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Art review: Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul

12 February 2021

Susan Gray reviews the Emin/Munch exhibition at the Royal Academy

Courtesy Galleria Lorcan O’Neill © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020

Tracey Emin, I am The Last of my Kind (2019), acrylic on canvas, 182 × 120cm. More works in the gallery

Tracey Emin, I am The Last of my Kind (2019), acrylic on canvas, 182 × 120cm. More works in the gallery

BROKEN intentions have paved the road to the Royal Academy’s Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch exhibition, showing Emin’s recent works and her selection of paintings by Munch. Originally intended to be a larger exhibition, including the Turner Prize-winning My Bed, to open the newly relocated Munchmuseet, on Oslo harbour, last year, Covid forced the show to debut in wintry London. Now, while galleries are closed, it can be viewed online.

With this relocation and rescheduling came a further reframing, from Emin’s recent near-death experience of cancer, and the extreme surgery that her body had to endure for the disease’s treatment. So, being invited to witness this body intimately (Emin’s work is always self-referencing), as it is presented on all fours, or splay-legged, placing the viewer sometimes at the foot of the bed and sometimes at the head, cannot be anything but overwhelming

To complement 25 pieces of her own work from the past decade, Emin chose 19 canvases from Norway’s Munch collection, all paintings of women, except for the The Death of Marat (1907), which includes a dead man, possibly Munch himself portrayed as the murdered revolutionary. The artist’s former fiancée Tullla Larssen is the inspiration for the Charlotte Corday figure.

Brought up as a Lutheran by his mentally distressed father, Munch lost his mother and his beloved older sister Sophie to tuberculosis in childhood. Rejecting staid, Lutheran Christiana (now Oslo) for avant-garde Berlin and Paris, as soon as he was of age, returning to Oslo only at the outbreak of the First World War, Munch went on to have a series of tragic love affairs, never marrying. And yet his empathy with women’s experience, and open expression of emotion, an attribute traditionally associated with the feminine, is profound.

The arrangement of the three gallery rooms emphasises the strong affinities and echoes between Munch and Emin, born 100 years apart. Both are artists in the mature phases of their careers. Two huge acrylic on canvas works by Emin — I never Asked to Fall in Love — You made me Feel like This (2018) and It — didn’t stop — I didn’t stop (2019) are mirror images of each other, the first showing a figure as if propped up in bed, but almost entirely obliterated by shades of red, seeping up from the ground. In the work created a year later, the figure is on fours, knees far apart, a grey cloud obscuring her head and red rolling down from the top of the plane.

Emin has described her painting process as a form of communion, beginning each painting by throwing paint at the canvas, and letting the work tell her what she needs to do next. “I’m not painting a self, I’m painting a moment, that is explained to me within the painting.”

MunchmuseetEdvard Munch, Crouching Nude (1917-19), Oil on canvas, 70 × 90cm.

Opposite these huge, raw works, Emin has placed ten much smaller Munch watercolours, displaying a palette and sense of intimacy very similar to her own. She has said Munch’s use of vivid, modern colour, as opposed to turgid 19th- century hues, was one of the things that beguiled her as a teenager. Munch declared that, in common with Michelangelo, he was more interested in line, than in colour. Emin’s incredible use of line is also emphasised here: with the barest gestural outline, her work reveals so much, at times almost too much to bear,

For the show, Emin whittled down 400 potential Munches to the 19 that we see. One of the most haunting paintings is one of the earliest, Women in Hospital (1897), where a naked older woman, her head in profile, paces across the foreground, while behind her two half-dressed figures look, obliviously in the opposite direction. A fourth woman, the only one to face us, is seated, hunched in pain, with her head bowed, and her face is a grey oval with symbolic dark gashes for eyes and a dirty smear for a mouth.

Emin has also talked about the vulnerability of being in pain alone, and explores this in It was all too Much (2018), in which a reclining pink figure clutches the surface beneath her, and vivid slashes of red underscore where limbs brush against the world outside the body, and the same red weeps from orifices.

Strong colour highlighting sites or moments of contact is a feature of Munch’s Consolation (1907), in which two women are kneeling, and one, possibly a mother, comforts the other who is holding her face in her hands weeping. Where the weeping figure’s face meets her hands is painted in fiery orange, drawing the eye away from the bronze, mauve, and brown hatching of the foregrounded woman. Jasper Johns was influenced by Munch’s hatching and cross-hatching. The multiple points of contact in the composition, and the horizontal fiery flash, point at an innate human strength to give and receive comfort, and to recover.

In an interview before this exhibition opened, Emin reflected on having faced the prospect of death in her mid-fifties, and then being in remission: “So I feel like I’ve been forgiven, or I feel like a big giant curse has been lifted off me. I feel genuinely happy. I don’t think I’ve ever been happy in my life before. If it was a Faustian pact say, you had a choice: lose your bladder, lose this, lose that, and you can be happy, and you’ve never known what happiness is, what do you think you’d choose? I chose happiness, because that’s what I’ve got, and I’m really going to make the most of it.”

Private collection, California © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020Tracey Emin, Because You Kept Touching Me (2019), acrylic on canvas, 182.1 × 214.1 × 3.5 cm

Ten years after she won the Turner Prize for the visceral My Bed in 1998, Emin created a 20-feet-long pink neon work for Liverpool Cathedral proclaiming “I felt you and I knew you loved me.” And, while much of the Christian-themed work that she created in her early career has been destroyed or abandoned, the only relief in the show, of an armless, partially amptutated legged figure, is from 2014 and entitled Crucifixion.

Although both Emin and Munch choose to show humans in the most harrowing and, possibly, dehumanising of situations, it is in those circumstances that their worth, dignity, and shared humanity most shine through. As Emin observed for a 2006 exhibition at the Tate, “People think a lot of my work is about sex, but actually a lot of it is about faith.”


“Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul” at the Royal Academy of Arts (currently closed) can now be viewed in a virtual tour at www.royalacademy.org.uk

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