A Post-Modern answer to the tradition of history painting, the photographs of Thomas Struth locate the viewer in time, history, and the social praxis while exploring how such conditions function to shape the subjective experience of vision. In his work Self-Portrait, Alte Pinakothek, Struth presents an image both formally precise and symbolically charged as he captures himself in a moment of conversation with the Albrecht Dürer's iconic self-portrait. Meaning is created in the space between the Struth and the Dürer, as Struth strikes up a dialogue raising questions that span the 500 year gap between the 1550 self-portrait and the present work photographed in the year 2000. It is within this space that Struth comments at once on his personal relationship with the history of art as well as the broader phenomenological experience of vision, while offering a subtle critique on the intrusion of the institution on the private experience of vision and contemplation.
By placing his back towards the viewer and facing directly towards the starkly frontal Dürer at eye level, Struth sets up a dialogue between the two artists at a subtly balanced proximity and distance. The past and present collide as the gazes' of the two artists meet, formally creating a vantage point of focus in the composition and thus enhancing the sensation of Sturuth's quiet contemplation. A self-portrait within a self-portrait, Struth's resulting mirror image is not that of himself, but rather that of Dürer, making an explicit statement regarding the enduring legacy of the history of art and it's direct impact on the conteporary artist. However, the discontinuity between the artist and the great master remains apparent not only in the physical space between them - the warm tones and sfumato of the Dürer's painted surface float gracefully against the white museum wall, maintaining an aura of timelessness and granduer in contrast to the figure of Struth. Grounded at the front of the picture plane and cut off by the edge of the camera, Struth's body appears ephemeral by nature in comparison to the etheral image of the great master, thus exposing not only a cultural and temporal rift between the arist and history, but also how the mechanisms invoved with the institution of the museum function to perpetuate and inflate the significance of the art historical image throughout time. The viewer is then invited to similary question his or her relationship to history and the work of art, as he or she peers over the shoulder of their fellow museum-goer, here Struth himself.
In Self-Portrait, Alte Pinakothek, Struth does not attempt to freeze a fleeting moment, but rather time is slowed down, allowing the viewer to fully soak in the visually and psychologically loaded moment. In the relationship between Struth and Dürer, much like the individuals in Struth's series of family portraits, "there is no real interaction between them, but on the other hand there's really no doubt that they belong," (Daniel Birnbaum, Paradise Reframed - retrospective featuring work of photographer Thomas Struth considered," ArtForum, May 2002). By blurring the boundaries between artist, viewer, and the work of art, the viewer is encouraged not only to question how and where meaning is created in the work of art, but his or her relationship to history as a whole, touching upon two themes central to both Struths iconic museum and family portraits in a single, visually arresting image.