Why do we look at art? What peculiarly contemporary experiences do we bring to the art of the past, in particular, and what do we hope to gain from it? These questions, almost embarrassing in their depth and directness, inform two remarkably beautiful series of large-scale color pictures by the German photographer Thomas Struth, of spectators in the Prado and Hermitage museums.
One suite from the Prado focuses on the gallery housing Velázquez’s Las Meninas, his iconic depiction of a Spanish princess and her entourage. Velázquez’s hall of mirrors places us in the position of the Infanta’s royal parents, whose portrait the artist shows himself to be painting.
Struth, too, makes the audience his sovereigns. His deadpan style captures the crowds listening to tour guides hawking the work’s mystery like patent medicine; the schoolchildren dutifully taking notes or gossiping, unconsciously echoing gestures in the painting; and the people peering at it through a camera’s viewfinder.
The artwork at the Hermitage lies pointedly just beyond the picture frame, but you sense from the viewers’ body language and the look of interiority on certain faces that it’s something small and precious. (In fact, my informers tell me, it’s a Madonna by Da Vinci.) Sometimes Struth appears to be adopting the painting’s perspective. What would a timeless masterpiece think of the two young girls in tank tops taking its picture with a cell phone? Is their rapture the result of art or technology?
Struth shows these formerly royal collections to be, in the most profound sense, the property of the people. It is the presence of the living that animates the museum’s solitary masterpieces. And yet, we sense wistfully their art is destined to outlive us. Unless, that is, Struth takes our picture, and even then, it’s a bid for immortality sized for our times-—deflated, yet beseeching.