In 1998, the year before her unmade, ready-made, condom-strewn bed became the most famous work not to win the Turner Prize, Tracey Emin travelled to Asgardstrand in the Oslofjord, curled up in a foetal position on the pier facing Edvard Munch’s house and against lapping water let out a prolonged, agonised shriek.
“Homage to Edvard Munch and all My Dead Children” is a two-minute film which reverberates across White Cube in London, the climax to a show of largely new work, Tracey Emin: Living Under the Hunters Moon. That howl, as if Emin activates Munch’s “The Scream”, is the shrill, incessant accompaniment to the exhibition’s online version. Trying to examine the paintings close-up before the opening, I eventually shut down my computer to shut Emin up.
Emin’s art lives, of course, by not shutting up. “My Cunt is Wet with Fear” (1998), a blocky neon in cold white light, leads you into the Royal Academy’s new exhibition Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul. A self-portrait, “I Am The Last of my Kind”, a sketchy pink nude, standing life-size, head downcast, arms limp, is encased in webs of confessional text, from “the little girl who had to grow up too fast” — Emin was raped at 13, had her first abortion at 18 — to “I am getting old now but not as old as my broken fucked up vagina that’s so connected to my soul . . . I am trapped till I die”.
Painted in 2019, this tells of the physical body imprisoned by the terror of thought — something most of us sometimes feel. It is also horribly prophetic: in July Emin had an operation for bladder cancer, lost her uterus, ovaries, part of her vagina and colon, and was unsure if she would survive until Christmas. As the exhibition opens, she is weak but slowly recovering.
Lauded as siren of female desire and abjection, Emin is, too, queen of dread — her pairing herself with Munch makes sense. Born exactly a century after Munch — in 1963 — Emin has always considered his expressive, autobiographical art (“he had a really crappy love life”) a talisman. His “Weeping Woman” (1907), like “I Am The Last of my Kind”, features a despondent standing nude, encased by patterned wallpaper as Emin’s is by text. Emin’s “The stain of you”, “Open Heart”, “I came here For you”, implying splattered blood on vulnerable figures, link to Munch’s “Model by the Wicker Chair” (1919-21), a disheveled nude gazing at a red blot on her armchair’s fabric — part of its multicoloured design, but implying a smear of her blood.
In a disappointing selection of generally weaker work — the RA show is entirely Emin-driven, and woefully misleading as an introduction to Munch — Munch’s women chosen by Emin tend to look ill: the putrid “Women in Hospital” (1897), the blotchy “Crouching Nude” (1917-19). They are sympathetic, although in the exhibition’s only iconic piece, “The Death of Marat” (1907), his response to women is closer to fear: Munch is the supine, vanquished figure on the bed crossed by the upright form of his nude lover, fierce, erect. Munch’s empowerment as victim through paint is actually his deepest artistic connection with Emin.
The RA show is not about Emin’s illness; it comprises mostly her paintings from 2016 to 2019, the subject of which is the body as life force, paint articulating blood, sweat, tears, sperm.
Spurts of dense white acrylic deluge the thinly delineated nude in “I wanted you to come over me”. In Emin’s delicate spindly lines, painterly touch evokes human touch in “Because You Kept Touching Me”. Its absence is felt in the unanchored white nude in “You were here like the ground underneath my feet”. Outlines of the body vanish, wasted by loss, but the head, simplified into a bold oval, over-painted red, resembles an open mouth, another scream, in “Every part of me Kept Loving You”. The obliteration of self in sex is there too in hazes of paint, dreamy white, violent red, shadowy black, swamping crouching nudes, lines fluid, rushing: “You Kept it Coming”, “It — didn’t stop — I didn’t stop”.
As the majority of their titles suggest — “This is life without you — you made me Feel like this”, “Don’t go”, “Because you left” — there is something pleading, hectoring, ingratiating about these repetitive, interchangeable, semifigurative, semi-abstract compositions, pathos aggrandised by the (female) appropriation of macho abstract expressionism. They share the monotony of depression.
At White Cube there is some variation. In “Absolute Fucking Desperation” (2020), a reclining figure sinks beneath black/grey gestural strokes, dark staccato marks stabbing the half-visible form, the canvas running with red/grey stains and drips. In its candy-coloured pendant “This Was The Beginning” (2020), crimson contours of the body emerge, disappear or battle to keep hold among agitated, wispy lines and pentimenti hesitations.
Emin draws on legacies of postwar emotive abstraction — Twombly, de Kooning — but her paintings are her own: ghostly figures; trembling threadlike lines balanced by gutsy slashes; loud yet limited palette in hues of blood, flesh, death; and, amid spontaneous expression, a constructed patterning, a careful build up of space and depth. Although Emin’s paintings evoke messy life, they are never a mess.
I feel conflicted before these works. Even while analysing with a critic’s eye, wanting to like the paintings more than I do, I am really thinking: these were made by a middle-aged woman in the year she looked death in the face. The refusal to shut up is magnificent. Yet I have always felt, now guiltily, unmoved by the paintings. Then I recall the affection Emin has aroused when, arriving at St Pancras train station, I have been greeted by her 20-metre neon scrawl “I want my time with you” — perfectly pitched to emotions about staying and leaving, undercurrents of journeys through life and love, time, fate.
Her neons are, literally, Emin’s handwriting: “More Solitude” (2014), “I Can Feel Your Smile” (2005) — direct, assertive. She is a narrative artist, and if her paintings are less interesting, persuasive or original than Munch’s or those of many British contemporaries — Cecily Brown, Callum Innes — the point is that they belong to the wider storytelling of her life as performance, whether “real” or playing a sort of authentic inauthenticity.
“I realised that I was much better than anything I had ever made”, Emin once said. “I realised I was the work, I was the essence of my work.” That is why these shows matter: Emin gives expression to ranges of experience — initially that of working-class female exclusion, taboos of rape, abortion, now extending to include the menopause, life as a single middle-aged woman — until recently banished from art. She is a unique, influential, vital voice.
‘Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul’, Royal Academy London to February 28, then at MUNCH, Oslo, summer 2021, royalacademy.org.uk
‘Tracey Emin: Living Under the Hunters Moon’, White Cube London to January 30, whitecube.com
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