In line with Struth’s encompassing concept, a series dominated by populated museum interiors housing flat works of art, Pantheon sought a specific effect: one in which the historical moment of a famous icon from the past is united with contemporary experience. Distinct, however, from the other works in the series of Museum Photographs—whereby chance dispersal of passers-by contemplating famous paintings were spontaneously captured—this particular image was meticulously conceived and planned. Working from a black and white photograph taken some time previously, Struth had a particular composition and effect in mind; yet, owing to the low-light conditions and incredible footfall of tourists this was impossible to achieve as an objective observer. With permission to photograph the Pantheon after-hours, Struth positioned his visitors like actors on a stage. Illuminated by light emanating from the oculus over-head and engulfed by the Pantheon’s vast sweeping dome, Struth’s archetypal observers stand reverentially subjugated by this ancient marvel of Roman architecture. Herein, Pantheon possesses a particular kind of painterly quality and dialogue with art history divergent from the other examples in this series.
In Pantheon, Struth records the rich architectural detail of this magnificent artifact of Antiquity, describing the subtle veining of the marble interior, the fluted texture of columns, and the geometric regularity of the coffering that magnifies the intensity in its hyperrealism and clarity of detail. The immense scale of the work corresponds both to the physical grandeur of the structure as well as its iconic importance in the history of architecture, serving to convey the affective, psychological, and phenomenological dimension of encountering the soaring proportions of the space and its storied legacy. With his lens, Struth succeeds in communicating a sense of being engulfed, indeed swallowed, by the sheer vastness of the Pantheon's cavernous interior. Akin to Caspar David Friedrich’s archetype of the Rückenfigur, Struth’s figure in red, standing in awe of the Pantheon’s lofty eaves, acts as the idealizing and identifying human intermediate between the viewer and architectural vastness. Very much attuned to the work of Andreas Gursky, his peer and fellow student under Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Academy, Struth is at once embroiled in the painterly trope of the Sublime whilst also invoking a critique of contemporary tourism.
Recalling the centuries old practice of ‘vista painting’, Pantheon invokes the panoramic views of Rome by eighteenth century painter and architect Giovanni Paolo Panini. His famous vedute comprised picturesque portrayals of Rome’s antiquities and popular eighteenth century tourist attractions: painted around 1730, Interior of the Pantheon expresses the contemporaneous taste for dwarfing depictions of the natural world and overwhelming architectural vistas synonymous with Romanticism and the spirit of the Grand Tour. Our contemporary dialogue with history, however—what visitors expect to experience in famous museums and monuments—is the principal issue at stake in Pantheon. Overall, Struth’s Museum Photographs attempt to "retrieve masterpieces from the fate of fame, to recover them from their status… to remind us that these were works which were created in a contemporary moment, by artists who had everyday lives." (the artist cited in Ibid., p. 138) In the case of the Pantheon, an architectural paean to ancient Rome almost two thousand years old, Struth imparts myriad interpretative threads, making this perhaps the most evocative image of his production. At once this remarkable work explores the formal kinship between painting and photography, the eighteenth century Grand Tour and the power of historical sites in contemporary culture, in a critical commentary on a new wave of globalized sight-seeing. As he explains, “for me, making a photograph is mostly an intellectual process of understanding people or cities and their historical and phenomenological connections.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., Dallas, Dallas Museum of Art, Thomas Struth 1977-2002, 2002, p. 167)
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