New York

Thomas Struth

The two categories of social portraiture Thomas Struth presents—family and museum portraits—both constitute brilliant studies of the tension between false, compliant self, and true, bodily self, between conventional and individuated self that exists in every person. In contrast to the families in the portraits, the subjects in the museum pictures are not posed; they seem to be caught off guard. If the family portraits are academically inclined psychosocial studies, in the tradition of Degas’ almost clinical examination of the Bellelli Family, the museum scenes are reminiscent of the same artist’s depictions of public life at the theater and the racetrack.

There seems to be a relationship of antithesis between categories. In the family portraits the camera invades private space; in the museum portraits it positions itself omnisciently in a public space, dominating the scene, often from above. Where in the family portraits the camera seems to linger voluptuously over the rich texture of the lives it invades, in the museum portraits it moves quickly through the space, settling on no particular detail. At the same time, both categories deal with people from successful capitalist cultures as the rich surroundings and clothing of the figures in the family portraits, and the pompous grandeur of the museum spaces suggests.

But this contrast is deceptive; there is accord in the fact that both categories explore the relationship of art to life, if less conspicuously in the family portraits than the museum scenes. Struth comes to the horrendous conclusion that the relationship is absurd, impossible; art has nothing to do with life, or rather, forces falseness on it, compels it to betray itself. The people in the museum seem to rebel against this situation; it is striking how restless and bothered they seem in the presence of art, how their interest in it seems reduced to a mere transient curiosity, like a pigeon picking at a stale piece of bread. Here art becomes a hollow backdrop, and the museum visitors turn away from it impatiently as if they realized it was of little help to them in living. Does Struth’s work bespeak an esthetic disinterestedness on his part, or an ironical commentary on this condition? Many of the museum works are blurred in Struth’s photographs, while in comparison the people are clearly focused, suggesting that what at first glance seemed obvious—that the large paintings are more important than the people who appear small and trivial next to them—is not the case; Struth’s sympathy is with the latter.

The willing subjects of the family portraits reveal a hint of the same resistant vitality as the museum goers, not to mention an intimacy that is altogether beyond the images’ reach. Here Struth makes the confrontation—the interface—between art and life more direct, as though the gap between them could be seamlessly closed. But it never is; the people pose passively, yet they are inwardly active, a fact that the camera can only imply, never discursively articulate. Struth’s photographs demonstrate that art gives the lie to inner life; they show inner life at the moment it attempts to escape the clutches of art, even while overestimating art’s power and acknowledging its inevitable place in life.

Donald Kuspit