Back in the Old Days, when children could not only play outdoors unsupervised, but could even freely wander museums and galleries, my friends and I would ride our bikes through the high-rise maze of Los Angeles’ Park La Brea Towers to play at the only expansive open space we could access from our neighborhood.
The LACMA (LA County Museum of Art) green space is now built up with new galleries and pinched even more by an admittedly fascinating excavation project (dire wolves for days). At the time, however, there was room for multiple ball games and picnics, and a little stream that was only beginning to ooze tar. We waded barefoot to devastate its populations of guppies and tadpoles, climbed the giant sloth statue, and tried really, really hard not to run through the museum to see the bubbling mud table (Robert Rauschenberg’s Mud Muse) and climb through the mirror tunnel (more info welcome).
Our parents had no idea where we were, and were only concerned that we get home in time for dinner. Some statistics say the city is safer now than it was then. It’s a good thing we didn’t know.
Apart from the room we believed was designed specifically for us, there was art. There were paintings. And there was this one painting.
I don’t remember where my friends were when I roamed the museum’s galleries. Maybe I left them to play in the mirror tunnel. Maybe they peeled off out of boredom and went outside to play. I do remember that standing and gazing at this or that painting was a solo sport.
LACMA’s collection was small at the time, which allowed me to develop favorites—somehow more like friends. One painting I always made sure to visit was Daniel in the Lion’s Den, by Henry Ossawa Tanner.
It was unsupervised, uninterrupted, precious time, and at the age of eight or so I knew only that I wanted to look at it. If you had asked me why, I think I would have said, “Because it’s nice.” I can tell you now it ended up pressing itself so completely into my mind that it’s as much a part of who I am as the shape of my hand.
There are many other brilliant paintings of that biblical scene, but this was the first time I had seen Daniel or this moment outside of mediocre calendar illustrations and other standard grade school issue glurge. I tried to find examples of those online, but I’m beginning to suspect no one else thinks they’re worth remembering, either.
My LACMA Daniel, his face in shadows, was someone different, and (in an attempt to speak for my eight-year-old self) somehow more real. The lions padded softly and didn’t pose like enraged prize fighters. I could almost smell their sour fur.
Truths I suspected—about god, humans, real danger, and real courage—were illuminated in Tanner’s painting. And by illuminated, I mean beyond the square of light that lit the face of a lion and Daniel’s bound hands resting calmly in his lap.
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