Art collecting at the National Gallery

It's incredible to think how works of art, such as Seurat's Bathers at Asnières made their way from the artist's pallet all those years ago to the walls of some of the finest buildings in the world. 


Whilst visiting London yesterday I thought it would be a good opportunity to go to the National Gallery and attempt to replicate the art gallery style of Thomas Struth. The capital during the summer holiday was bound to draw crowds of tourists, and it was exceptionally busy in the National Gallery. 


In my earlier post about Thomas Struth I referred to how the National Gallery have relaxed their rules on photographing the works of art. Partly because it was so difficult to monitor the use of smart phones taking selfies and also because it is so easy to get a copy of any painting of the web, albeit at a lower resolution. 

Without my DSLR, I relied on using my iPhone to capture the images on this blog post. I had visited this gallery many years before, when taking a photograph was considered to be like ripping the painting off the wall and hanging it in your own home. So to be allowed to photograph in there was an unusual position to be in.  


Many visitors were using their digital devices to take advantage of the National Gallery's leniency. With the click of a button you could have Van Gogh's Sunflowers on your screen and take with you. In some ways this 'art collecting' is advantageous to the a National Gallery, because these collectors will upload the art work to social networking sites such as Instagram and Twitter, tagging the gallery in the process and subsequently publicising it for others. Since the gallery is free to enter, presumably to enable more people to have the opportunity to view a piece of our history, it maybe considered aworthwhile activity, sharing the artwork across digital networks. 


However, the downside to this is that the experience for the viewer is hampered. The primary viewer, at the gallery, may find it difficult to see the paintings in their full glory. With so many people swarming around each work of art it was very difficult to take the time and look, and appreciate, what was there. Some were moving around photographing so quickly, it could have just as easily been the graffiti on the gallery walls outside that they were photographing. 


For the secondary viewer, looking at the art work on a screen does not do it justice. Some of the paintings in the gallery are huge. You really have to be there to appreciate the time and skill it took to create them. Many digital copies also exist that have not been captioned. I too have failed to take the time to identify the paintings depicted in this blog post. Without the detailed information displayed alongside the painting on the gallery wall, we view the image at a superficial level. 

Yesterday art appeared to be devalued due to a desire to duplicate and dispense something that had always been rare and unique. Hopefully the images people see will encourage them to visit these galleries to see for themselves. After all  there's nothing like being able to stand next to the original piece of art. 


Thomas Struth

Thomas Struth, a German photographer who trained at the Dusseldorf Academy of Fine Arts (1973 - 80), was influenced by Bernd and Hilla Becher's industrial landscape images. Some of his first exhibited works included capturing the streets of Japan, Europe and America in black and white. Struth's photographs were highly structured, to show what was specific and yet unremarkable about urban space. Taken on large-format cameras, the people, who inhabited his cityscapes, were dwarfed almost to non-existence.

It was during the mid-1980s that Struth created a series of portraits of individuals, and family groups, having collaborated with the psychoanalyst Ingo Hartmann exploring family snapshots. He used a large-format camera to capture the character of the people in his images. Struth's studentship in fine art is echoed in his use of tonal colour and composition. His family portraits are not uniform in their arrangement, but undulate in the same way that families can haphazardly co-exist. 

During his interest in portraiture, Struth became interested in the Renaissance paintings and the gallery's that they were exhibited in. This interest led to his best known work, Museum Photographs, being produced. This series of images set up a relationship between the viewer and the paintings that were visible in the photograph. He refers to this body of work by saying that:

"My question was: how can you not be restless? I can now see that the same question seeped somehow into the work insofar as I was trying to take the restlessness from inside myself and put it into the pictures and on to the walls."

Thomas Struth's work reveals how the photographer is very much part of the picture, giving the viewer an insight into his own mind. As a photographer sometimes it is not until you are in the middle, or nearing the end of a project, that you fully understand the desire to create such photographs. It is only through embarking on long term studies that enables the photographer to give something of themselves to a body of work. Maybe this is where the line is drawn between the tourist snapshot and something with more intrinsic value. The tourist is documenting, recording their presence at a particular location at a very basic surface level. However Struth attempts to reveal the invisible feelings of restlessness, calm and strangeness. There always seems to be the viewer's need to know more about what is beyond the frame.

Struth considers a gallery to have a sense of an in between space. An environment where people rarely spend their time, and when they do they are unsure how to act acceptably.  

In an interview with O'Hagan (2011) Thomas Struth explains the motives for his photographs:

"For me, initially, the question was: how do you live with history? Then I began to ask: how is history embedded in the architecture of a city? How does a community represent itself in its architecture, truthfully or otherwise?"

Life is an endless pursuit, to not only find answers, but to also understand the questions we ask and our reasons for asking them. This exploration of how a place's history can impact on the people that live there today. It is something I would like to explore further in my fifth assignment. Photography is Struth's method of communicating what concerns him, both socially and politically. Subsequently  O'Hagan (2011) refers to him as a political artist. 

With photography banned in many art galleries, to be able to view photographs that have been so openly executed, is in itself quite unique. Interestingly, the difficulty in preventing visitors taking selfies on their smartphones in the National Gallery has led to a photography ban being lifted. If the attraction of 'stealing' a rare self-portrait in the gallery, to post on social media, becomes more commonplace, then maybe less people will be encouraged to do it.