Tracey Emin and Edvard Munch
A Dialogue Between Two Artists Across a Century
by Deanna Sirlin
Gallery view of Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020. Photo: © David Parry
Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul at Royal Academy of Art is a dialogue between works of two artists who were born 100 years apart (1863 and 1963) yet whose content binds them together. Emin curated the show, choosing twenty-five of her works and nineteen of Munch’s. This exhibition is the culmination of a decades-long dialogue Emin has had with Munch’s work. Emin/Munch was to have opened the new Munch Museum in Olso but because of construction delays, it premiered at the Royal Academy. Initially, the exhibition closed due to Covid, but it has now reopened and will be on view at the RA until August 1, 2021. It will open at the Munch Museum in 2022.
Munch has been Emin’s artistic hero since she discovered his work when she was 15 years old. She was captivated by the covers of David Bowie’s albums Heroes and Lodger, images inspired by the drawings of Egon Schiele. Wanting to learn about Schiele, Emin found in Margate (her hometown) a book about the Expressionists that included Munch. This encounter with his work in reproduction was the beginning of a passion for Munch. While Emin was an art student she made wood block prints inspired by Munch’s palette. Munch’s expression of pain, darkness, and sexuality in his work allowed Emin to connect with her own hurt and emotional distress.
Tracey Emin in front of This is life without you - You made me Feel Like This, 2018, on display at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, Loan courtesy of Collection Majudia © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020. Photo: © David ParryExhibition organised by MUNCH, Oslo, Norway, in partnership with the Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK
In 1998, Emin traveled to Munch’s country home in Åsgårdstrand to make a TV show about art. Munch’s home overlooked the Oslo fjord and, one morning at dawn, Emin walked to the end of the dock and curled up into a fetal position. There she let out a primal scream, but not before setting up her video camera to record the event/performance. She titled the work, Homage to Edvard Munch and All My Dead Children (1998), a video 2:10 in duration that loops continuously. Realizing that she had not really allowed herself to scream as an adult, Emin both paid homage to Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream, and acknowledged and released the pain of her recent miscarriage.
Tracey Emin, Homage to Edvard Munch and All My Dead Children, 1998
Single screen projection and sound, Duration: 1 minute, © Tracey Emin.All rights reserved
Although Munch and Emin lived very different lives at very different times, both suffered physical pain and the sense of isolation and loss attendant on serious illness and recorded their emotional states directly in paint. At the age of five, Munch lost his mother to tuberculosis and then his favorite sister two years later. In 1908, when Munch was 45 his anxiety, exacerbated by his drinking, had become crippling. Experiencing hallucinations and feelings of persecution, he checked himself into an institution. In 1918, Munch contracted the Spanish flu during which he painted “Self Portrait After the Spanish Flu” portraying himself while ill. Emin is a sexual violence survivor and is currently battling cancer of the bladder.
Edvard Munch, Seated Female Nude, 1923–1933. Watercolour, 34.9 x 26 cm. Munchmuseet
Tracey Emin, I am The Last of my Kind, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 182 x 120 cm.
Courtesy: Galleria Lorcan O'Neill © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020
Both artists produced work that grapples with illness and isolation. In Munch’s Seated Female Nude,1923–33, a single female figure sits on a bed; she looks down in sadness, her gaze is inward. The palette is soft yet multihued, the figure created with fluid marks that go from cool to warm with a red stroke that eventuates in her body, a body and face that exudes unhappiness. In Emin’s I am The Last of my Kind, 2019, a work on canvas, the female is an inky outline, the figure carved into the array of pale washes flanked by a dark passage above and a warm red at bottom. The figure is abject and alone, a woman who has crawled into her bed in despair rather than fatigue.
Edvard Munch, The Death of Marat, 1907. Oil on canvas, 153 x 149 cm. Munchmuseet, Oslo, Norway
Seeing these works virtually does not allow them the resonance that they deserve. The gallery walls have been painted a dark and quiet blue creating a space for contemplation. This is a show focused on sorrow and pain articulated through images of the female body as the vessel for emotion. Emin chose works of Munch’s that portray a single figure, except for his Death of Marat of 1907. In this work Munch paints himself as Marat, lying on a bed, his hand bloodied. Munch was haunted by a fight he had with his fiancée where a revolver went off and injured his left hand. The woman in the painting is standing in a vertical frontal stance with her arms at her side, her gaze straight ahead. The brushstrokes are forcefully horizontal and vertical; the energy of the painting oozes with the charged electricity of confrontation, shock and sadness.
Edvard Munch, Crouching Nude, 1917-1919. Oil on canvas, 70 x 90 cm. Munchmuseet
Munch’s Crouching Nude (1917-19) is in oil on canvas, the naked female figure in an almost fetal pose rather than that of an odalisque. The work is on view alongside Emin’s You Kept it Coming (2019), acrylic on canvas. Her reclining figure, drawn with paint on a washy ground, has the feeling of a Twombly abstraction on which she drew liquid lines to create the female form. There is something significant about Emin’s drawing and the way she finds the form of a figure alone and in pain. As sexual in content as these works by both artists are, there is a sense of their being alone with their longing, with their illness, with their grief. This is what ties these artists together.
Tracey Emin, You Kept it Coming, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 152.3 x 152.3 x 3.5 cm. The artist & Xavier Hufkens, Brussels
©Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020
Many wonder about the validity of Emin’s serving as curator of this exhibition and whether her work holds up against that of the great 20th century master. Regardless, there is a poignancy in this pairing, at least for Emin, as she places herself in a dialogue with an artist whom she has connected to all her artistic life in terms of both form and content. It is refreshing to see an artist acknowledge her place in the art historical canon. Her connection to Munch is not just in their shared content of sex and pain but also in the way the loneliness of their figures is conveyed through their isolation in the compositions.
