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  • Translator: Thu-Huong Ha Reviewer: Youna Jung

  • I'm going to tell you about an affliction I suffer from.

  • And I have a funny feeling that quite a few of you

  • suffer from it as well.

  • When I'm walking around an art gallery,

  • rooms and rooms full of paintings,

  • after about 15 or 20 minutes,

  • I realize I'm not thinking about the paintings.

  • I'm not connecting to them.

  • Instead, I'm thinking about that cup of coffee

  • I desperately need to wake me up.

  • I'm suffering from gallery fatigue.

  • How many of you out there suffer from --

  • yes. Ha ha, ha ha!

  • Now, sometimes you might last longer

  • than 20 minutes, or even shorter,

  • but I think we all suffer from it. And do you have

  • the accompanying guilt?

  • For me, I look at the paintings on the wall

  • and I think, somebody has decided to put them there,

  • thinks they're good enough to be on that wall,

  • but I don't always see it.

  • In fact, most of the time I don't see it.

  • And I leave feeling actually unhappy.

  • I feel guilty and unhappy with myself,

  • rather than thinking there's something wrong with the painting,

  • I think there's something wrong with me.

  • And that's not a good experience, to leave a gallery like that.

  • (Laughter)

  • The thing is, I think we should give ourselves a break.

  • If you think about going into a restaurant,

  • when you look at the menu, are you expected to order

  • every single thing on the menu?

  • No! You select.

  • If you go into a department store to buy a shirt,

  • are you going to try on every single shirt

  • and want every single shirt?

  • Of course not, you can be selective. It's expected.

  • How come, then, it's not so expected

  • to be selective when we go to an art gallery?

  • Why are we supposed to have a connection with every single painting?

  • Well I'm trying to take a different approach.

  • And there's two things I do:

  • When I go into a gallery, first of all, I go quite fast,

  • and I look at everything, and I pinpoint the ones

  • that make me slow down for some reason or other.

  • I don't even know why they make me slow down, but something

  • pulls me like a magnet

  • and then I ignore all the others, and I just go to that painting.

  • So it's the first thing I do is, I do my own curation.

  • I choose a painting. It might just be one painting in 50.

  • And then the second thing I do is I stand in front of that painting,

  • and I tell myself a story about it.

  • Why a story? Well, I think that we are wired,

  • our DNA tells us to tell stories.

  • We tell stories all the time about everything,

  • and I think we do it because the world is kind of a crazy, chaotic place,

  • and sometimes stories, we're trying to make sense of the world a little bit,

  • trying to bring some order to it.

  • Why not apply that to our looking at paintings?

  • So I now have this sort of restaurant menu

  • visiting of art galleries.

  • There are three paintings I'm going to show you now

  • that are paintings that made me stop in my tracks

  • and want to tell stories about them.

  • The first one needs little introduction --

  • "Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Johannes Vermeer,

  • 17th-century Dutch painter.

  • This is the most glorious painting.

  • I first saw it when I was 19,

  • and I immediately went out and got a poster of it,

  • and in fact I still have that poster. 30 years later it's hanging in my house.

  • It's accompanied me everywhere I've gone,

  • I never tire of looking at her.

  • What made me stop in my tracks about her to begin with

  • was just the gorgeous colors he uses

  • and the light falling on her face.

  • But I think what's kept me still coming back

  • year after year is another thing, and that is

  • the look on her face, the conflicted look on her face.

  • I can't tell if she's happy or sad,

  • and I change my mind all the time.

  • So that keeps me coming back.

  • One day, 16 years after I had this poster on my wall,

  • I lay in bed and looked at her,

  • and I suddenly thought, I wonder what

  • the painter did to her to make her look like that.

  • And it was the first time I'd ever thought that

  • the expression on her face is actually reflecting

  • how she feels about him.

  • Always before I'd thought of it as a portrait of a girl.

  • Now I began to think of it as a portrait of a relationship.

  • And I thought, well, what is that relationship?

  • So I went to find out. I did some research and discovered,

  • we have no idea who she is.

  • In fact, we don't know who any of the models

  • in any of Vermeer's paintings are,

  • and we know very little about Vermeer himself.

  • Which made me go, "Yippee!"

  • I can do whatever I want, I can come up with whatever story I want to.

  • So here's how I came up with the story.

  • First of all, I thought,

  • I've got to get her into the house.

  • How does Vermeer know her?

  • Well, there've been suggestions that

  • she is his 12-year-old daughter.

  • The daughter at the time was 12 when he painted the painting.

  • And I thought, no, it's a very intimate look,

  • but it's not a look a daughter gives her father.

  • For one thing, in Dutch painting of the time,

  • if a woman's mouth was open, it was indicating sexual availability.

  • It would have been inappropriate for Vermeer

  • to paint his daughter like that.

  • So it's not his daughter, but it's somebody

  • close to him, physically close to him.

  • Well, who else would be in the house?

  • A servant, a lovely servant.

  • So, she's in the house.

  • How do we get her into the studio?

  • We don't know very much about Vermeer,

  • but the little bits that we do know, one thing we know

  • is that he married a Catholic woman, they lived with her mother

  • in a house where he had his own room

  • where he -- his studio. He also had 11 children.

  • It would have been a chaotic, noisy household.

  • And if you've seen Vermeer's paintings before,

  • you know that they're incredibly calm and quiet.

  • How does a painter paint such calm, quiet paintings with 11 kids around?

