'My own work is about different situations in which people find themselves... About the contemplation of art as a self-reflection: being confronted with your own imagination, with the fictive personification in, for example, paintings, and with the artist's vision of the world at the same time. About people visiting a historic monument as mass-tourists and yet as unique persons. About people being both fascinated with and passively exposed to concepts of the future that are difficult but necessary to relate to in an active way' (T. Struth quoted in A. Goldstein, 'Portraits of Self-Reflection', pp. 166-173, C. Wylie et al., Thomas Struth 1977-2002, exh. cat., Dallas, 2002, p. 171).
In 2005, Thomas Struth was granted permission to turn one of the most famous viewing spaces in the Museo del Prado, the renowned museum in Madrid, into a form of studio. Given the chance to photograph the crowds while they were viewing Diego Velázquez's masterpiece Las Meninas, which he had first seen years earlier and which had long fascinated him, Struth arranged twenty flash bulbs in the ceiling space of the gallery while he himself moved around within the crowd with a large format camera mounted on a wheeled tripod, taking images of the hustle and bustle of people milling in front of Las Meninas and some of the other paintings by Velázquez. This resulted in what is now considered the culmination of Struth's celebrated Museum Photographs, a series which includes some of his most recognized works and which had its inception almost two decades earlier. It was a mark of the success of the images that Struth created during his time at the Prado that he was invited to hang some of his other Museum Photographs among the works in the permanent collection there two years later in an acclaimed exhibition entitled Thomas Struth - Making Time; this show also featured a group of the Prado images, shown in the new extension which was being opened at that time.
In Museo del Prado 6 and its sister pictures, Struth creates a sense of immersion through the scale of the picture itself. Some of the crowd appear almost life-size due to its vast expanse, placing us in a direct relationship with the gallery space. This sense is accentuated by Struth's decision to take his images from within the crowd, a decision unique to the Prado images which was in part a reaction to his earlier Audience images of 2004 where viewers of masterpieces in the Uffizi, Florence and the Hermitage, St. Petersburg were shown from the vantage point of the picture itself, gaping, facing the viewer. The immersive aspect of Museo del Prado 6 results in resonances between the numerous figures in Las Meninas and the crowd within the gallery space.
The figures in Las Meninas recall Struth's own Family Portraits, the works which, through his 1987 image of the art historian Giles Robertson within his own picture collection, had spawned the Museum Photographs. In Las Meninas, the faces of the princess, the painter, the dwarves and the other members of the royal family and entourage engage Struth's viewer directly, and this is echoed by a solitary, cryptic figure in the crowd who faces the camera, echoing the other tangential glances from the past. Those figures of long ago are depicted in a frozen moment with immense poise in a highly stylised composition that contrasts with the chaos of the modern viewers.
In his Museum Photographs such as Museo del Prado 6 Struth highlights the change of purpose to which traditional art forms have been subjected. By choosing as his subject matter a picture, Las Meninas, which is still revered as a mysterious treatise on painting itself, Struth engages in a dialogue with art and the history of art. This royal image, showing public people in a private space, is shown in Museo del Prado 6 before private citizens in a public space. The picture's own purpose has changed over the centuries, as it has become a relic of past glories, an insight into the royal household, and more importantly, a masterpiece by a venerated and world-famous artist.
It is in this last capacity that the picture is shown seemingly looking over - yet in fact oblivious to - the modern-day crowd in the Prado, highlighting the changes wrought in the world since its execution. Untroubled by photographic concerns such as depth of field or being troubled by motion, Las Meninas appears in focus, a calm and stately backdrop to the thrum of modern life which begs us to question the role that art plays in the modern world. Just as people throng around El Capitan or crowd into the Raphael rooms in the Vatican, so too tourists visit Las Meninas in a form of secular pilgrimage. This relationship between the artist, the artwork and its subsequent existence lies at the heart of Struth's Museum Photographs, which initially began when his own work was beginning to be acquired by public institutions, making him question them all the more. 'I had always been interested not only in the conditions under which artist produced their works, but also in the way these works are exhibited in museums and in their way of survival,' he explained recently.
'My intention had been to capture, by means of photography, the way people react on the paintings, their historical entrenchment in museums, and the reception of the works in the rather awe-inspiring atmosphere of institutionalised museums... [The] idea was born to show a journey through time by establishing a connection between the topics of the paintings, the artists who had made their artistic statements in them, the visitors looking at them and me whose photographs are again exhibited in galleries' (T. Struth quoted in 'Thomas Struth: Composing Pictures', in The Leica Camera Blog, October 2011, reproduced at blog.leica-camera.com).