paintings that makes you really want to believe in God, each painting almost proselytizing in its hypnotic richness. As well, all that great work allows you to forget how institutions often have a propensity to classify people in order to create narratives of suffering or triumph or competence or you-fill-in-the-blank. Tanner’s paintings (especially the ones in that last room), because they are so entrenched in belief, seem to counteract this kind of simplification and create a space of thought without thinking, which is kind of what faith is.

Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.” Tanner’s paintings are a way of visualizing those words, as he uses his talents to paint his way into Bible stories probably read to him in his youth. This direct access to myth-making was probably one of Tanner’s most productive tunnels out of a pigeonhole.

Every couple years I reread Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It’s one of those books that I read when I was in college that really shaped the way I see the world, and every time I read it I find new insights and new terrors that help me explain the world to myself. Going back to it is comforting in a way that is as close to “spiritual” as I can get. By pure coincidence I was halfway into the book the day I saw “Modern Spirit,” and that night I read one of the most jarring and otherworldly scenes in the book, when Raskolnikov visits Sonia, preparing to confess to her the ax-murder of the old pawnbroker and her sister. Sonia happens to be a prostitute, but in Crime and Punishment that status signifies a moral core. During his visit, he asks Sonia to read from the Bible, and the story she reads is the Resurrection of Lazarus:

‘That is all about the raising of Lazarus,’ Sonia whispered severely and abruptly, and turning away she stood motionless, not daring to raise her eyes to him. She still trembled feverishly. The candle-end was flickering out in the battered candle-stick, dimly lighting up in the poverty-stricken room the murderer and the harlot who had so strangely been reading together the eternal book. (338)

In his beautifully stylized and gutter-operatic manner, Dostoevsky paints a verbal picture kind of like Tanner paints one visually (even the lighting seems interchangeable), especially in the luscious and calmly melodramatic, “The Resurrection of Lazarus,” oil on canvas, circa 1896. This painting, while not in that final room I love so much, outshines its siblings in a long corridor leading into the last room. “The Resurrection of Lazarus” has a Caravaggio luxury to it, but also a Dostoevskian compression and finality, a creepy, delicate longing to let us in on the psychology inside the mythology, and vice versa. Completely conventional in its Bible Story drag, the painting has a vital delirium throbbing inside its wooden shadows, both dread and a fever to escape that dread. It’s haunted by faith in a way that allows you entrance into a realm where belief loses logic, and suddenly you understand that maybe death really is just another mistake.

Dostoevsky was an epileptic addicted to gambling, and an ex-convict to boot. Knowing that helps us understand what he wrote, of course, but it also limits the way we experience it once we’re inside his aesthetic universe. That slightly tawdry resume is completely unnecessary when Dostoevsky is working at his fullest powers. The same goes for Tanner – especially in that last portion of “Modern Spirit.” It’s as if in those lavish but somehow restrained images from Bible stories he found a way to transcend both religion and the world that uses religion to maintain the status quo. He escapes biography with iconography and delivers a vision outside of himself, Christ-haunted and yet oddly personal.



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