In conversation with Thomas Struth

In conversation with Thomas Struth

The artist talks to Francis Outred, Christie’s Chairman & Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art, about vanity, solitude and the self-portrait at the launch of our Reflections on the Self exhibition

Thomas Struth is, in my mind, one of the greatest photographers working today,’ begins Francis Outred, introducing a conversation with the artist at the opening of Reflections on the Self, an exhibition at Christie’s London.

Struth is the most contemporary of 50 artists to feature in an exhibition which — in the selfie era — explores self portrait as a genre, uniting works by artists including Marlene Dumas, Lucian Freud, LS Lowry, and Henry Moore. The earliest piece to feature is Albrecht Dürer’s Self Portrait as Christ, painted in 1500.

‘We chose Struth’s Alte Pinakothek, Self-Portrait (above), as a photograph to define the exhibition because, in a way, it encapsulates everything that we were trying to do: this idea of an artist contemplating his past, and using the past to frame his own work,’ explains Outred.

Below, the artist discusses the position the self-portrait holds within his own practice, and how contemporary approaches to photography — and a certain amount of vanity — have shaped the way we understand our own image.

Francis Outred: In this photograph, you make Dürer the centre of your image. When and where did you first encounter the painting, which is really the first acknowledged self-portrait in art history?

Thomas Struth: I first saw the self-portrait perhaps 20 years ago in Munich, at the Pinakothek. I was aware of how the work is commonly interpreted, but, as happens with some works of art, when you see it for yourself, you have a totally different impression. What interested me is the silence of the gaze, which feels very unintentional; this is not really Dürer representing himself as Jesus, so much as the quiet, undirected gaze of the artist looking at himself.

The first time I saw it, it was mingled with other paintings in the passageway of the museum — not given the freedom or the environment it deserved.  When the museum was renovated, I returned — perhaps 10 years later — to find it again, this time, isolated. I had been working on video portraits, of people looking into the camera for an hour, unmoving. The process gave me another perspective on the Dürer portrait, and I decided to do something with it.

I made some test shots and, in 2000, I produced the photograph. It’s a kind of playful game with the meaning of self-portrait. In this case, it’s a conversation — not only with myself, but with the world of art, and an artist who, like me, is German. Of course, you can’t say the Germany of the 1500s is the same Germany as it is today — but I felt that we came from the same cultural foundation; it was a sort of meeting of spirits.

Dürer made this self-portrait around the turn of the 16th century when he was roughly 26, at around the time the mirror was invented. He had made his first self-portrait at the age of 16. Although there are earlier works defined as self-portraits that pre-date this, Dürer was the first to look at his own image in this way, at a time that no other artist was — it wasn’t until Rembrandt that the genre began to develop. Is this the only self-portrait you have ever made? 

Yes, though it’s not the first portrait I made as a serious work of art. Since the early Eighties, I’ve been using a self-timer to take group photographs with friends, or just record who I’ve been spending time with. That, however, had always been more of a private thing. 

What strikes me most about self-portraiture is the notion of reaffirmation. It’s the depiction of a process of asking yourself about your own identity; a means of marking a specific moment in time. When Beckman went to the United States, you could perhaps say the first self-portrait he did was to mark the moment he immigrated to another country; that’s an interesting thing. Today, most of you will take selfies — a practice that seems a long way from Rembrandt. 

What strikes me most about self-portraiture is the notion of reaffirmation. It’s the depiction of a process of asking yourself about your own identity

What do you think of the ‘selfie’ as a concept, and how do you think it affects photography? 

I don’t know whether it has anything to do with photography. I think it reflects a certain amount of vanity, which we live with, and which I think is one of the biggest problems of our time. 

From what perspective? 

Vanity can come from a very strong degree of anxiety; a constant need for a reaffirmation of self to not feel scared to be alive — to survive in this environment that is our planet. It can also reflect a breakdown in our capacity for social interactions: we’ve been celebrating individualism for so many decades that it seems no surprise that ordinary social patterns have come under pressure. 

Your work to date has embraced a lot of different subjects. How do you see portraiture fitting into that? Are you aware of continuing portraiture as an artistic genre? 

I certainly enjoy dealing with more classical modes of practice. When I first started, with the two family portraits, my motivations were personal. I had stayed with one family in Scotland for three weeks, so made the work as a gift. A year later, I was in Japan and did the same. When I saw the two portraits together on my desk at the studio, I saw this incredible possibility. 