  • Well, he compartmentalizes his life.

  • He gets to his studio, and he says, "Nobody comes in here.

  • Not the wife, not the kids. Okay, the maid can come in and clean."

  • She's in the studio. He's got her in the studio, they're together.

  • And he decides to paint her.

  • He has her wear very plain clothes.

  • Now, all of the women, or most of the women in Vermeer's other paintings

  • wore velvet, silk, fur, very sumptuous materials.

  • This is very plain; the only thing that isn't plain

  • is her pearl earring.

  • Now, if she's a servant, there is no way she could afford

  • a pair of pearl earrings.

  • So those are not her pearl earrings. Whose are they?

  • We happen to know, there's a list of Catharina, the wife's clothes.

  • Amongst them a yellow coat with white fur,

  • a yellow and black bodice,

  • and you see these clothes on lots of other paintings,

  • different women in the paintings, Vermeer's paintings.

  • So clearly, her clothes were lent to various different women.

  • It's not such a leap of faith to take

  • that that pearl earring actually belongs to his wife.

  • So we've got all the elements for our story.

  • She's in the studio with him for a long time.

  • These paintings took a long time to make.

  • They would have spent the time alone, all that time.

  • She's wearing his wife's pearl earring.

  • She's gorgeous. She obviously loves him. She's conflicted.

  • And does the wife know? Maybe not.

  • And if she doesn't, well --

  • that's the story.

  • (Laughter)

  • The next painting I'm going to talk about

  • is called "Boy Building a House of Cards" by Chardin.

  • He's an 18th-century French painter best known for his still lifes,

  • but he did occasionally paint people.

  • And in fact, he painted four versions of this painting,

  • different boys building houses of cards, all concentrated.

  • I like this version the best, because some of the boys

  • are older and some are younger, and to me, this one,

  • like Goldilocks's porridge, is just right.

  • He's not quite a child, and he's not quite a man.

  • He's absolutely balanced between innocence and experience,

  • and that made me stop in my tracks in front of this painting.

  • And I looked at his face. It's like a Vermeer painting a bit.

  • The light comes in from the left, his face is bathed

  • in this glowing light. It's right in the center of the painting,

  • and you look at it, and I found that when I was looking at it,

  • I was standing there going,

  • "Look at me. Please look at me."

  • And he didn't look at me. He was still looking at his cards,

  • and that's one of the seductive elements of this painting is,

  • he's so focused on what he's doing that he doesn't look at us.

  • And that is, to me, the sign of a masterpiece,

  • of a painting when there's a lack of resolution.

  • He's never going to look at me.

  • So I was thinking of a story where,

  • if I'm in this position, who could be there looking at him?

  • Not the painter, I don't want to think about the painter.

  • I'm thinking of an older version of himself.

  • He's a man, a servant, an older servant looking at this younger servant,

  • saying, "Look at me. I want to warn you about

  • what you're about to go through. Please look at me."

  • And he never does.

  • And that lack of resolution, the lack of resolution in "Girl with a Pearl Earring" --

  • we don't know if she's happy or sad.

  • I've written an entire novel about her,

  • and I still don't know if she's happy or sad.

  • Again and again, back to the painting,

  • looking for the answer, looking for the story to fill in that gap.

  • And we may make a story, and it satisfies us momentarily,

  • but not really, and we come back again and again.

  • The last painting I'm going to talk about

  • is called "Anonymous" by anonymous. (Laughter)

  • This is a Tudor portrait bought by the National Portrait Gallery.

  • They thought it was a man named Sir Thomas Overbury,

  • and then they discovered that it wasn't him,

  • and they have no idea who it is.

  • Now, in the National Portrait Gallery,

  • if you don't know the biography of the painting,

  • it's kind of useless to you.

  • They can't hang it on the wall, because they don't know who he is.

  • So unfortunately, this orphan spends most of his time in storage,

  • along with quite a number of other orphans,

  • some of them some beautiful paintings.

  • This painting made me stop in my tracks for three reasons:

  • One is the disconnection between his mouth

  • that's smiling and his eyes that are wistful.

  • He's not happy, and why isn't he happy?

  • The second thing that really attracted me

  • were his bright red cheeks.

  • He is blushing. He's blushing for his portrait being made!

  • This must be a guy who blushes all the time.

  • What is he thinking about that's making him blush?

  • The third thing that made me stop in my tracks

  • is his absolutely gorgeous doublet.

  • Silk, gray, those beautiful buttons.

  • And you know what it makes me think of,

  • is it's sort of snug and puffy; it's like a duvet spread over a bed.

  • I kept thinking of beds and red cheeks,

  • and of course I kept thinking of sex when I looked at him,

  • and I thought, is that what he's thinking about?

  • And I thought, if I'm going to make a story,

  • what's the last thing I'm going to put in there?

  • Well, what would a Tudor gentleman be preoccupied with?

  • And I thought, well, Henry VIII, okay.

  • He'd be preoccupied with his inheritance, with his heir.

  • Who is going to inherit his name and his fortune?

  • You put all those together, and you've got your story

  • to fill in that gap that makes you keep coming back.

  • Now, here's the story.

  • It's short.

  • "Rosy"

  • I am still wearing the white brocade doublet Caroline gave me.

  • It has a plain high collar, detachable sleeves

  • and intricate buttons of twisted silk thread,

  • set close together so that the fit is snug.

  • The doublet makes me think of a coverlet on the vast bed.

  • Perhaps that was the intention.