Tracey Emin and Edvard Munch
I have written about Tracey Emin many times and have always felt that her self-absorption and solipsism undermined her art. So I was sceptical as I got myself along – mask-protected – for my socially distanced visit to the Royal Academy to see The Loneliness of the Soul, a show in which she has double billing with Edvard Munch. What hubris, I thought! She’s bound to be dwarfed by the master of angst. To be the junior partner. The also-ran. This, after all, is the ‘girl’ known best for her condom-strewn unmade bed and the tent sewn with all the names of everyone she’s slept with. But where I’d expected mawkishness, I found emotional honesty. A howl as raw and emanating as Munch’s ‘The Scream’.
Recently Tracey Emin underwent an operation for bladder cancer and lost her uterus, ovaries and part of her colon and vagina. A cruel irony for a female artist who’s made her body her sexual temple and the subject of her art. Yet, harsh as it may sound, illness becomes her. This is not to detract from what must have been a terrifying medical ordeal but to suggest that facing the ageing process and cancer, largely on her own, has given new gravitas to her work that was previously lacking. Gone is the PR posturing, the adolescent desire to shock and get up people’s noses. What is left is spare, elemental, and profoundly, painfully human. Yes, included in the show is the 1998 handwritten white neon sign that reads ‘My Cunt is Wet with Fear’. Made in more superficial times, it now has a gut-wrenching prescience.
Emin has always been able to draw but I’ve never, before, been convinced of the emotional authenticity of her endeavours. There’s always been too much special pleading, too much ‘look at poor me’. Now she’s painting and drawing as if her life depends on it. Which it does. The nude figure in ‘I Am The Last of my Kind’, a germolene-pink self-portrait, is influenced by Munch’s 1907 ‘The Death of Marat’. The figure stands drooped and careworn in a sea of automatic writing executed in Tracey’s familiar part upper-, part lowercase scrawl. The words drip down the picture surface like pale blue tears. Close up, one can make out the phrases ‘I am trapped till I die’ and ‘I am getting old now but not as old as my broken fucked up vagina’. Painted in 2019, this is a despairing heart-cry from a middle-aged woman facing not only the possibility of death but the disfigurement of her body and whole sexual being. With its torrent of confessional graffiti, the work is reminiscent of the autobiographical paintings that disclose the history of her family’s sexual abuse by the Jewish painter Charlotte Salomon. There’s no unnecessary decoration. No discernible ground – just raw vulnerability: a characteristic that Munch gives to many of his nude sketches. The difference being that Munch’s figures, even while painted with insight and empathy, are those of a male artist looking at a female subject. Tracey paints from lived experience.
The smear of blood-red paint in ‘It – didn’t stop – I didn’t stop’ suggests at Emin’s rape at the age of 13, her several abortions, menstruation and menopause, as well as her recent surgery. It is a direct link to Munch’s ‘Crouching Nude’ painted between 1917-19, where the naked figure lies on a scarlet quilt in a foetal position. In Emin’s painting, the nervily drawn woman lying on her front, knees drawn up, her vulva exposed as if inviting intimacy, is also placed against a sanguine pool. Yet, here, the figure seems to be dissolving. Falling to bits rather than whole. The lines are anxious, fractured and broken suggesting psychic disintegration. Although there are some images of togetherness in this exhibition – the embracing couple in ‘You were here like the ground underneath my feet’ (2016) for example – these feel like the overture to a tragic opera, the theme of which is abandonment, desire, and isolation. In ‘This is life without you – You made me Feel like This’ (2018) the head of the nude figure has been entirely obliterated with angry blotches of dark paint, as though emotionally eradicated by loss. In ‘I became Your World’ (2015-17), a headless torso, legs splayed and washed over in a veil of red, appears to give a more neurotic take on Courbet’s ‘The Origin of the World’.
Among the paintings are a number of sculptures. Most are dated before her illness. Incised into rectangular white blocks are emotive sentences: ‘I whisper to my past do I have another choice’ and ‘There is nothing left but you’. On top of each block is a little figure – a baying stag, a swan, a reclining female torso – reminiscent of Giacometti’s tiny post-war sculptures that visually expressed Beckett’s existential angst that: ‘There is nothing to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with an obligation to express’; ‘doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road’.
Born in 1963, Emin first discovered Edvard Munch (born in 1863) when she was a teenager. The attraction is obvious. Here was an artist who dealt with melancholy, anguish, and sexual despair with whom she could identify. Never emotionally a part of the postmodernist YBA generation with its flip irony, Tracey has always been concerned with nineteenth-century, romantic notions of the self. She psychologically belongs to that period just after the Second World War, when painters – especially American male painters such as Cy Twombly and de Kooning – were using the physical properties of paint to search for meaning. In Munch she found a guru who, himself, derived sense and consolation from art in a secular world.
Having gone to the RA expecting the show to be driven by Munch, with Emin the junior partner, the opposite turns out to be true. The images chosen by her are among Munch’s weakest, images that may have mirrored or inspired her own artistic practice but mostly don’t show him at the height of his powers. The show is undoubtedly Tracey’s. No doubt that was always the intention.
Yet, despite her supposed feminist credentials, many of her works still tend to cast her as the lovelorn, abandoned heroine of nineteenth-century opera and literature. The victim of the vagaries of men. As I walked around I still found many of her titles annoying and emotionally directive: ‘I never Asked to Fall in Love – You made me feel like This’ (2018) and ‘It was all too much’ (2018). Reading these, it’s as if feminism never happened; as if Tracey is no more than the creation of her male lover rather than a middled-aged artist who has survived horrible illness, has continued to make powerful work, and who is, thankfully, still here.
Sue Hubbard is a freelance art critic, novelist and award-winning poet. Her latest novel Rainsongs is published by Duckworth and her fourth poetry collection is due from Salmon Press
The Loneliness of the Soul at The Royal Academy of Arts is showing until the 21 February 2021.
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