‘Struth has been a key figure in not only bringing photography into the mainstream of contemporary art, but also imbuing his medium with the scale and ambition of great art from the past. His Museum pictures especially are masterpieces of observation that reach a sublime level of colour saturation and detail that, to my eye, are unequalled except in painting’ (P. de Montebello, ‘Thomas Struth at The Metropolitan Museum of Art February 4 through May 18, 2003’, http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/ press-room/exhibitions/2002/thomas-struth, [accessed 4 January 2014]).
Kunsthistorisches Museum I forms part of Thomas Struth’s celebrated Museum series, monumental photographs that capture the everyday engagement people have with cultural and historical locations across the world. Executed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna in 1989, Struth captures through extreme technical prowess groups of visitors engaging with art in the museum’s 17th century European art gallery. Stepping into the almost life-size image upon approach, the sweeping movement captured in the photograph invokes the sensation of the eye panning a room in panorama, and yet, Struth has provided strict parameters from which to absorb the scene, the parameters of the room delineated by the seam bi-secting the image in the corner. Sitting in sharp focus in the foreground at the centre of the composition is a glass cube encasing Lion Attacking a Bull by Antonio Susini, which acts as the heart of the image in which the rest of the room orbits, a central point from which the viewer absorbs the whole scene. This is no arbitrary construct: the cube acts as a frame both for the sculpture within, and for his image within the larger frame of the room, which is subsequently encased within the larger frame of his photographic parameters.
This twinning or mirroring repeats itself throughout the image. The putti figures assembling at the feet of the Virgin Mary in Rubens’ The Assumption of the Virgin echo the group congregating at the base of Rubens’ The Miracle of St. Francis Xavier. The repetition follows down to the single figures in both groups who are pointing upwards. The curvature of the left figure in Rubens’ The Four Rivers of Paradise is recalled in the white jacketed woman while the rest of the composition is re-created by the figures seated on the bench in the foreground. Struth also twins the hues of these Old Master works, the creams, strident dashes of reds and passages of blue with the garb of the viewers, thereby merging the space between painterly reality and the reality of the gallery space. The effect is one compositional whole which has been woven together from art and life. By placing this enquiry in the space of the Old Master gallery of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Struth elicits an awareness of our role as a viewer, not only as a consumer of what is presented before us, but as re-interpreters of visual culture from the past. ‘Because the Museum photographs double our experience in front of the work of art, they trigger a remarkable feeling of stepping into one’s own skin again, while alienation from others and from history—the curse of the modern—is dissolved in the image’ (M. Morris Hambourg and D. Eklund, ‘The Space of History’, Thomas Struth: 1977-2002, exh. cat., Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, 2002, p. 163). As in other images from the series, Struth ushers his viewer into the space of Kunsthistorisches Museum I through a scale experienced in reality. The effect is that the viewer experiences an oscillation between the reality presented in the photograph and that of gazing at the photograph.
Struth achieves this harmony through his large format plate camera which absorbs the colour from its surroundings and injects them into his photograph. In a way, the most important part of Struth’s process is finding his position. The Museum Photographs were not staged but composed: Struth preferred to wait for the perfect mélange of figures to pass into his view finder and to be captured in perpetuity. Struth’s technical virtuosity makes adroit use of long exposure times to present the nuances of colour, tone, and shade in the scene before him in a luminosity that would seem near otherworldly. Struth’s mastery of light and colour is reminiscent of that of the grand-master Rubens’ own reputation, whose work Struth delicately and methodically captures in his own photograph. Another effect of this process is the sometimes blurred image of a figure caught in movement by the camera’s viewfinder, thereby simultaneously highlighting not only the technical constraints of the medium but also the brevity of the visitors’ presence, both in the gallery space and here on earth.
Widely regarded as the artist’s seminal series, the Museum Photographs were the product of a long investigation undertaken by the artist concerning reality and perception through the medium of photography and the notion of the gaze. In the 1970s and 1980s, Struth’s photographic practice was dominated by intriguing scenes of empty streets in major cities and then by portraiture. Indeed he first went to museums in order to look at painted portraits from other periods as a way to inform his own methodology. As Struth began to consider the original act of portrait painting in the same realm as contemporary photography, ‘there arose the idea to bring these two things, with the medium of reproduction, the currently appropriate medium, to the same level; to make a reproduction of a painted image and at the same time to produce a new image in which real persons of today are shown’ (T. Struth, quoted in ‘Interview with Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, in Directions: Thomas Struth Museum Photographs, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., 1992, unpaged). Executed between 1989 and 1990, Struth focused on a meticulously selected group of museum from around the world: the Louvre in Paris, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the National Gallery in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Art Institute of Chicago. Other works from the series are held in public collections including, National Gallery I, London, 1989, Tate Modern, London, Musée d’Orsay, Paris II, 1989, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles and Kunsthistorisches Museum III Wien, 1989, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver.
In relation to the other Vienna museum pictures, especially Kunsthistorisches Museum III which shows one man’s intimate dialogue with two painted figures by Rembrandt, Kunsthistorisches Museum I interrogates groups convening in and around pictures. What is so disarming about Struth’s work, especially those from the Museum series is the extent to which they can operate as candid and casual, timeless and ephemeral. By presenting others contemplating art, Struth invites the viewers of his works to become aware of their own presence when they stand before an image. In this way, Kunsthistorisches Museum I offers the viewer an engagement with a variety of ways of seeing and experiencing reality in its depiction of the reality of the photograph itself, both as a product and reflection of the pictorial, formal and cultural relationships that connect it to the camera, the artist, and the spectator. As Struth explains, ‘What I wanted to achieve with this series... is to make a statement about the original process of representing people leading to my act of making a new picture, which is in a certain way a very similar mechanism: the viewer of the works seen in the photo is an instance which finds itself in a space to which I, too, belong when I stand in front of the photo. The photos illuminate the connection and should lead the viewers away from regarding the works as mere fetish objects and initiate their own understanding or intervention in historical relationships...Therein lies a moment of pause or questioning. Because the viewers are reflected in their activity, they have to wonder what they themselves are doing at the moment’ (T. Struth, quoted in ‘Interview with Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Directions: Thomas Struth Museum Photographs, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., 1992, unpaged).