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I took my kids to view The Anatomy Lesson...this is what they taught me

So I took my 7 year old (E) and 5 year old (O) on an inter-city adventure to see this month’s humanities piece at the Maurithuis museum in Den Haag here in the Netherlands, and boy did they teach me a thing or two…

1. Kids don’t care about Rembrandt and maybe we shouldn’t either?

Sad to say this, but it’s true. I wanted them to have some really deep and inspirational experience, but what was a fun-filled 2 hour trek ended with a 2 minute glance and an old painting that they thought was boring.

I LOVED THIS. Of course they thought it was boring and well, it is a bit boring. why bother looking at this painting when there is so much more opportunity for life and joy all around it?

This was a great reminder that art is not something we should take too seriously, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious elements to art, but that we can get caught up in over-thinking it sometimes and perhaps it’s ok to simply look at it and have your first response.

“It’s only a painting Mum. Who cares?”

The art world may tell us that this is a masterpiece, but my kids were way more interested in the actual building that it was housed in, what could they jump off, crawl under, climb on, laugh at and play with? This is the real art of being human and alive in the world so I loved that this was their first response in a room full of very serious Dutchies proud of their artistic heritage. LOL.

2. It’s not about the art.

Having said that, once they were given permission to just look around the painting and choose what they liked and what they didn’t (no need to force it), I was amazed at what they did actually pick out. Art holds so many opportunities to reflect on our world and society, both through a historical lens and what we see around us today. Art is a great teacher, but we have to show up and invest in the lesson.

So I asked them some of the questions that I invited you to reflect on:

What’s going on in this painting?

O: There’s a dad man and another man is cutting his arm up. It’s cool, but there’s no blood. So it’s not too scary.

L: Why do you think there’s no blood?

O: Oh yeah, I don’t know.

L: Well, what happens to your heart when you die?

O: It stops beating.

L: Why does your heart beat?

O: So the blood goes all around your body.

L: Great so if your heart isn’t beating then the blood doesn’t go around your body, so when we cut open the body there’s no blood there. it’s all gone still.

O. You’re so cool Mummy (I may have added this bit…)…..

L: What do you see E?

E: All those white men are looking at the dead man. Mummy, why is that man cutting open his arm?

L: Well, in the olden days, one way we learned about the body and all the bits in it like muscles, bones and organs, was that when someone died they would cut open the body and have a look inside. A bit like you might do with a box - if you want to know what’s inside the box what do you need to do?

E: open it

L: Well that’s how we started learning about the body. It’s good that you notice that they are all men and they all have white skin, that’s because at the time there was a law that meant only white men had access to school and certain jobs. What do you think about that?

E: hat’s not true now though because girls and people with brown skin can go to my school.

L: Yep, it is changing.

What parts of the painting do you see first?

E: The dead man.

L: Why do you think that is?

O: Because it’s very light and white. My eyes wants to look at that.

L: What do you notice happening in the darker bits then?

E: Well all the mens clothes are dark, and maybe the room is dark?

L: Ok, and why do you think. the person painting it chose to do that? Because remember, this isn’t a photograph of what happened, Rembrandt painted it, so everything you see he chose to paint in that way - just like the painting you did yesterday of our house, you chose to make the curtains pink - but do we have pink curtains?

E: Noooo! We don’t have pink curtains (laughing) I just like pink curtains and think our house would look nice with them.

L: Right, so you painted was important to you?

E: ooooh I see. So he painted things black and dark because it’s not important. the important bit is the light bit and that’s why we look at it.

L: So that’s interesting because this painting is showing is something important about our science at the time. Anatomy was exciting and new, it helped us understand the body and so Rembrandt is showing us how important it was to them by focusing on it.

What feelings, thoughts or questions do you have about the painting or the people in it?

O: It’s a bit boring. But it’s very cool that you can see the muscles and inside the skin. Actually, i thought it was a photo Mummy but it’s just a painting (Laughing).

E: Mummy, who was the dead man? Why did he die?

L: Today, people can choose if they want to give their body to science afer they die. So when mummy went to school to be a physiotherapist, a person kindly gave their body to the school to help us learn about the muscles and bones and nerves. So Mummy was able to look inside a real body, a dead person’s body. But in the old days, it wasn’t the same. This man was someone that was arrested by the police and hung -which means that he was killed. it wasn’t very nice and we don’t do that now.

E: Oh, that’s very sad. What did he do?

L: It says he stole a man’s coat.

E: That doesn’t sound very bad? Maybe he needed it?

L: Well, that’s a good point. Why do people steal?

E: Because they don’t have something and they need it, but they don’t have money so they can’t buy it.

