Thomas Struth is one of a number of photographers who belong to the so-called Düsseldorf School. Struth, along with other acclaimed German photographers including Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer and Thomas Ruff, studied at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf during the 1970s and 1980s – a period when the school was a dynamic centre for contemporary art in Germany. Students could attend lectures by Josef Beuys, study in painting studios with Gerhard Richter, and photography students had the opportunity to work in intense, focused workshops with Bernd Becher. Under the tutorage of Hilla and Bernd Becher, Struth developed an archival approach to his subjects, compiling series of photographs in which he excluded subjectivity and used photography in what he described as a ‘communicative and analytical medium’ (Hripsimé Vissere, Cultural Images, New York, 2001, p. 19).
Characteristically, Struth’s photographs are austere and restrained. Even though his subjects may be inherently dynamic or evoke emotions, such as big cities or works of art, Struth assumes the position of a detached observer as a means to show the complexity of structures in the natural world, the built environment or in human interactions. His early exploration of portraiture, particularly family portraits, led him to look at historical portrait painting. In turn this led to his study of the environment in which we most often regard paintings – the museum.
In 1989 Struth began to photograph scenes within museums. In his ongoing exploration of public behaviour in the presence of art, Struth considers the ways we interact with our environment. He draws our attention to the hushed reverence, contemplation and even boredom experienced by people visiting museums. Between 1996 and 2001 Struth extended his study to include the acclaimed Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Built in the early twentieth century, the museum houses treasures collected by German archaeologists excavating in the Middle East. The centrepiece of this remarkable collection is the Great Altar of Pergamon. The temple, with its high relief friezes and a veritable pantheon of sculptures depicting the battle between the gods and the Titans, was excavated in the late nineteenth century in the ancient Greek city of Pergamon, located in modern-day Turkey, and transported to Berlin. Today it is widely cited as the most popular exhibit in Berlin’s magnificent suite of museums.
In his photograph Pergamon Museum IV, Berlin Struth shows a sequence of people, either in small groups or as lone figures, in a room lined with ancient Greek sculptural friezes. It is a curiously tranquil photograph as the museum visitors in the photograph remain fixed in their attitudes and expressions, not unlike the sculptural figures surrounding them. Some people are intently examining the sculptures, some appear to be discussing the works and others seem to be quite self-contained and unaware of the remarkable objects that surround them.
Unlike earlier museum photographs in which Struth observed the uninhibited interactions between museum visitors and their responses to great works of art, the photographs made in the Pergamon Museum are entirely the artist’s construct. Struth has carefully placed his subjects within the gallery. Each figure is situated in relation to the classical sculptures, forming a chorus of contemporary spectators. There is a fascinating correspondence between the visitors and the works of art they are contemplating. Struth’s Pergamon photographs are ‘idealized images of a western cultural community that stand in a communicative relationship to the past, to the museum, and its fellows’ (Annette Philip, Museum Expedition, Munich 2004).
Susan van Wyk, Curator, Photography, NGV (in 2010)