When Struth began the series of Museum Photographs he had a precise idea of where he wanted to work: the Louvre in Paris, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the National Gallery in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Art Institute of Chicago. Following this series, made in less than a year between 1989 and 1990, the pace of work in museums slowed as Struth became preoccupied with new bodies of work. After several unsuccessful attempts to make works with visitors in the Pergamon Museum, in the mid-1990s, Struth decided to stage a series of photographs in different spaces in the museum in 2001. Together with the photographs inside the Pantheon in Rome, these are amongst the few Museum Photographs in which the position of the figures was orchestrated by the photographer.
Following the completion of these photographs, he did not envisage returning to the theme of people in museums. But in 1999 he visited the exhibition of a single work by Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (1830) at the National Museum of Art in Tokyo and was immediately struck by its unorthodox display. Risers had been built for the audience, who stood or sat in darkness as in a movie theatre; in place of the screen there was a brilliantly lit glass case containing the Delacroix painting. Struth decided to delay his return to Germany, obtained permission from the Louvre overnight, and went back to the museum the following day to make a photograph of this particular interaction of a contemporary crowd and a historic painting of ‘the people’. On the same visit to Tokyo, Struth also made a photograph of a single Japanese man looking at a display of historic Samurai swords in the same museum.
Two more Museum Photographs followed, both also based on individual paintings. In 2000 Struth visited the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. With its particular quality of self-awareness as well as its status as an emblematic work in the history of German culture, Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait from 1500 had long fascinated him. The painting was also a work Struth had thought about when conceiving his one-hour video portraits (1996–2002) in which the sitter gazes intently at the viewer for 60 minutes. He spontaneously placed a 35mm camera on a bench and made a snapshot of himself standing in front of the Dürer painting. Interested in the results of the informal experiment, Struth then arranged to return and staged the work more precisely. With the exception of a shadow in the night photograph Drammen 1, Oslo (2001), Alte Pinakothek, Self-Portrait, Munich (2000) is the only work in which the artist is himself depicted.
One final Museum Photograph also offers a contemplative presentation of a single painting, Vermeer’s Woman with a Lute, which was on temporary exhibition at the National Gallery in London. For the first and only time, Struth focuses solely on the painting and the empty space around it, rather than including any viewers within the frame of the picture.
Although he realised a long-held ambition to work at the Museo del Prado in Madrid in 2005 and the resulting series can be considered a substantial coda to his work in museums, Struth considered these three singular works to be his “farewell to the series, a triple jump out of the museum photographs.”