Its All about RELATIONSHIPS (Thematic or Stylistic) in Your Visual Arts Exhibition

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

I started teaching DP Visual Arts a little over thirty years ago, in Tanzania, in the 1980s (at ISM).

At that time both the IB and ISM were relatively new – the IB started in 1968 and ISM started in 1969.

I was entering a new stage in my life:  living in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, going on regular safaris into the Serengeti, learning about a new school, a new country, new cultures – and also joining these two relatively new organisations: the International Baccalaureate and the International School Moshi.

Since that time both have flourished!

At that time, of course, a different version of the visual arts course existed, but elements have remained consistent – primarily the idea that there should be research, evidence of process, and a final exhibition.

I attended a memorable IB teacher workshop, also in the 1980s, in Hamburg – and learned about the importance of the ‘theme’.

Thirty years ago, the theme was seen as an integral part of the visual arts exhibition.

But that was then.

This is now…

It’s true that if students take a creative approach and refer to the current visual arts guide, their exhibition can be successful and have a theme.

But many teachers seem to be under the impression that exhibition success depends on a theme. It’s as if they are still in the mindset of previous visual arts courses – perhaps not as far back as the 1980s, but certainly not the current visual arts course.

The current course…

Along with many others, I was involved in the development of the current course, and we deliberately removed the word “theme” from the entire visual arts guide.

The coherence descriptor does not refer to a theme, but to “thematic or stylistic relationships”.

In the guide the plural occurs only twice: “what themes can be identified in the work, or what experiences have influenced it?” (p57) and “the work demonstrates elaboration of ideas, themes or concepts” (p60).

This is because of the importance of visual elaboration (criterion C) and of links and ‘thematic or stylistic’ relationships between pieces (criterion A).

There is no reference in any of the assessment criteria to having a theme.

But there is the potential to lose marks if the works submitted are repetitive (criterion A) or predictable (criterion C).

Communicate your relationships…

I had hoped that by now some art teachers may have reflected on the results and feedback from the 2016 and 2017 sessions and be more in tune with the criteria.

I’ve recently read many curatorial rationales, from students from all over the world, and maybe some have…but having looked at the submitted exhibition files of more than 100 students I have to say that many students seem to still feel that they have to have a theme, and I’m afraid that many lose marks because of this.

Students seem be unaware of the importance of communicating thematic or stylistic relationships across individual pieces.

Too often relationships across pieces were visually repetitive rather than imaginative, and I suspect this is because the idea of following a theme persuades many that it’s OK to be repetitive.

Looking back at the exhibitions that I saw in the last examination sessions, there were many inspirational and creative collections, and the best did NOT have a single, constraining theme.

Of course, that does not just mean that there were just random and disparate artworks in successful exhibitions: the strongest exhibitions had linked IDEAS. Not a theme.

These ideas were elaborated (e.g. not simply stated but developed into striking and successful artworks) and there were creative links that threaded through the collection: a series of ideas, concepts and themes rather than a single, limiting ‘headline’ theme.

Quoting from a student (Curatorial Rationale)…

One student admitted in the rationale:

I started with the theme of (title removed to preserve anonymity), and in the beginning had works that were all based on theme ideas. But then my theme ideas dried up. After a time, I realized that my theme…actually limited my work. I was trapped rather than inspired by my theme. Everything had become dull and repetitive”

The curatorial rationale of many weak exhibitions invariably started “My theme is…” and having read this, I then frequently found myself looking at between 8 and 11 visually similar artworks, restricted by the theme.

Who is telling students that they need a theme? Is it their art teacher? Why?


Yes, some successful art exhibitions do creatively reflect an overall theme.

But beware – the theme can also become a hindrance, a destructive constraint.


Relevant posts:

***In October 2015 The Exhibition…A “coherent” body of works? /kə(ʊ)ˈhɪər(ə)ns,kə(ʊ)ˈhɪərəns

***In April 2016 From Clouds to Desire (“Thematic Relationships” in your visual arts exhibition)

  • Vanessa Catto
    September 16, 2018

    Thank you for all of your wonderful posts-they have been so helpful to me over this last year as a new IB VA DP teacher. My first Year 2s are just starting their exhibition and I went over the EX criteria with them. The problem is some of them have latched on to the word ‘theme’, and seem to be stuck there. I think it is because the idea of creating a body of work that is cohesive is somewhat incomprehensible to some of them. Especially if they are not as conceptual thinkers as others.
    I am trying to encourage “idea”, or “thread”, in all of our discussions, but I am wondering if you have any suggestions for guidance to create coherence in their exhibit that might get them away from the idea of “theme” for coherence? Thank you

    • Andrew Vaughan
      September 16, 2018

      Dear Vanessa,
      Thank you for your positive feedback – I’m very happy to hear that my blog posts have been so helpful to you.

      Its possible to have a successful exhibition that reflects a theme, provided there are interesting – or even dynamic – relationships between the works, and the imagery and media reflect the student’s intentions.
      I have sometimes talked to my students about the concept of a river with tributaries, or a journey with paths.
      The tributary or path lead to different places and the art there may not be visually similar to previous/earlier pieces.
      The idea of the thread can also help.

      I think the idea is to avoid repetition or too much similarity between the artworks – create “diversity within coherence”. If the artworks all look the same the exhibition won’t be coherent in the visual arts sense of the word.

      Have you looked at or shared with your students the exhibition clarification document available through My IB?

      As I wrote in May, successful exhibitions often show “creative links that threaded through the collection: a series of ideas, concepts and themes rather than a single, limiting ‘headline’ theme.”

      I visit the ‘theme vs coherence’ idea quite regularly in my blogs, so there may be other suggestions in visual arts previous blogs.

      I hope this helps.

      Best wishes,


  • Diego Díaz
    October 6, 2018

    Thanks!!! for Sharing this ideas, is amazing to know what is required. And is more interesting find “links”. Very interesting!!!

    • Andrew Vaughan
      October 8, 2018

      Dear Diego,

      Thank you for the appreciative comments.

      Best wishes

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