On Thomas Struth's "Museum Photographs" by Phyllis Tuchman
The conceptual aspects of Thomas Struth's photographs are not readily apparent in the much lauded mid-career survey of his work now at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (after stops at the Dallas Museum of Art and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the organizing institutions). What did Struth intend when he took pictures of deserted city streets, portraits of families from around the world, crowded churches and dense forests where it's likely that no one hears the sound of a tree falling?
The 49-year old artist, who lives in Dsseldorf where he studied with both painter Gerhard Richter and photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, revealed his intelligent, clear-headed approach to taking pictures in a public lecture as well as a private interview he held in New York after a snowstorm last February. When, for example, he discusses the engaging situations of actual gallery-goers looking at photographs of other gallery-goers looking at paintings, he has a lot to say about his work not found in the critical literature on it.
Says Struth, "I wanted to remind my audience that when art works were made, they were not yet icons or museum pieces." "When a work of art becomes fetishized," the affable, articulate artist points out, "it dies." Struth feels the paintings in his museum photographs regain aspects of their original vitality when seen anew in the context he renders so seamlessly.
Consider Galleria dell'Accademia I, Venice, a picture of tourists in shorts, jeans and short-sleeved shirts who carry cameras, tote bags and guidebooks as they wander around a display hall dominated at one end by a painting from 1573 by Paolo Veronese that's as big as a movie screen. At six feet across and more than seven feet tall, Struth's own color print from 1992 is supersized. It's not the sort of snapshot you'd have developed by a drugstore chain or even at a local lab. Yet this native of Dsseldorf has endowed his scene with the kind of immediacy associated with memories of weekend outings. He makes you believe you are there -- or that you have been there or somewhere else like it.
Struth, though, wasn't interested in making a picture postcard-like souvenir. He chose Veronese's interpretation of the Feast in the House of Levi because he loves the way the Venetian master depicted "a party scene with a big table where people eat and drink." "It's a dinner or brunch," the photographer says. "It's so Italian; and so enjoyable." With his eye for a captivating composition, his steady finger with a shutter and his mind set for philosophical concerns, Struth used "today's visitors" to energize Veronese's masterpiece. When viewed alongside spectators at the Academia who move about -- several are blurs -- and others who lean against a blue radiator, Veronese's figures at a banquet appear to be just as lively and dynamic, perhaps even more so. Certainly, they're better dressed.
In more than two dozen photographs Struth expressed his "interest in the fate of art in museums." Are picture galleries, he asks, "like cemeteries or a living organism where people can nourish themselves about aspects of human existence?" While he didn't become a conceptual artist like many of his contemporaries -- he just wasn't all that interested in theory per se -- he treats themes that appeal to his intellect.
Using a European 13 x 18 camera, which is somewhat comparable to an American 5 x 7, Struth, in the past, would wait for hours or even days to get his shot. At the Louvre, for example, he depicted a group of people in a formation that echoes the ship wrecked survivors clustered by Theodore Gericault on The Raft of the Medusa. There's even a chord of irony as a woman with a fashionable coat and a Louis Vuitton handbag contemplates a painting of distraught men who eventually would succumb to cannibalism. Struth positioned himself at the Art Institute of Chicago in front of an angled Paris street scene by Gustave Caillebotte so that he not only managed to render onlookers in positions as random as the pedestrians depicted by the contemporary of the Impressionists, but to also add another thoroughfare to his own lexicon of avenues and boulevards. In this instance, the figures in the painting are more active than their real life counterparts.
And then there's the photograph Struth took of a crowd filling a space at the Vatican decorated by Raphael. Did any High Renaissance painter or Pope ever expect the Sistine Chapel or the rooms leading to it to become a major museum destination? Amidst all the hurly-burly in Struth's print, the religious paintings on the wall are restored to the world of contemplation, peace and reverence they represent. In a more recent work -- Struth doesn't think he'll take many more museum photographs -- the German artist renders one of his most astonishing images -- a painting by Vermeer with no one around it.
Although Struth loves the work of Piet Mondrian, he wasn't satisfied with his views of people looking at abstractions by the Dutch Modernist master. He also didn't like what he got when he worked with the bright, color fields of the American abstract expressionist Barnett Newman. He's come to realize he needs figures to respond to other figures. That's a major part of how he achieves a dialogue between two media -- painting and photography. Besides the appeal of his work, there's another challenge packed into his art. Struth wants to make people more aware of how to read a picture while also taking into consideration the intention of the photographer. To be sure, the museum series can be interpreted as variously as the works of art depicted in them.
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and other journals.