Thursday, 11 August 2011

UnMasterclass 33

Thomas Struth did the unthinkable during his education and leave the tutelage of Gerhard Richter to pursue his increasing focus from painting towards photography.  Last week UnMasterclass left the headquarters to visit his extraordinary exhibition at The Whitechapel Gallery. It is well documented that he has retained his initial training in painting in his approach to photography, that is seen across the range of his oeuvre. However UnMasterclass was particularly interested in seeing his series of audiences viewing paintings in art museums, in our opinion his masterpiece series. In this apparently simple premise a camera is set up within iconic art galleries around the world (Museo del Prado, Louvre, Art Insitute of Chicargo) to observe people viewing paintings. The initial idea of the work from Struth's perspective was to place the camera within the paintings position so the painting (camera) looks back at the people viewing it. This was finally realised in Florence, albeit with an ├╝ber-sculpture in the form of Michelangelo's David. However for the purposes of UnMasterclass the paintings are naturally of more interest. Here becomes a conundrum for us, as it clearly shows people viewing paintings, in the flesh in galleries (in the main with awe, rapture and concentration, albeit some show people with mobile phone camera or audio guide poised). So the position of UnMasterclass is question by the photography, people are clearly paying attention to paintings, and clearly it is important for people to see paintings first hand. Struth's photographs reveal this, in a form that takes the argument of Benjamin's age of mechanical reproduction to an interesting crossroads. Here the spectacle and uniqueness of painting is brought to the fore by the mastery of Struth and his camera, which in turn is reproducing not only the audiences in galleries, but the masterpieces of Valasquez, Delacroix and Gericault as well. So the gallery audience viewing Struth's photographs, sees another audience viewing the original paintings. In short the visitor to Struth's exhibition sees the paintings in reproduction through his photographs, the painting is still arguably the star of the show (after all without them, Struth has no subject), but the painting is spectacle and sidelined by the audiences relationship to it. The mobile phones and audio guides seen in some of the photographs give a deeper indication of our contemporary relationship to these paintings. We want to show others that we were there, that we have seen them, without the job of contemplation. The spectacle and star of the paintings does not allow this anyway, the crowds bar attention and focus over time with a painting and so we come back to UnMasterclass.We see these master paintings increasingly through reproductions, Struth or otherwise, and when we do get the opportunity to see them then we do not have the time to study them as painters to learn from them, the bustle of the crowd seeing the blockbuster puts barriers up to this experience. So find a quiet corner of the gallery away from the big hitters and learn from a lesser known master, or look to UnMasterclass and learn through what we do wrong. This weeks episode is online here

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