Writing About Art

Faculty Guest Blogger: Dr. Christa Irwin

Dr. Christa Irwin: I still remember the first art history course I took when I was a freshman in college. When the professor showed us the Nike of Samothrace, I was enthralled. I could not take my eyes away– I needed to see it again. After class, I ran to the library to find a book that had an image of the sculpture (I’m old—this was pre-google image era) and sat on the floor in the stacks just staring at it. I wanted to understand what and how it was communicating and why it had such a hold on me.  Many years later, as my conception of art has become more and more complex, I still believe that visual art has the power to inspire me and, I think, has inspired the people who made it and the audiences for whom it was made. This belief is what continues to drive the work that I do.

As an art historian and professor, I research and write about art. Herein lies what I see as a great responsibility of my job. I am taking up the task of speaking on behalf of artists who likely dedicated their lives to their art. Therefore getting things right as an art historian requires careful research and precise writing. My particular area of focus is sixteenth-century Italy. I’m currently working on three Italian artists who traveled to Peru when it was a Spanish colony, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These artists painted Christian-themed and European-styled altarpieces and other works for the local communities in Peru. Recently, I wrote a book chapter for a collection about art produced during the great reforms of the Catholic Church at the end of the sixteenth century, in response to the Counter Reformation. When I was working on my dissertation in graduate school, I conducted research I used in this chapter about an artist in Lima, Peru. It was an opportunity for me to present what I think is significant about an artist that the world knows little about.

Although you’ve likely never heard of him, Bernardo Bitti was incredibly successful in sixteenth-century Peru. He painted many altarpieces for churches in large cities and small villages. His patrons, the Spanish, seem to have believed his paintings could inspire people’s conversion to Christianity. In this chapter, I focus on one painting in particular, an altarpiece depicting the Coronation of the Virgin. In 2010, when I stood in the dark church of San Pedro in Lima, in a chapel that is normally closed to the public– -I had to negotiate in Spanish with an aging Peruvian priest to allow me in– -I too understood the power of the painting, with its graceful figures and pastel palette, suggesting an ethereal realm distant from that of the church where I stood.  My challenge in writing the book chapter was to somehow translate my abstract feeling of understanding into intelligently constructed words and phrases.  And, writing is very difficult—we all know that.  So, you can imagine my apprehension at taking on this task.

In the midst of this particular project, I came to realize that in order to attain the level of excellence I was seeking, and to appropriately capture the meaning and significance of the painting, I had to throw myself into the process with a high level of rigor, and perhaps even more importantly find the techniques that worked best for me. After writing a complete draft, the chapter still needed extensive editing, to locate the ideal ways to express what I hoped to get across. When I got stuck on a section that I wasn’t happy with, I took out a pen and paper, yes real paper, and wrote it out longhand, that method somehow jogging ideas in my brain. I often pulled up an image of the painting, staring at it and scribbling down observations. Over the month I spent finishing the chapter, I began each day at 6am because I found that I am the most productive writer early in the morning, before the complications of life have clouded my thoughts. Finally, over the last week of editing, with my deadline looming, self-doubt entering the picture, as I had read the chapter at least fifty times at that point, I went to collaboration, sent the chapter out to several friends whose opinions I respect. I called one friend and talked through my argument over a lengthy phone call. Writing is a very isolating task, something that inevitably we must do alone, but there is space for collaboration.

Writing about art, whether it is your own or somebody else’s is a task of great challenge, translating what you see into words, and that deserves profound attention and dedication. Every time I show the Nike of Samothrace in a class, I take a moment to stare and appreciate my continued awe (if you’d had that class with me, you’ve experienced this), wondering what I can say to justly convey its power.


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