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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Writing About Painting

What follows are some useful tips to keep in mind when responding to an exhibition of paintings (these tips apply to reviewing an exhibition of photographs or prints). We take our cue from Martin and Jacobus (1997), who regard the reviewer as a guide, one who introduces works we might otherwise not notice and who shares her insight into the artistic merits of the works. As Martin and Jacobus (1997) point out, in helping us understand the complexities of works of art, the reviewer passes on the techniques that will enable us to become critics.

I. Getting Ready

We can think of the review is an appraisal of an exhibition that has just opened. The writer in this case assumes that her readers are not familiar with the works.

The reviewer's job is to introduce the exhibition, so that readers can decide whether or not they should see the works for themselves. To achieve this goal, the reviewer must try to meet four obligations: (a) report on the effect the curator hopes to achieve, (b) judge how well the exhibition succeeds, and (c) provide enough evidence (description of selected works) to support or illustrate her judgment. As well, she (d) must be fair to the work that she is judging. We take the last obligation for granted: the reviewer must not allow her prejudices on the subject to sway her appraisal.

These obligations are important. If the description is inadequate, readers will have trouble following the analysis. If the reviewer indicates the desired effect only, saying nothing about how well the works achieve this effect, then she provides an overview, not a critical review. If she fails to support or illustrate her judgment, by describing selected pieces, she gives the reader no opportunity to form her or his own judgment. No reviewer can afford to assume that her unsupported opinions will be accepted at face value. If she says that the exhibition is badly organized, failing to show pictures to their advantage, she must present evidence.

II. Studying the Works

Careful viewing is a prerequisite to writing a review. Experience shows that uncritical viewing usually results in a poor review. This means getting a sense of the "big picture" as it were in relation to individual pieces. So, it is a good idea to begin visit the gallery with the intention of reviewing selected/representative works. If you view works attentively, you will identity key details, uncover structures, and formulate tentative judgments. Of course, you will modify your insight in light of repeated viewing.

Remember to study the artistic statement that has been produced by the curator or the artist. This statement will identify the artist's purpose, if not principle that organizes the works on display. This statement usually gives the clearest indication of the effects the artist tried to achieve. In other words, the statement may contain a thesis or a proposition that can serve as your point of departure.

The reviewer should not take this statement at face value, however. She has a right to point out, perhaps regret, the limitations the curator has imposed on the exhibition. However, she does not have the right to condemn a curator for not doing what he never intended to do.

It is wise to take notes as you study the works. Your notes should contain a clear statement of the effect the exhibition tries to achieve, an indication of the principle organizing the exhibition, and references to particular pictures which illustrate the artist's style.

These notes will give you a keener insight into the success of the exhibition, and they will reduce or eliminate the time required to go back and find what you remember as evidence. In preparing these notes, you are getting "inside" the head of the curator or the artists, understanding the work as if you were the maker.

III. Writing the Review

Writing the review should present no special problems of composition. As long as you satisfy the four obligations mentioned above, you are free to organize, to present your material in whatever way suits your purpose and your sense of the audience. It is a good idea to provide (at the top of your review) details about the exhibition: name of artist, title of the exhibition, name of the gallery, and when the exhibition can be seen.


At the outset, you should be clear about two matters: your obligation to your reader and your obligation to the artist. If you begin without understanding what is expected of you or what you want to accomplish, you will find it difficult to write your review. If we regard a work of art as fusion of form and content, then we say that good criticism helps us see how, in the artist's hands, form transforms subject matter into content. In writing about paintings, we engage in three activities (Martin and Jacobus, 1997):

1. describing

This activity means focusing on the form of the work, describing (sometimes exhaustively) the important characteristics of that form in order to improve our understanding of the part-to-part and the part-to-whole interrelationships. The point of descriptive criticism is to call attention to what we might otherwise miss in an artistic form (p. 50).

Remember that description is criticism, not merely a prelude to criticism. You are introducing the work to your reader--your paper may or may not illustrate your piece with a photograph of the work. Your task is to tell the reader what the work looks like. You have two major sources of descriptive data: internal and external.

Internal information is based on what can be seen in the work itself and can be divided into three categories: subject matter, medium, and form.

Subject matter refers to those recognizable people, places, or events in the work.