At the same time, I knew the family portrait was a strong trope — or at least used to be. But I felt it had a strong connection with interests I already had: I had been photographing streets in different cities, in different countries and cultures. I thought of the family project as an extension of that, expressing personality, character, and culture through the environment. I wasn’t afraid to adopt a pre-existing form. 

I still enjoy making family portraits, because they’re totally different each time. It’s much more difficult than photographing the street, or museums: you have to deal with a group, and you have to have an idea of who they are. I see whether there’s a narrative — of course it’s all hypothesis, I’m not a psychoanalyst — but I have a strong sense of people in a group. There’s a certain chemistry within a family: perhaps they have three sons, and a younger daughter, perhaps there’s only one child. Every situation is unique. 

How do you find photographing paintings alongside people? Does the work itself transform the context? 

In the late Eighties, I think I aimed to create a polemic — a sort of advertising campaign. The artists who had made the paintings I depicted had done so as part of their everyday lives — not necessarily under everyday circumstances, but as part of their ongoing practice.

There was a period when I was producing reproductions of paintings to make money. When you look at a painting on a transparency, you don’t look at the painting, you look at a reproduction. In its translation into photography, the painting becomes, somehow, a slightly more modern version of itself. 

The idea was to photograph people in a way that echoed or responded to the artwork I used and, in doing so, push them into the past, and bring the painting a little more into the contemporary world  — thus bringing them together in a certain way.

Thomas Struth, 2013 © Annette Koroll, Courtesy Thomas Struth

Was your choice of jacket incidental in this work?

No. I knew how much of my arm should be visible. I took two or three jackets, and selected one that corresponded with certain blue elements of the painting and the wallpaper. The work is like one of those scenes from a movie, where two characters talk to each other and, just out of focus, you see one speaker’s head — perhaps their chin. It’s a work that has aspects of painting, photography and film. Perhaps it’s a little kitsch to say so, but it’s like I’m listening to Dürer — though he doesn’t speak. It was very carefully conceived.

How do you think that photography has changed the way that we look at art, if indeed it has?

I don’t think it has. Of course, it’s impossible to imagine a world in which photography or films don’t exist. But reproductions can never tell you as much as looking at a work itself.

But I do think that the growth of photography as a medium has transformed the artistic landscape over the last 325 years. Whether you use photography or not, as an artist, you have to consider what it means to work in a society where photography is the dominant art form. People understand the photographic image probably better than anything else; it’s become the cultural medium of our time.  To be a contemporary photographer is both to interact with that culture, but equally, to make sense of how you can stand outside it.

Today, I’m not sure I would have made the decision to quit painting and begin taking photographs, as I did. Perhaps I would have decided to make sculpture.

What did you paint?

I painted a lot between the ages of 14 and 24. I was fascinated by artistic practices and artists’ lives, and particularly Early Modernism — Francis Bacon, Goya, and Dali. My paintings from this period would contain an architectural element with two or three human figures, though these were never detailed — I didn’t paint eyebrows, they were only just recognisable as human forms.

As my works began to be more detailed, however, I started to photograph myself, with the idea of using these photographs to produce paintings. I realized, however, that my desire was not to photograph a painting.

Did you find yourself trying to copy your forebears?

I once consciously copied an Emil Nolde in watercolour, though that was the only time I did so. It was a landscape with two horses and a stormy sky. And of course, I was influenced by things I liked.

What are your earliest recollections of going to museums?

I went to high school in Cologne, and perhaps the biggest influence for me was the Museum Ludwig — at the time, a very sombre, post-war building. It was fantastic because of the range of works: you could look at religious paintings from Cologne and masterworks from 1450 to Pop Art. It was also amazing because, at the time, it was always so empty: I would wander the museum almost alone after school, from three to six o’clock.

So I suppose, in a way, the growth of your museum series was a response to seeing a growing number of people going to museums

That’s right, and seeing them interact with the works.

Having seen Reflections on the Self, do you have any thoughts about the role of self-portraiture? What makes it different to other forms of expression?

To me, it seems that self-portraiture has much to do with silence. There’s not a lot of silence today. That’s not to say I’m meditating every morning for two hours — maybe I should be. But I find it quite difficult to be silent and sit in a chair, because our dominant role is to be active. People don’t sit silently, doing nothing; almost nobody does that.

Reflections on the Self is at Christie’s in London until 5 September. Main image at top: Thomas Struth, Alte Pinakothek, Self-Portrait, 2000. © Thomas Struth


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