Included in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Musée du Louvre, Paris and the Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf, Thomas Struth's National Museum of Art, Tokyo, 1999, is an iconic image from the artist's esteemed series of 'Museum Photographs'.
Subtly probing our engagement with art, Struth's photograph engages with a long tradition of easel painting which depicts the art-going public. Conceptually, the beholder of the work of art becomes the subject and we, the gallery-goer, find ourselves looking at other gallery-goers viewing the art object. In part, this is a study of contemporary posturing, however Struth's inquiry raises fundamental questions about the role and function of art and museum spaces. In National Museum of Art, Tokyo, Struth depicts a horde of museum visitors captivated by Eugène Delacroix's, Liberty Leading the People, 1830, exhibited in Tokyo on the occasion of a temporary cultural exchange of artworks between the institutions of France and Japan. Exhibited in a custom-made, humidity-controlled, bullet-proof vitrine, the passion of this revolution-inspiring painting is tempered by the sterility of its environment. The gathered onlookers stare up at the encased masterpiece as if it were a cinema screen, like the passive consumers of mass produced entertainment.
Laying bare the dislocation between original artistic intent and contemporary cultural dislocation, Struth nonetheless imbues his own image with the rousing emotion of Delacroix's original, as if through his photography he can restore some of its awe. Widely regarded as the most technically adept photographer working today, the flawlessness of his images, which capture acute detail on such a huge scale, brings out the same richness and mastery of colour that made Delacroix's name. The regimented architectural composition, with strong uprights and horizontals, recalls his early black and white works of deserted streets, conferring a monumentality that the sheer scale of the photograph endorses. Emanating from either side of the painting, a deep tempered glow of dimmed lightning fills the room, as if the congregation is looking up at the altarpiece in the chapel of art history. With his incredible eye for composition, Struth presents the bare-breasted Liberty as if she were striding out of her sterile enclosure over the heads of the assembled crowd, brandishing her musket and Tricolore.
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