"In essence I wanted to bring together the time of the picture and the time of the viewer."
The artist cited in: Schirmer/Mosel, Ed., Thomas Struth: Photogarphs 1978-2010, Munich 2010, p. 138
"Struth selected Museo del Prado 7 as his "best shot" of his entire oeuvre"
The artist interviewed by Leo Benedictus in 'Thomas Struth's Best Shot' in The Guardian, 18 September 2008
Thomas Struth's Museo del Prado 7 is a hugely significant photograph in the artist's oeuvre as it is the final, stand-alone image in his now complete series of Museum Photographs. As such it is the coda to all his work in museums, a practice which occupied him assiduously for over fifteen years. Arguably the most complete image in the series that Struth made at the Museo del Prado, Madrid, in 2005, it is the image chosen by the artist for the front cover of his book Making Time which accompanied the exhibition of this work, together with thirteen other Museum Photographs, inside the Prado's galleries, cheek by jowl with the masterpieces from art history that were the subjects of his photographs. In an interview with Leo Benedictus for The Guardian newspaper in 2008, Struth selected Museo del Prado 7 as his "best shot" of his entire oeuvre (the artist interviewed by Leo Benedictus in 'Thomas Struth's Best Shot' in The Guardian, 18 September 2008).
For Struth, the real attraction of working at the Prado was the opportunity to photograph Velásquez's portrait of the family of King Philip IV, a painting that had first captivated the young photographer's attention at a time when he was making his own family portraits: "I first started taking photographs of people in museums in the early 1990s. I went to the Prado in Madrid and was flabbergasted by one particular painting, Las Meninas by Velásquez. It was so close to my own interests. I thought: "Jesus Christ, why did nobody tell me about this?" And yet I never photographed it until 2005. When I went back to it, it marked a moment of evolution for me. I decided that I had to try something different: I had to stand inside the groups of viewers, creating a greater intimacy between the people viewing the painting and those depicted in it." (Ibid)
Unlike the earlier Museum Photographs in which the artworks were hierarchically more important than the viewers who were normally seen from behind, in the Prado series there is equal emphasis on the paintings and the crowds of viewers. To achieve this required considerable technical innovation in his working process. In order to light both the paintings and the audience, Struth installed flash heads in the ceilings which he could control from the gallery below. By using a tripod mounted on wheels, Struth could move freely and spontaneously amongst the crowd without sacrificing the intensity of colour and focus achieved by the weighty 8 x 10 camera. This spontaneous process was in marked contrast to the techniques employed by Struth in the Pergamon and Pantheon, were the artist choreographed the exact position of the visitors to suit his compositional needs: "I worked [in the Prado] for seven days, eight hours a day, and I noticed how the school groups stood very close to the picture, almost touching it with their elbows. I like the two guys [at the left] of this image, who look very skeptical about what the guide is saying about the painting. I find that funny. Evidently, they mistrust the situation." (Ibid)
Begun in the early 1990s after stays in Naples and Rome, the series of Museum Photographs were inspired by his experience of religious painting in Italy's culture capitals. There are many ways to interpret these museum pictures—as an exploration of the relationship between painting and photography, as critical commentary on the invasion of cultural institutions by mass tourism, or even as a twist on appropriation art. But above all, they are a meditation on the function of centuries-old art in a secular world and how contemporary audiences engage with these masterpieces as a means of interacting with history.
In the fast-paced consumerism of twenty-first century society, museums and the masterpieces that they house become objects of consumption, to be seen and ticked off must-see lists, rather than to be savored. It is this studied engagement with history which Struth finds is too often absent in our contemporary age, in which museum-going becomes a social ritual of seeing and being seen, one in which the museum itself functions as both custodian and broker of cultural capital. What Struth's Museum Photographs seek to do is to "retrieve masterpieces from the fate of fame, to recover them from their status as iconic paintings, to remind us that these were works which were created in a contemporary moment, by artists who had everyday lives. They can be admired but revering the artists and their work can be an impediment. In essence I wanted to bring together the time of the picture and the time of the viewer." (the artist cited in: Schirmer/Mosel, Ed., Thomas Struth: Photogarphs 1978-2010, Munich 2010, p. 138)
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