L: Is it wrong to steal?

E: Yes. Because it’s not yours.

L: What if you’re stealing food?

E: That’s difficult because people should have food if they need it.

L: What if you are cold and you steal a coat?

E: Ohh I see. Stealing is not a very bad thing then?

L: What if you are very rich and you steal?

E: Then that’s really bad! Because you already have money so you should just buy it!

L: What if you’re very poor and you steal?

E: That’s not so bad because you can’t buy things if you don’t have money, but you need things sometimes and so maybe you have to?

L: These things are difficult aren’t they? It’s not like there are good people and bad people, good things and bad things. we all have to make choices and sometimes, they are hard to make.

This exchange taught me something that I think we have been doing in Pain Geeks really well, because this affirmed to me that the reason we look at art is not to appreciate the technique or the content (although of course we can do that too), it’s because it shows us something about ourselves as humans. It affords us a moment to learn about ourselves, and to a conscious and complex organism like a human, on the constant journey of learning from day 1, this is something we enjoy and helps us. toshape our world and understand ourselves within it. Our morality is reflected to us and the opportunity to ask questions of that morality and our morality. is opened up - that’s why art is so dangerous and why it is heavily controlled and restricted. That’s why it is so essential and important to healthcare professionals and anyone really, to have access to art and the skill sand support to engage with it.

3. We all see art through our own perspective

After running around for a bit, much to the delight of the other visitors, we found The Girl With A Pearl Earing by Vermeer. My love for this painting much increased by the film with the absolutely dashing Colin Firth - obviously. But what would a 5year old and 7 year old see?

O, who up until this painting hadn't really been much interested in the art, suddenly stood still for a few minutes and really looked. So I asked her, what does this painting of this girl make you feel?

O: Like we are looking at each other. But that’s silly becuase its just a painting (Laughing at the realisation of this)

This is just so wonderful, becuase that is of course, kind. of the joke. That’s the illusion, the joyful trickery of art. That it makes you feel something real inside of you right in that moment - and yet it’s not a real person. So I told her that the painting “is kind of a made up painting. It wasn’t painted based on what the painter could see with his eyes, but what he saw with his imagination.”

O: So she’s not even real?

L: We don’t really know because we weren’t there. But that’s what they think.

O: ooooh that’s so cool.

L: What do you think the girl is feeling O? Do you hear her telling you something?

O: I think she’s lost mummy, she’s looking back at us like she doesn’t know where she is, and it’s dark and she’s a bit scared.

L: that’s interesting. Where do you see that she is scared?

O: her eyes.

E: I think she’s happy mummy, look at her mouth. There is a little smile.

L: oh that’s interesting. Did you notice that you both see different feelings and emotions? Even though you are looking at the same painting. Why do you think that is?

Both silent for a moment…

O: Maybe I’m looking at more at the eyes and E is looking more at the mouth?

E: yeah! because if I look just at her eyes, I see what O sees, maybe she is a bit lost. But if I look at her mouth, then I think she is happy.

L: So where we look on a painting is important? It could change how we feel about it?

O: Maybe today I look at her eyes, but now i look at her mouth because of E, but I can also look at her clothes..

L: Ok great, so who we are with when look at art can be important - it might change what we see. And maybe in one moment we look at one spot and feel or think something, but another moment, or day we might look somewhere else and see something different?

O: I think so.

E: Also, we all have different lives. I am different to O, and O is different to me, so of course we don’t see it the same way.

And that was the end of that. In several sentences, that probably took less than 5 minutes, they demonstrated beautiful knowledge of themselves and others. They already know what so many of us are re-learning through philosophy and it’s so obvious to them that even the question is kind of weird.

4. We probably shouldn’t look at art for too long

What is too long?

Art is a great teacher, if we show up to the lesson - but it isn’t as good as real life.

Art is a training ground, so that we can move through the world in an observant and compassionate way. When we focus more on the art than the humanity we’ve missed the point. The kids really helped me to get the lesson from the art without getting caught up in how art can be a powerful distractor and of course, weaponised. Remembering that is not real and ‘a little bit boring’ is perhaps a great way to stay in touch with real life around us. We spent about 45 minutes in the museum. it was fast, chaotic and loud. They laughed at nakedness, related to the children and toys, loved the animals, pushed the grown ups out the way with their surprisingly sharp bargey elbows and shoulders, broke the rules of politeness AND had deep compassionate insight into the pieces.

They took lessons, but didn’t care about the art. They were too busy being human.

NB: Please refrain from sharing photos/screenshots of my children’s faces if you do choose to share any aspect of this blog.

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