Friday, 11 January 2013

How to write an exhibition review: Five reviews of Winter Snow, Japanese woodcuts at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Read my review of five reviews and find out how to write an exhibition review (and how not to write an exhibition review).  

How to write an exhibition review:  What I have learned from the reviews

•  Visit the exhibition in person.  Look closely and carefully.  Take notes.  
•  Trust your own observations and your own thoughts.  
•  Don't just rehash the press release. 
•  Review the art, not the reality purportedly recorded by the art.  Describe technique and visual effects.
•  Focus on a few selected works.
•  Say a little about the visitors' experience of the exhibition as a whole. 
•  Include your own research and background knowledge.

How to use value words:  
Trite value words are meaningless (a stunning exhibition).  

Personal engagement is better (I love the contrast of the warmth inside with the icy scene outside). 

Thoughtful analysis is powerful without even the need for value words (a familiarity with the images can be acquired by the simple, patient act of looking at prints).

And now for the reviews themselves!  First up:

  Winter snow press release

First, the press release.  It's important because it informs what reviewers write.

The Fitzwilliam draws attention to two aspects:  


The snowy climate and culture of Japan:
 "more than half the country experiences heavy and prolonged snow each winter" and "The long cold winter months were devoted to processes like weaving linen and making paper"


Snow causes style:
"the snow becomes a major component of graphic expression".

In a clever rhetorical move, the press release links reality to art when it considers the technicalities of paper bleaching:  "So the very whiteness of the paper in the prints in the exhibition – which creates the purity of the snow in the images – was created by snowmelt..."

the everyday struggle of travellers; the stillness of people indoors gazing out at snow.

The reviews

The Cambridge News copies and pastes phrases from the press release:

"the everyday struggle of travellers and the stillness of people gazing out "

"half of Japan experiences heavy and prolonged snow each winter".  

There is no evidence that the writer has actually visited the exhibition.  It's an announcement, not a review.  

Winter snow Explorer Mag

The Explorer Magazine likewise copies and pastes from the press release: 

"snow affects half of the country each winter" 
"even the production of white paper was influenced by snow itself". 

Again:  not a real review. 

To sum up:  Dear Cambridge press:  please try harder!  

But wait:  Blogs do much better.

Winter snow gina collia-suzuki

Gina Collia-Suzuki's blog review does include chunks of press release:

"More than half the country experiences prolonged and heavy snowfall each year".  

But we also get actual personal evaluations:  
"Elegant representations of the natural landscape..." 
"Hiroshige's splendidly frosty triptych..."

This reviewer has actually been there:
"This small but perfectly formed exhibition..."  

To sum up:  A nicely personal response.

Winter snow sequins

This blog post is a personal account.  This reviewer has been there and has had her own thoughts.  We don't find a single quote from the press release.  Instead, the review is peppered with personal responses:  

"I love this one.:
 "We voted this one our favourite."

Where the others wrote of "the stillness of people indoors gazing out", this reviewer writes:  
"I love the contrast of the warmth inside with the icy scene outside".

The reviewer also adds interesting snippets of information that are not in the press release.  For example, she explains the game of the two halves of a painted shell to us.  And she says that even today:
"death in the snow is rated the most admired suicide by Japanese people".  

Then there's a nifty conceit to tie together art and reality:

"What with the amount of snow in the pictures and the chilly temperature of the room they’re displayed in you could practically see our breath forming ice crystals in the air by the time we left. But in a good way."

To sum up:  Personality plus knowledge make for reviewing win.

Winter snow varsity

I keep the best for last.

Note how Lavinia Puccetti reviews the actual exhibition:
"a self-contained world which is proportioned, in its scale, to the dimensions of the woodcut prints."  

In contrast to blockbuster exhibitions, visitors are here "encouraged to look at each single detail represented in the prints".

Puccetti does not quote a single word from the press release.  This is all about her own observations: 

"It is interesting to note that the status of prostitution has not been morally condemned in these coloured prints, but rather treated as a natural part of the teahouse culture, to the point of being parallel to natural elements: snowflakes and cherry blossoms."  

She actually talks about the art rather than treating it just as a record of real life. 

Two Kabuki actors staging a fight:  
"The blue and ochre of their garments, along with the night blue of the house in the background, contrasts with the pure white of the snow which covers the scene. ... the drama is heightened by the way in which the white pigment has been flicked across the paper, almost obliterating the view of the scene. This has a parallel in contemporary Japanese theatre fights..."

Compellingly, Puccetti is here reminded of a recent visit to the opera:  
"This technique, paralleled in the print by the white pigments dots, recalls the 2012 ENO production of Madame Butterfly: the fall of cherry blossom petals added drama to the end of the first act..."

To sum up:  This is a review that makes you look twice and think again.

Remember:  If you liked what you read in the two blogs, go and leave them some comment love!

Sequins and Cherry Blossom

Floating Along

Related posts:  

Visit the exhibition!
Winter Snow finishes this Sunday!  



  1. Active verbs convey opinion more descriptively than constructing sentences with passive verbs.
    They also usually reduce word count when writing for space-restricted publications. :-)
    Nice range of reviews as examples.

    1. Good point, and another useful tip for writing reviews (or anything else, for that matter, including blog posts....) I don't always follow this advice, either. My mother tongue is German, and there is nothing the German language loves more than a convoluted sentence constructed with passive verbs... ;-)


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