Walking through Light Sensitive: Photographic Works from North Carolina Collections recently, I came upon Thomas Struth’s photograph, Museo del Prado 5, Madrid (2005). Struth is a well-known German photographer, and this piece is part of his acclaimed Museum series, which depicts individuals as they view various works of art. This photograph shows a group of uniformed students standing in front of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1565), currently on display in Madrid’s Prado Museum.
Las Meninas is indisputably one of the most famous artworks of all time, created by one history’s most renowned painters. Despite their presence in front of such mastery, not a single one of these adolescents looks at the painting. Instead, they all look downwards, more interested in their audio guides, the floor, or booklets, which they are all holding. Perhaps there is something more interesting off to the right, since that is the direction they all face, like a teacher, maybe the woman in a suit standing nearby. Either way, their disinterest is laughable.
Unlike these students, the painting’s main subject, the young Infanta Margaret Theresa of Spain, appears intrigued by her surroundings. She stares straight out at us, past these unresponsive students. Everyone else in the painting looks at her, including the painter, meant to be Velázquez himself, who is making her portrait. Even our eyes are drawn right to her, even though she is merely a fraction the size of the students. How, then, if everyone is so engrossed by her, can these students be so indifferent?
Trying to interest a group of teenagers in art is one of life’s more challenging tasks. What we see here is the exact opposite of what a museum educator would like to encounter with a student group. Any museum’s goal is to excite and inform all of its visitors. Ideally, they will always leave the museum just a little more knowledgeable than they were when they entered.
This is especially true of the Nasher Museum, which, as a university museum, is particularly invested in education and student outreach. Educational programs are an integral part of the museum’s mission, and much is done to attract students and classes into the building.
Personally, as an art history major, I have had many academic experiences with the Nasher Museum. I have come here both individually and with classes, and many assignments have urged me to interact extensively with a work of art. I have written visual analyses of various works in the museum’s collection over the last three years. Such an exercise teaches one the importance of looking. Its goal is to so fully and completely describe your chosen work that your reader will be able to visualize it without ever having seen it.
Because of this, I am disappointed with these students in front of Las Meninas. I do not understand how they do not appreciate this masterpiece. I can only hope that those students who visit the Nasher can be a bit more engaged with their surroundings.
Image: Thomas Struth, Museo del Prado 5, Madrid, 2005. Chromogenic print, 65 1/2 x 82 inches (166.2 x 208 cm). Collection of Dr. Carlos Garcia-Velez. ©Thomas Struth. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, NY.
Photo by J Caldwell