First Installment, April 12, 2023—Although based on real events, all names are fictitious except for Sarah and a few others.
Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.
The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized. Yet, the tunnel is a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of our society and ourselves.
The next chapters are about my quest to bring the vision of art to other Sarahs living in their tunnels.
Chapter 19, part II (from July 2)
Rembrandt, Their Special Artist
But they loved Rembrandt. He was their special artist, revealing life through his eternal portraits: St. Paul, Christ, Moses, the burghers and merchants of Amsterdam; his wife Saskia and son Titus; the ancient visages of the older generation; his final self-portraits. Eyes, hands, expressions, sculpted by Rembrandt’s vital brush. Layers of pigment, varnish, and three centuries of time transformed into a single human being, glowing in divine light and darkness.
“She looks so sad,” Deborah was the first to speak as A Girl with a Broom from the National Gallery of Art flickered before us. Rembrandt’s subject was about 10 to 12, resting on a tall broomstick, her arms crossed, staring intently at us. A beam of illumination, like the smoldering warmth of firelight, crackled over and around her, highlighting the prominent forehead, snub nose, auburn strands of hair, and full-sleeved blouse covering her upper body, while opposing shadows, nocturnal and endless, extended into the background.
“She’s a sensitive person….and I think caring,” Deborah continued, moving her long, bony arms up and down, in an effort to articulate her compassion for the unnamed child. “With a lot of….”
“Oh, no,” Vera interjected, her voice sweet and girlish, contrasting to her considerable girth. “She’s got just the littlest bit of a smile…you can see it. She’s satisfied….resting…taking some time…after a good, hard day’s work.”
“Or maybe she’s got a secret,” Mrs. Land proposed, leaning over a few chairs toward Vera, wrinkling her tailored dress in the process.
“She’s thinking hard about something,” Reverend Jones loudly announced in his basso profundo, deep and sonorous. “Yes sir, real hard, real hard, REAL HARD,” he repeated fast and emphatic, in a machine gun succession of sound.
“She’s pensive, that’s certainly true,” Dr. Max agreed dreamily from his usual orchestra seat in the front row. I thought, at times, he might be snoozing, his white beard dropping slightly onto his chest, yet, as now, he would suddenly revive. “I’ve always liked Rembrandt. The light especially…and the warm colors…golds and burnt reds. But did you notice her hands. How they’re so gracefully displayed in front of her?”
“Yes, yes, that’s a good point. What do you think of her hands?” I eagerly asked the rest of the group. Mrs. Yu was peering anxiously at me, as if she wanted to answer. Was she actually comprehending my question?
“Those are working hands, definitely,” Connie excitedly noted, holding her own tiny hands, sinewy and firm as proof of her point. “Those aren’t the hands of a child….no way. They belong to someone who has worked for a living…a servant. Look at how strong they are! And yet, she must be only about 9 or 10,” Connie conjectured, inciting immediately a heated debate about the girl’s age—a topic to which even the most reticent participant could contribute.
I noticed, though, that Mr. Haas seemed to be oblivious to the discussion encircling him, perched trancelike on his hard-backed chair, absorbed exclusively in his own experience of the painting.
“And how old do you think she is, Mr. Haas?” I ventured, hoping for once to elicit a rational response from him.
“The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” was his solemn recitation.
“Well, I guess that’s right,” Reverend Jones chuckled quietly, then nervously winked at his nearest companion.
Other portraits followed, each stimulating another dialogue and exploration of the spectrum of characters the great master unveiled to posterity: an exotic Turk, an elegant gentleman, a fading beauty, a searching philosopher, a New Testament disciple.
Finally, Rembrandt’s eye was upon us—a magnified detail from a late self-portrait at the National Gallery of Art. An iris and cornea, underlined with puffy folds of rawhide skin, blotched and blemished.
“I often like to think we’re actually Rembrandt’s eye doctor when I show this,” I joked to my stupefied audience. Then realizing what appeared to be their unease and discomfort, I quickly returned to the complete portrait.
It was executed nearly a decade earlier than the self-portrait I remembered so vividly at the Uffizi Gallery, although Rembrandt was already past his physical prime. What remained was a man without pretense or vanity, confronting the world unflinchingly, ultimately with the poignant gravity of wisdom.
“Now, that’s a man! He’s tough!” Reverend Jones declared. “You see how he is looking straight at us…he’s not afraid to let us know who he is.”
“Yes, but…he looks like he’s going to cry…you can see it…in the eyes,” Deborah quietly asserted. “And he’s so natural…the skin…it’s as if you can really touch it. The material. I think it’s felt, of the hat he’s wearing…and his white hair, too.”
“Yes, and he’s got real wrinkles, too.” Vera observed succinctly.
“Like all of us!” Connie muttered sarcastically.
“And rings under his eyes,” Mrs. Land added. “And is that a double chin I see?”
“Yes, but that’s what so wonderful about this portrait. You see, the artist is not afraid to show us he’s aging…he’s proud of it!” I lectured my elders in youthful earnestness, although old age was still solely a hypothetical experience for me.”Remember how I told you in the beginning of the program how Rembrandt went from being a prosperous artist to bankruptcy. How his wife died and later his son…well, you can see it in his face and that’s why….”
The purple-kerchiefed woman, who had joined us only moments before, called out, “Did you say he was from Vermont, dear?”
“No,” I managed to respond seriously, pretending to be unruffled by her outburst. “He’s actually from Holland. He lived over 300 years ago.”
“Well, I’m from Vermont, you know,” she informed me for the twentieth time since our first acquaintance, in her broad Yankee twang.
“Yes, I know,” I acknowledged, turning speedily to Dr. Max, for emergency assistance. Dr. Max, I was certain, would divert us from any further references to New England.
“What do you think of him, Dr. Max?” I inquired, anticipating a serious, thoughtful reply.
“Well, not to be disrespectful, Ms. Hart, but I think he imbibes a little. It’s evident in his skin tones. The color is a bit….hmm…let’s say ruddy,” he offered clinically.
“Oh-h, r-real-ly, ” I stuttered in surprise.
“You mean, he liked the juice,” Reverend Jones guffawed irreverently, quickly generating a wave of laughter from a number of the group–even Deborah tittered embarrassingly behind her hand.
“That is possible,” I admitted, with good-natured patience. “Rembrandt was certainly no saint..but…” I paused dramatically, trying to resurrect the aura of spirituality I had experienced in the Uffizi years before. “He had an understanding of man’s essence, like few artists in the history of art. For he could capture not only the character but the very soul of a person.” I pointed worshipfully to the artist’s eyes. “The eyes are the windows of the soul…right? You can see everything there…the suffering, the knowledge, and the love for mankind…in his eys. And the way he’s spotlighted his face, shining out from the infinite space of the darkness surrounding him.”
“He seems to be floating there,” Dr. Max assented, mesmerized.
“You can see every emotion in his face,” Mrs. Land softly volunteered.
“He’s speaking to us, I think,” Vera whispered, pushing forward in her chair to better hear the painting’s words.
“No, he’s still quiet…at peace,” Deborah said calmly, relaxing completely in her chair.
Connie, ever vigilant by the slide projector, simply folded her hands in a position of prayer.
“Amen,” Reverend Jones acclaimed.
Close by the tantalizing odor and clattering dishes of impending lunch entreated us to leave. But we did not move, even Mrs. Yu, sharing a moment beyond any language or spoken word.
It was Mr. Haas who finally ended the silence. “The light of the Lord is upon him.”
COMING NEXT: LEISURE LANDS
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