There’s a bench in Berkeley Square in Mayfair with a funny plaque: On this bench in 2007, it states, the notorious artist Tracey Emin surrendered all her art rebel credibility when she decided to become a member of the Royal Academy of Arts. Times have changed: she’s not just a member these days. Instead, this self-described “notorious rebel” has aged into full blown grande dame status, and is getting a new RA exhibition, a few streets away from the square.
Emin (it’s hard not to call her Tracey in my head, even though she’s a multi millionaire who I’m never likely to meet) hasn’t been well at all recently. It’s hard not to think of her medical distress when walking around this exhibition, a joint show with Edvard Munch, who of course is responsible for one of the world’s most iconic representations of distress.
You Kept it Coming (2019)
There’s a direct line of inspiration from the Norwegian expressionist’s sexy damsels in distress to the hunched, crawling, dripping female figures Emin loves to paint. But the same subject is viewed from different perspectives. Munch’s famous The Death of Marat, from 1907 and on loan from the Munchmuseet in Oslo, shows a red-haired female assassin as nude, all powerful, statuesque, staring straight out at us. Emin’s It - didn’t stop - I didn’t stop and You Kept it Coming are pictures of agonising female distress, her crawling figures weighed down and enclosed by banks of black and red, smeared over the top of the canvas like blood stains.
Seated Female Nude (1923-1933)
Munch’s Seated Female Nude is in a similar posture, and is similarly trapped, but there’s a nervy allure in the male painter’s radioactive-green outlining of her biceps and butt. On the evidence of this show alone, it’s hard to see what Tracey sees in him.
A loneliness, maybe. The title of the show’s no mistake, and a neon work from 2014, spelling out its title, More Solitude, sums up the mood. We’re all alone in our struggles, both artists tell us. But there’s a complicity with these two loners. Even if Tracey has surrendered her credibility, she’s still got the power to unsettle, and console, with her work.
Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul is at the Royal Academy (London). 18 May - 01 August 2021