When looking at Frederick Edwin Church’s painting The Parthenon, one is reminded of the fact that artists have used other works of art as subject matter for several centuries. The Parthenon is part of seven masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on view until September 2010 at the New Britain Museum of American Art.
During the Grand Tour era, many Grand tourists would buy paintings by artists like Canaletto. He was famous for his views or vedute of Venice and is said to have used a camera obscura to achieve accurate perspectives in his paintings, yet he would often change his sketches corresponding to his own artistic vision. This can be seen in his painting of the Collosseum where he moved the arch of Constantine so that a beautifully framed view of the Collosseum is created.
A contemporary approach to Canaletto’s paintings of Roman ruins would be Thomas Struth and his series Museum Photographs. Struth helped elevate photography to new heights in the museum realm by applying the conceptual relationship that he learned from the Bechers by objectively depicting the mundane. A new work was not created with a conceptual idea beforehand, and no idea could be created without doing a series, and no series could be created without photographs that could not stand on their own. The composition of Struth’s photographs is simple and sober. He meticulously uses the functions of a large-format camera to his advantage by creating images with the best possible depth of field. Using large format camera supplies, Struth’s photographs have an impressive quality of work and importance reminiscent of the paintings by the Old Masters.
In this way, Struth combines concept, chance, and snapshot in one. He only presses the shutter when the arrangement of the visitors is perfect, i.e. when an image in front of an image is created. In that manner icons are created. Many of Struth’s photographs capture the “decisive moment” where an interchange takes place connecting the visitor and the artwork. For instance, the visitors in Struth’s photograph of Géricault’s The Raft of Medusa, seem to be a diagonal elongation of the painting. When looking closer at his other photographs, the viewer realizes that they too have connections to the visitors in the images. In Struth’s photographs, the effect of a cultural globalization is evident where one seems to look at the same audience admiring an identical artwork situated in different places all around the world.
Struth considers museums as “privileged places of conservation and memory” and analyzies modern society’s connection to artworks as well as the importance today’s society places on works of art. In his images, Struth depicts the mass tourism occurring in today’s museums. According to Struth, we as a society aim to desacralise everything, and therefore have lost the sense of what the term sacred truly means. Struth’s work also inquires about the way art is viewed in today’s society as well as the circumstances in which it takes place. The following quote explains Struth’s views:
“Today museums are no longer an institution as they were fifteen years ago; they have become an institution which due to its significance or its popularity is comparable to not exactly the shopping mall but the sports stadium field, … That is why it is a place which is essentially nonprivate.”
Towards the end of the eighteenth century Grand Tourists would have visited places like the Pantheon and other sites that Struth shows in his works. Struth photographed the same occurrence but only with today’s tourists, who travel to Rome to see many of the same places as the tourists of the eighteenth century did. Something that has indeed changed is the artist’s point of view when depicting such occurrences. Whereas previously, genre painters were showing the scenes in an attractive manner, Struth’s approach is more that of a witness. He is more interested in the visitors themselves and less in the objects or sites. The viewer of Struth’s photographs does in fact reflect the behavior of the museum visitors depicted in the images. The viewer has actually been attached to the photograph, and has formed a connection with the photograph, which changed him from a passive viewer into an inhibited one. Struth gives the following explanation on how he feels about this process and one can say that the pursuer of art becomes the prey of the artist:
“Where the mechanism of spectacle, of contemporary museum-business are staged, my photographs can offer a reflection about the very situation. Because viewers are reflected in their activity, they have to wonder what they themselves are doing at that moment.”
What do you think? Do you agree with Struth’s statements about museums?
Can you think of any other artists, be it photographers, painters or other types of artists that use museums, viewers, architectural ruins or other artworks as their subject matter?