New York

Thomas Struth

Thomas Struth’s ongoing sequence of photographs of museum galleries and the audiences within them reaches a fortissimo in this recent group, taken in the Prado, Madrid, and the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Struth uses the mural-scale prints that have become a trope in contemporary art, not least in Germany—he is a peer of Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky, having graduated from the same Kunstakademie Düsseldorf program taught by Bernd and Hilla Becher—and the size and deep color of his images are crucial to their effect: In the museum work in particular (Struth also makes streetscapes and portraits), the photographs show viewers in spaces parallel and equivalent to the spaces in which we viewers ourselves stand and look, making for a rich self-awareness on our part. Often, also, we see the paintings at which the viewers inside Struth’s pictures are looking, and these images provide a third spatial arena and a third array of characters to digest. There is much to say, then, about the photographs’ visual layers and formal qualities. What is most revelatory in these recent pictures, though, is their documentary information—what they tell us about the reception of art today.

Historians of African art often remark on the differences between its role in the Western museum and its original life. Many African masks, for example, were traditionally seen only rarely, at ceremonies or festivals; some might appear only at night, to be “danced” or worn in performance by firelight or in the dark, and even those activated by day would be seen in motion and would command a power based in widely shared belief. To see these objects butterflied in vitrines or on walls, where they remain day in and day out, is in some way not to see them at all, so distant are they from the situations for which they were made. And to see Struth’s series of photographs of Velázquez’s Las Meninas, and of the crowds that eddy before it in the Prado, is to realize that the same holds true for Western painting of a certain age.

Today, of course, artists make work with the museum in mind, but Velázquez and the old masters could not have anticipated the conditions in which their art would eventually be viewed. They didn’t know, for example, about cell phones or tour guides or T-shirts printed with the names of soccer teams, about school trips or sunglasses or digital cameras or girls in little plaid skirts. At first, honestly, one is kind of appalled by the flux and flow Struth captures in front of Las Meninas, whose inhabitants look back at the traffic before them with wonderful serenity, considering. In another work, Struth finds a class of fidgety schoolkids clustered under The Surrender of Breda, his platoon of small individuals—mostly sitting on the floor or scrambling over the benches, looking anywhere but at the painting—a striking contrast to Velázquez’s dignified army engaged in a grave event. The one seems almost a travesty of the other.

And yet: To take the photographs in the Hermitage, Struth set his camera looking outward from beside the work the crowd is viewing, so that we don’t see it; the viewers themselves become our focus, while their own focus is unknown. And with no invidious comparison to make between the subject of their gaze and the fact of it, the quality of their attention becomes enthralling. It would be easy to get sentimental about it, in fact—to work up bromides about the enduring power of art to entrance humans of all kinds—but the photographs are too specific; there is too much detail, too much precise description and observation, for those kinds of generalities, and we are left instead with the effort of comprehending the large range of responses the art sparks. On one level disturbing analyses of an international touristic entertainment culture, on another touching, even inspiring traces of emotional and intellectual experiences shared by a large and various community (whose members, too, are beautifully dignified by the photographs’ color), Struth’s works throw many questions in the air and remain mysterious.

David Frankel