In the late 1980s the German artist Thomas Struth began an ongoing series of large format colour photographs taken in famous European and American museums. Like the earlier street scenes and group portraits, the museum photographs reflect his desire to make carefully considered images which present the scene before the camera in an objective way. In interviews he has stated that his work is 'less about expanding the possibilities of photography than about a truer perception of things.' (Quoted in Gisbourne p.6.) He thus keeps compositions simple and avoids all digital manipulation. However, while continuing in his attempt to make visible the passage of time through the employment of long exposures, Struth relaxes his previous compositional restraints. The images are not posed, Struth capturing unstaged, spontaneous moments as visitors look at paintings in art galleries.
The original inspiration for the museum photographs was Struth's fascination with Renaissance portrait painting. This was an interest which grew out of his engagement with portrait photography. He was led to explore the origins of Western portraiture and figurative painting, considering how historical works of art are displayed and viewed within a museum context. He has stated that he sees art works as having become 'mere fetish objects, like athletes or celebrities.'(Quoted in Buchloh p.39.) However, Struth seeks to work against this tendency. Consequently he does not isolate paintings in his photographs. Rather he presents spectators contemplating and therefore actively engaging with images in gallery spaces. The museum photographs can thus be seen as exploring both the process of looking and the relationship of the present to the past, themes that also characterise the street scenes and group portraits.
In Galleria dell'Accademia 1, Venice 1992 groups of tourists dressed in casual summer clothes stand looking at paintings in a large stone-floored gallery. Some have their backs to the camera, others are side on and all are deeply engaged with the paintings. Both the room and the photograph are dominated by Veronese's vast Mannerist panel painting Christ in the House of Levi (1573) which fills the entire back wall of the gallery. It depicts Christ seated behind a long table at a lively banquet. His head bowed and hand raised, he is the focus of the composition. He is presented deep in conversation with the disciple on his left. He is also surrounded by a colourful array of gesticulating, drinking, talking characters: soldiers, waiters and aristocratic guests. The scene is set beneath three massive trompe l'oeil arches which evoke a classical triumphal arch. The rich pallet and variety of dynamic poses in Veronese's painting are echoed by those of the gallery visitors whom Struth photographs both blurred in movement, and at rest. As with many of his earlier works such as the street scenes, Struth has placed his camera in the centre of the gallery at eye level. This creates a classical one point perspective, the figure of Christ in the painting forming the vanishing point. The gallery space then becomes the foreground of the painting, creating a continuity between the fictitious characters within the painting, the gallery visitors and the viewer of the photograph.
In the museum photographs Struth elevates an apparently informal event to the scale of a religious painting. Arresting a fleeting moment, he evokes the passage of time and gives the scene an enduring presence. He asks those who look at his work to spend time with his images, just as the people in his photograph do with the paintings they are looking at. In exploring the activity of viewing, Struth invites us as spectators to become aware of our own role as viewers.
Mark Gisbourne, 'Struth', Art Monthly, no.176, May 1994, pp.189-194
Benjamin Buchloh, Portraits: Thomas Struth, exhibition catalogue, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York 1990
Thomas Struth: Strangers and Friends, Photographs 1986-1992, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Art, London 1994, reproduced (colour) p.87