Walt had just finished a three-day conference on education theory in Anaheim that was long on theory but short on substance. This was typical of nearly every academic gathering he had ever attended, but he didn’t care. He had agreed to participate for the chance to take in West Coast culture for a few days. On Saturday morning after most of the other conference attendees had already packed up and left, Walt visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
His first stop was in the modern art collection. He stood in front of some Picasso, Lichtenstein, and Miró paintings and thought about the presentations he had suffered through at the conference, as well as his own. Those dry pedagogical prescriptions were already being roundly forgotten. Yet there he was, surrounded by art that would intrigue endless generations.
An hour into his visit, he discovered a section of Ahmanson Building, Level 3 that featured some of the older works of the European masters. He rounded one corner and strolled into a room dominated by a square central pillar. Hanging on the pillar wall directly in front of him was Rembrandt’s The Raising of Lazarus. Only a few people were in the room when Walt entered, including a guard who stood by the wall next to the entryway, smiling at Walt’s amazement.
He walked to within five feet of the painting and stood alone before the canvas. There was no railing or glass to impede his view. Walt noticed right away that Rembrandt had interpreted the scene unconventionally. The chamber was a grim chiaroscuro, mostly dark, but Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Lazarus were illuminated by off lighting, presumably from an open doorway. The painting exploded with energy, due mainly to the shocked, even traumatized, expressions on every face that the artist had chosen to make clearly visible. Jesus stood at the apex of the scene with his hand raised while Lazarus rose from the tomb like a marionette being pulled up by a puppeteer, his face a pale mask expressing the dull awareness of someone being forced to wake up although he would have preferred a timeless sleep. Jesus looked surprised, isolated, and weary, perhaps even doubtful. Walt felt empathy for him.
He studied the painting’s texture, imagining how the young Rembrandt must have felt as each stroke brought the painting into clearer focus. The brush strokes swirled like waves across an ocean so deep and mysterious that Walt nearly swooned at the thought. He stepped away to regain his bearings, looked around the room, and saw that he was alone. Even the guard had left. He scanned the ceiling corners for security cameras and saw none. No one would ever know if he reached out and touched the painting. But he also understood that touching the canvas would do permanent damage to the painting and, by extension, those who loved it.
Walt stepped back a few paces, took one final look at The Raising of Lazarus, and left the museum wondering how he would translate this moment to his students.