Medium refers to the material the work is made from.

Form refers to the way the artist shapes the subject with the medium. In non-objective and non-representational work, medium and form may well predominant with no identifiable subject matter.

External information includes data about the time in which the piece was made--its social and intellectual milieu--other works by the same artist and work by other artists of the same period. You can also place the work within a setting for your readers. You can describe the gallery, the general tone of the exhibition, dates during which the work will be shown, and the number of pieces in the exhibition. Provide information about titles, size, media. Also, provide information about who curated the exhibition and whether or not the work is for sale. In this way, you are establishing a context for your assessment of the work.

2. interpreting

This activity means explicating the content of a work, helping the reader understand how form transforms subject matter into content: what has been revealed about some subject matter and how that has been accomplished (p. 54). Interpretation can be based on internal and external evidence:

Internal evidence consists of what is in the work itself: it is drawn from a description of the work.

External evidence consists of relevant information not within the work itself: the artist's other work, the artist's biography, including gender, race, and age, and the social, political, and religious milieu of the time and the place in which the work was made.

Of course, the basic premise is that works of art are about something. When you interpret, you present your understanding of the work in a way that is convincing, both by how you write and by the evidence you provide. The interpretive goal is to make the art meaningful to your reader in terms of the art itself, i.e., how in the artist's hands form transforms subject matter into content.

If you are writing about a new artist, you have the advantage of making the first contribution; and you have the disadvantage of starting the dialogue without the benefit of an ongoing dialogue about the artist.

If you are writing about an established artist, you have the advantage of consulting other comments; and you have the disadvantage of coming up with something new to say.

Several interpretive and ideological perspectives can be used: psychoanalytical, semiotic, feminist, Neo-Marxist, Poststructuralist, Modernist, Postmodernist, and idiosyncratic worldviews. If the art is clearly Postmodernism, for example, you can explain it in those terms and enlighten your reader about Postmodernist theory.

3. evaluating

This activity focuses on judging the artistic merits of a work of art, according to the standards of perfection, insight, and inexhaustibility. The critic is guided by the idea that the stronger the content--the richer the interpretation of subject matter--the more involved we will be in the work (p. 59).

Responsible judgments include a clear assessment of the worth of an art object, including the criteria and the reasons for the assessment. True, critics disagree about what exact criteria are appropriate for judging. Types of criteria include Realism, Formalism, Expressionism, Instrumentalism, and combinations and variations of these. You may let the work itself decide by which criteria it should be judged: If it is obviously a political work, say, then instrumentalist criticism would apply. If it is a Formalist work, then you might apply Formalist criteria to it.

To judge is to risk the possibility of being demeaning to the artist by assuming a superior role or attitude. Such an approach will likely set you against artists and them against you. Criticism should further rather than end discourse about art: the critic helps the reader appreciate the nuances and the complexities. Resist finding minor faults in works--fault-finding is petty--and argue for larger issues. Be generous in your considerations of their work.

writing up your observations

Often, the most difficult task might well be writing the opening paragraph, especially the opening sentence. Here are some suggestions:

Briefly contextualize the exhibition for your reader. Tell the reader something about the artist. It is usually helpful to say something about the other works the artist has produced/exhibited and indicate how the artist has come to produce the work under review.

Identify the artist's purpose, mode of production, and attitude toward the subject.

Show how the work resembles or differs from works of the same kind.

Give the reader an overview of the exhibition. The idea is to help the reader form a vivid image of selected works in the exhibition. However, be careful not to overdo this: remember that you are summarizing, providing a sense of the pictures.

Be sure to devote a few paragraphs to the strengths of the exhibition. Be sure to devote a few paragraphs to the weaknesses of the exhibition.

Your concluding remarks should drive home the major point you are trying to make. Some manuals suggest that, if possible, you should conclude with a statement relating your assessment to the remarks you made at the outset. What results is a neat package.

4. Weaknesses to Avoid

A writer can improve the quality as well as the effectiveness of her review by avoiding the following weaknesses: (a) spending too much time listing the works; (b) drifting into digressions which better illustrate your philosophy than the merits or demerits of the works; and (c) keeping the review at too general a level. Remember to provide specific examples to illustrate your points.