Writing about works of art can be tricky, especially if you’re trying to build up a body of knowledge from a standing start as well as link it — perhaps at the repeated behest of your tutor — to work that you’ve made. Finding a way to turn the experience of looking at something into meaningful text isn’t easy, but developing a way of clearly writing about the visual is an important skill to acquire when studying art.
Art historian Anne D’Alleva’s excellent How to Write Art History is a great way to start this process.* It’s geared towards students of art history so not everything is of relevance, but the good stuff is really good. It’s a short, beautifully illustrated book, written in an accessible style aimed at newcomers to the subject.
The book begins with a chapter introducing the subject of art history that includes a ‘working definition’ of art. The examples D’Alleva uses throughout the book range from sub-Saharan sculpture, Indian temple friezes, through Western painting and sculpture to more recent works like Marie Sester’s 2003 digital work ACCESS. One of the strengths of the book is this breadth, allowing the author to deftly touch on related issues such as ethnography, feminism, craft / decorative art, and art criticism.
Two superb chapters — probably the most useful for the OCA student — explain two key approaches to analysing art works: formal and contextual. Though sophisticated analysis is likely to blend these two approaches — or oscillate between them — separating them from one another is a good way to write about them, as D’Alleva writes, ‘I have divided this important discussion into two chapters, providing clear and distinct introductions to these two basic art historical methods.’ As well as providing strategies and pointers for students, extended examples are also included. Patrick Heron’s analysis of Henri Matisse’s Red Interior concludes the formal analysis chapter and art historian Sarah Symmond’s reading of a print by Goya is embedded in the ‘contextual’ chapter.
While the chapter on ‘preparing for exams’ is likely to be of little use to OCA students, the ‘writing art history essays and papers’ should, with a bit of adaptation, be of interest. D’Alleva might be addressing students who are not makers and therefore looking exclusively at works by others, but it’s not hard to extrapolate the principles to interrogate one’s own work whether alone or in relation to the work of others. A strength of the book is the author’s ability to break down complexity. She deals with ‘opinion vs. interpretation’, ‘the comparison essay’ as well as giving advice on taking notes and referencing other texts. All good solid stuff.
In summary then, this is recommended to any students who want to understand how art can be written about — and that should be all OCA visual art students — and what the conventions of that might be. Of course, mobilising this knowledge in terms of making is another story, but having confidence in the hinterland from which art practice emerges is an important part of the OCA journey.
The second edition – reviewed here – of How to Write Art History was published by Lawrence King in 2010 and priced at around £10 but second hand copies are readily available.
*Also recommended is Ossian Ward’s Ways of Looking, also published by Lawrence King, which I wrote about for #weareoca here: https://weareoca.com/subject/