Museums: Writing Exhibition Reviews
Teaching art history, as with any discipline, comes with a set of obstacles: from the intellectual (how to make the past relevant to the present); to the technical (the problems of the digitization that distort image quality, scale, and size); and to the practical (the prickly but persistent question of what one does with an undergraduate degree in the history of art). What an art historian does—whether an undergraduate in a general education course or a tenured professor—is develop, extend, and/or deconstruct a discourse. Writing exhibition and book reviews plays a fundamental part in this discourse, as evidenced by the robust and vibrant community of scholars who submit reviews to H-France Review, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, and the many other online and traditional print resources available in the field. For undergraduates (as the newest members of the field), I think that writing exhibition reviews can ensure their critical participation in that discourse. Exhibitions, in their appeal to broad and specialist audiences alike, are texts that tell their own stories about art, that increase students’ appreciation, and that catalyze further research into art history.
In my upper-level undergraduate course, Nineteenth-Century Art and Visual Culture, I asked my students to visit and review the Cincinnati Art Museum’s exhibit, Van Gogh: Into the Undergrowth with the intention that they would learn to put their classroom-based knowledge of art history into practice. I provided a series of prompts for when they began the assignment. First, writing these reviews taught them to apply their research of the Barbizon School, Impressionism, and Symbolism—these had been studied in class prior to the trip—to analyze the exhibition’s claims and contents. Writing these reviews permitted them to apply their research in a directed way. Second, this exercise required students to repeatedly and thoroughly revise their work and write in a way that addressed non-specialists (like them). Finally, writing these reviews fulfilled my course’s overall pedagogical aims around visual analysis, research, and the recursive process of writing and editing.
Visual Analysis. Seeing is doing. Object-based analysis— technical properties, aesthetic qualities, and preservation issues—remains critical to art history as a discipline and acts as the starting-point for writing reviews. After taking a quick curator-led tour of Van Gogh: Into the Undergrowth, students took notes on the artworks of their choice; notes on these artworks would later form the foundation for ekphratic descriptions in their reviews.
About Undergrowth with Two Figures, the van Gogh painting that supplied the title for the exhibition, the first student-reviewer carefully describes how perfectly framed between several trees (and positioned rather unnaturally) stand a man and woman. The two are in line with the trees, and while not central to the composition, become the focus of the painting. It is through this couple that the viewer attempts to enter both the knotty forest and the equally thorny psyche of the artist. The composition is unsettlingly foreshortened, with dark sky between the crowded lines of trees in the background and cropped trees whose endless rows of trunks create an unsettling space that is somehow infinite yet enclosed. What is so unsettling here is that, though the painting depicts the outdoors, the viewer seems to enter a cramped nocturnal scene.
The student’s beautifully written formal analysis works through the technical and aesthetic properties of the painting and the biography of van Gogh, in order to effectively translate the painted image into written word. In addition to taking notes about the individual artworks, students were to attend to the organization and structure of the exhibition and then, in their reviews, interweave their analysis of the organization with their observations and analyses of the artworks. Deftly, the second student-reviewer scrutinized how the inclusion of works on paper drawn from the Cincinnati Art Museum permanent collection and placed at the end of the exhibition “seemed incongruous with the [content in the] rest of the exhibition.”
Researching. While writing exhibition or book reviews does not always require outside research, it is expected that reviewers write as experts, specialists, or, at the very least, well-informed members of the discipline. It is not sufficient to read only what had been literally written on the walls. So, while Van Gogh: Into the Undergrowth included extensive wall texts as well as quotes from van Gogh’s correspondence, the best reviews, as I emphasized to my students, tend to also assess the claims made in the catalogue and other print ephemera, websites, and audio tours. The catalogue especially helped each of the three student-reviewers to better understand the connection posited between van Gogh and his Barbizon predecessors.
Any outside research conducted to write these reviews was to lead the students to position the exhibition within the historiography around the Barbizon School, Post-Impressionism, and van Gogh. In this way, students learned to see exhibitions as scholarly interventions and their reviews as their own type of intervention. I thus worked with students to locate biographies, translated art criticism and correspondence, and secondary sources that would permit them to write authoritatively and confidently. The third student-reviewer, for instance, researched primary sources, including criticism by Albert Aurier, to assess whether the Cincinnati exhibition deconstructed the myth around the life and work of van Gogh.
Workshopping, Revising, and Editing. Perhaps more than any other type of art-historical writing at the undergraduate level, reviews provide students with an opportunity to develop an individual perspective and stake a position in the field. Students formulated their thesis in the context of this one exhibition, which in turn acted as an automatic framework for their research and arguments. So, where the first student-reviewer contends that the exhibition resulted in “the production of a new legend of van Gogh as an artist dependent on his relationships (both personal and artistic),” the third student-reviewer, in comparison, observed that
By displaying a variety of depictions of nature by different artists in conjunction with those by van Gogh, the exhibition emphasized the artist’s interest in the relationship between humanity and nature, beyond the emotional relationship captured by other artists in his Symbolist circle.
Yet this exercise also required students to take a position, all the while maintaining a professional tone that eschews exaggerations and generalizations. Striking a balance between criticism and collegiality can be difficult for the most seasoned writer; but, for undergraduates with limited knowledge of the field, its historiography, and its participants and constituencies, this presented an especial challenge. For that reason, in my course, students read other exhibition reviews on van Gogh and members of the Barbizon School—they even read reviews that I had authored—to start to learn how to develop the appropriate tone. So, when that second student-reviewer presented potential pitfalls to the final room in Van Gogh: Into the Undergrowth, she requested that the curatorial team make “more discerning choices” and noted that “this room would have benefited from the addition of wall texts explaining each artist’s connection to van Gogh.” Taking such diplomatic tact required my students to mature as writers and thinkers.
I believe that this exercise not only bridged the gap between the classroom and the intellectual community beyond, but also had the fortunate pedagogical effect of prompting students to build new connections to art, art history, and their classmates. Observing the students post-trip, it was apparent to me that they formed bonds, even friendships and that those reluctant to contribute to in-class discussion became more enthusiastic participants in the course, primarily, I think, because they felt more a part of the field and, equally, more a part of the classroom community.
While my past classes have taken museum trips to write formal analyses, writing these exhibition reviews ultimately proved more successful, as testified to in this short film of students’ responses (link). Exhibitions and exhibition reviews provide students with an automatic structure in which to situate their formal analyses and observations about the exhibition structure and story, while also providing them with parameters for their research and arguments. Were I to do this exercise in the future, I may require students to read a bibliography in order to better prepare for their trip and undertake their post-trip research. Still, writing these reviews (see examples of the reviews here) taught my students—many came to my course with limited or no knowledge of art history—how to become student-authors, student-educators and, ultimately, student-art historians.