tue 30/09/2014

Thomas Struth: Photography 1978-2010, Whitechapel Gallery | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews

Thomas Struth: Photography 1978-2010, Whitechapel Gallery

His streets are empty, his galleries full: observations from Düsseldorf

Thomas Struth: 'Audience', 1995
Thomas Struth: 'Audience', 1995

In Düsseldorf in the 1970s there was an astonishing art academy, the Kunstakademie, with amazing teachers – and amazing students. Düsseldorf was a proud art city, and published at the time a book of photographs called Düsseldorf City of Artists. The presence of that great messianic leader Joseph Beuys loomed large. Gerhard Richter (and Gotthard Graubner among others) taught painting, and an outstanding couple, Bernd and Hilla Becher, taught photography and photographed anonymous industrial architecture in black and white. Germany rejoined and even led the avant-garde that it had destroyed in the 1930s.

Included in this broad-ranging retrospective of over 30 years of Thomas Struth’s photography is his own early series of city topographies, mostly unpeopled streets in the silvery light of early morning, which were initiated several years before he was aware of the Bechers’ work. Struth indeed initially thought to be a painter, and studied with Richter, but then moved laterally to join the Bechers’ small student group. The unpeopled, even ghostly streets make of the typology of cities something almost eerily unfamiliar, and none of the city views chosen are softened by any urban trees, vegetation, parks: only the brightly coloured houses of some scenes in Peru point to human liveliness.

 

Struth was brought up a practising Catholic, reacting in his adolescence to what he saw as a manipulative hierarchy, but notions of worship and pilgrimage underlie many an image; in fact, it is not too far a stretch to say almost all. The best-known series, Museum 1 and Museum 2, takes his tripod and 8 x 10 plate camera into some of the world’s major museums. He focuses mostly on the crowd, worshipping in the secular cathedral, but also chatting, looking at one another too, in shifting groups of strangers and intimates, those on tours, those there by choice. For some there is the triumph of having finally got there, in the same space as the works of art – the bones of the saint, so to speak – that we are told are so special, for others a genuine epiphany. And we, witnessing these museum scenes in our own temple of art, can grasp the different levels of meaning by facial expression, body language, even dress: there is a marvellously compelling diptych of a motley crowd (all Westerners, but all ages) gazing upwards at Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia in Florence, the sculpture itself invisible but the human expressions, from awestruck to pretend-awestruck, indifferent and chatty, are all compelling.

TS_Image_7

Tokyo shows us a hushed theatre where a barely discerned crowd is seated in rows in the dark, worshipping at the brightly lit Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, on a visit from Paris. In We See (pictured above) both tourists and the observant are going in and out of Milan Cathedral. Conflating religious and cultural impulses even more sharply, there is a brilliant photograph of the interior of San Zaccaria in Venice: visitors are haphazardly seated in pews, some perhaps inwardly praying, tourists examining the great 1505 Giovanni Bellini altarpiece of the Madonna, glowing even among the other paintings on the walls of the aisle, from Tintoretto to Tiepolo.

The family groups from Lima to Philadelphia, Cologne to Edinburgh, Shanghai to Mundersbach, tease us to invent narratives of relationships which are shown but not identified: in a group of 10, say, who is whose child, who the daughter-in-law, who the patriarch? These are respectful, dignified and ultimately mysterious meditations on the ties that bind. Each family group is culturally, ethnically distinct, and yet all these portraits share an affecting coherence. We know there must be divisions, hostilities, prejudices, quarrels, as well as affection and delight, and yet there is a marvellous wholeness. The series is an unexpected and quietly sophisticated updating of Edward Steichen’s 1955 sentimental compilation of The Family of Man, which used over 250 photographers to show something similar.

TS_Image_5There are huge photographs of sophisticated research machinery in various Max Planck institutes, space laboratories and an enormous oil rig in South Korea (pictured right). There is a whole series which looks with pre-Raphaelite intensity at rainforest and jungle and, while eschewing the human presence, is called Paradise, surely an all too human concept.

Struth’s photographs disarm and seduce us by their apparent deadpan approach. But what appeals above all and unites his disparate subjects is Struth’s communicable fascination for all the manifestations of the human dilemma. We worship the other, we live in families, we look for paradise, we make machines, we live in the world and we look for more. The accompanying book reproduces twice as many photographs as are seen on the walls of the Whitechapel, and includes essays by divers hands and a very detailed chronology.

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