Recognizing black artists in American exhibits

After a confusing month of political to-ing and fro-ing in the art world, a painting by 19th-century black American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner will be added to an exhibition opening next week at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.

Henry O. Tanner's ''The Annunciation'' was included in ''A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting, 1760-1910,'' after a group of black artists and academics in Boston criticized the exhibition for not including important works by black American artists of the period.

The exhibition was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston at the request of the Musee du Louvre in Paris where it eventually travels next spring.

The Boston museum agreed to pursue ''the possibility of adding a painting by Henry Tanner to the exhibition,'' after the protest in late October and subsequent lecture and slide presentation of some 30 paintings by Tanner, Edward M. Bannister, and Robert S. Duncanson.

Three Tanners were proposed: Perhaps the most famous Tanner - ''The Banjo Lesson,'' in the collection of the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Va.; ''The Annunciation'' in the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and ''The Thankful Poor,'' in the private collection of actor/comedian Bill Cosby's family.

But by mid-November, neither the two institutions nor the Cosbys had been contacted by the Boston museum.

There were, however, reports that ''The Thankful Poor'' had been included in the exhibition. The Cosbys heard about it in the news and were astonished. The museum refused comment.

The director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Jan Fontein, now says ''It took a little while. But I think we have settled this matter to everyone's satisfaction. Our first choice was the painting Mr. Cosby owns. At the time we did not realize it belongs to Mr. Cosby.

''We did indeed approach Mr. Cosby through an intermediary (at Sotheby Parke Bernet). But for personal reasons which he (Cosby) would not elaborate, he could not do it. This (painting, 'The Annunciation') is just about as good.

''I consider the matter closed. All the rest is irrelevant. A lot of people got excited about it.''

Mr. Cosby, however, does not see the rest as irrelevant and elaborated in a telephone interview from his Massachusetts home:

The point, Mr. Cosby says, is that ''this painting, before being brought to auction, sat in the basement of the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.''

For most of its history, no one had ever paid much attention to it. (It did hang from 1970 to 1981 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)

''So you take this painting which was in the basement, put it in the auction (at Sotheby's in December 1981), then on the wall in our home, and now all of a sudden it is supposed to go to the Louvre - and, mind you, it is only because the French government recognizes this artist that they (Boston's Museum of Fine Arts) are asking for him.

(Tanner studied at the Academie Julien in Paris, exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1894, and won the gold medal for his ''The Resurrection of Lazarus.'' He was also a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.)

Cosby charges that ''most of the people who are in charge of this are guilty on two counts: ignorance and apathy.

''I don't accept one artist who is supposed to be the best of the American black artists. And having one painting in the show is not doing a darn thing.

''It still shows the ignorance, the apathy, and the fact the French government brought this to the fore,'' Cosby suggests. ''I don't know how much attention they (the museum) would have paid to the protesters.''

''The bottom line . . . is that they cannot have anything we have. If they are looking for something, what we can force them to do is get an education by looking at perhaps hundreds of black American artists and getting some help from (David) Driscol (an authority on black American art).''

Cosby says it is high time for ''an integration of all of the artists - regardless of their color. They don't want to be known for the color of their skin but for what they're doing!'' he asserts.

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