Emin is disliked by many artists and writers. After the Turner prize announcement in 1999, she appeared on television drunk in a formal roundtable discussion. The Guardian called it “her most significant, certainly her most entertaining, contribution to British art.” Ouch. At the opening of her exhibition as Britain’s artist for the 2007 Venice Biennale, critic Andrew Graham-Dixon said Tracey Emin is being a proper grown up, and not sure he prefers it that way. He goes on to say “her work is like many other artists and she does not mind displaying her influences.” So pleasantly damning! Michael Glover, in his review of The Loneliness of the Soul for Hyperallergic exclaims “Oh woe!” when referring to the title of the exhibition. Glover goes on to write, “At times she is the child who incessantly demands attention, craving our sympathy and collusion in how she represents herself. Sometimes she does this well — the best of her work at the Venice Biennale in 2007 was a triumph of fractured self-portraiture — and sometimes she falls flat into mawkishness or banality. Her text works have often struck me as wincingly awful.”
Tracey Emin, Every part of me Kept Loving You, 2018. Acrylic on canvas, 205.7 x 279.5 cm. Private collection, UK © Tracey Emin
All rights reserved, DACS 2020.
It is curious that Emin has generated such critical wrath (reviews like this are not just from Glover). One might think that a woman whose work is so sexual and so pointedly about being female would enjoy more sensitive readings in this era of “me too” exposition, forthrightness, and bravery. Yet Emin, whose art is candidly about sex, the body, its fluids, pain of exploitation, and the physicality of the body is met with disdain. Emin is part of the Third Wave of Feminism and her work should be contextualized as such. She embraces her sexuality, yet at the same time acknowledges how she has been a victim.
Why are some artists allowed the leeway to deal with their bodies and sexuality while others are vilified for doing so? Male artists have the usual advantage. Vito Acconci’s work, Seedbed (1972) included his month spent under a platform in a gallery masturbating and calling out to his audience. The Metropolitan Museum owns photographic stills, and the Museum of Modern Art has collected a video documenting the performance. As for being drunk and disorderly in public, there are too many male artists to list; it would take up the rest of this text.
Tracey Emin, Why I Never Became a Dancer, 1995, 6 minute, 32 second super 8 film
An earlier generation of women artists who made work about their bodies and sexuality, such as Louise Bourgeois, Hannah Wilke, Marina Abramović, Paula Rego and Anita Mendieta are all revered. As is true for many of these artists, Emin’s pain is the content of her work. It is important to acknowledge her biography. Emin’s video work from 1995, Why I Never Became a Dancer, is a 6 minute, 32 second super 8 film which takes the viewer to back her hometown of Margate. The film is narrated in a voice-over by Emin about her damaged past, how she was sexually used by men in their 20’s when she was thirteen years old. These men violated her and left her in an alley, on the beach or on the street. She has said, it’s "what happened to a lot of girls." In the voice over Emin recalls that when she entered the dancing competition she heard the local boys shouting at her “slag slag slag”. The video ends with the artist dancing in an empty room to You Make Me Feel by Sylvester accompanied with her voiceover. Emin’s life is pivotal to understanding her work, how the sexual abuse she suffered as an adolescent reverberates through her texts and image.
Installation view of Tracey Emin, My Bed, at the Turner Prize Exhibition, Tate Gallery, London, 1999-2000.
Photo © Stephen White. © 2018 Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS, London / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of White Cube
Many only remember Emin for My Bed (1998), her unmade bed exhibited in a gallery complete with soiled undergarments and used condoms, or Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (1995), also known as The Tent, which was a tent appliquéd with the 102 names of the people with whom she had slept as of 1995. Slept with—not necessarily had sex with--as she includes her grandmother in the list. One ought to look at the paintings, drawings and sculptures she has made since 1999 to reveal the breadth of her work.
There is a stark contrast between the critical reception accorded Emin’s bed (which many found repulsive, resulting in articles with titles like “Dirty Sheets and All”) and the reception accorded the billboard work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres – Untitled, 1991, which is an image of an empty bed that the artist made as a work of art about the loss of Ross Laycock, his lover of 8 years, to AIDS. Gonzalez-Torres’s work is viewed as a work of great beauty and loss (which it is) while Emin’s is considered rude and off-putting.
Perhaps the critical aversion to Emin’s work derives not just from her aggressive assertion of her gender and brand of feminism, but also from her class status. No one complained when the painter Alice Neel used the most colorful of language because she did so in an accent belonging to the upper crust of Philadelphia society. I suspect Emin is loathed because she is unabashedly working class and extremely successful financially, with celebrity collectors such as Elton John, Madonna, and Ronnie Wood. David Bowie once described Emin as “William Blake as a woman written by Mike Leigh,” the British playwright and filmmaker whose work presents unvarnished depictions of working class life.
It is time to address Emin’s work with empathy for a woman artist alone with herself. It is time to question why she is unloved, and the double standard of class and sex in the art world. It is important to know and understand where you come from--what is the place of an artist’s work in the bigger picture of “art history.” Tracey Emin has been revealing this all along if anyone had taken the time to notice instead of the outrage about the physical intimacy of her work.
Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK
May 18 to August 1, 2021
Munch Museum in Olso, Norway
October 22 to January 2, 2022
Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia.