German photographer Thomas Struth started his career not as an
artist, but as an art teacher.
In his retrospective "Thomas Struth," at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art through May 18, he teaches us how to view the world through
active, not passive, perception.
The theme is made explicit on first entering the museum, where
gigantic video portraits, 14 feet high and 24 feet across, of
Struth's friends are projected on walls of the Great Hall. Staring
straight at the viewer, the subjects make explicit the act of
"Struth's concept," according to co- curator Douglas Eklund, "is
that the viewer completes the meaning of a work" by participating in
creating its meaning.
Seventy photographs, many mural-sized, demonstrate why Struth is
a major figure in contemporary art.
As a pupil of German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becker, Struth
trained in Dusseldorf, where he still lives. Along with other Becker
disciples, like Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff, Struth brought the
large-scale color photograph from a marginal position in 1970s art
to the forefront of contemporary art.
Not content to shape today's art, Struth has made reviving art
history a personal crusade. His signature images are scenes of art
pilgrims visiting museums and cultural sites all over the world.
His "aim is to unleash the power of paintings," Eklund says.
Struth believes "art can transcend all of history's cataclysms,"
Eklund continues. But past masterpieces must not be considered
"fetish objects you kneel down before."
Instead, they are works to grapple with now. "There's a
restorative aspect to [Struth's] work," Eklund says. "His pictures
are about rehabilitating or cleansing our vision."
A shot of the interior of San Zaccaria Church in Venice shows
walls covered with Biblical frescoes by Bellini. The painted figures
look just as alive as the tourists studying them. The photo's large
scale reveals details with pristine clarity and gives a sense of
cohabiting in the space.
His image of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris gives viewers a "you
are there" immediacy. Carved stone prophets and apostles ascend the
facade, as lines of tourists stream into the church. Past and
present, sacred and secular, merge and diverge.
His famous photograph of visitors observing Caillebotte's "Paris,
Rainy Day" in the Art Institute of Chicago (where the exhibition
makes a final stop in June) illustrates the interchange between
viewer and viewed. The strolling figures in the painting gaze at
each other, while visitors to the Art Institute gaze at them. …