The Melancholy Marriage of Tracey Emin and Edvard Munch

LONDON — Edvard Munch and Tracey Emin — what a gloom-struck pair! We see them together, in two photographs hung side by side on the wall, as we enter the exhibition at the Royal Academy. 

They look uncannily of a pair, help-mates perhaps, fellow sufferers certainly, almost drowning in their dark, almost sepia withdrawnness from the world. He is long dead. She has been gravely ill recently. And yet, such has been the deft manipulation of these images, that they could almost, we feel, have been alive together in the nowness of our present. As spirit-cousins perhaps. Or lovers?

The title of the exhibition is The Loneliness of the Soul. Oh woe!

Emin’s art is, and always has been, one of lacerating self-exposure. She mines her own misery and misfortunes. Abortion; abuse; failed relationships; a failing body. All grist to the mill. She puts herself out to be seen: pitied, perhaps, or perhaps as a figure of empathy who takes on all our sins. She abandons herself to the onlooker. 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. 

Gallery view of Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul, from 7 December 2020 until 28 February 2021, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (© Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020. Photo: © David Parry. Exhibition organized by MUNCH, Oslo, Norway, in partnership with the Royal Academy of Arts)

The initial work to confront us as we enter the first of three dimly lit, barrel-vaulted galleries (a touch religiose in their mood perhaps) — and it is a confrontation because Emin’s large painting blocks the path ahead rather as a beefy bouncer outside a nightclub might, and demands that we veer right or left to pass it — exposes her, spread-legged, all privacy no longer private. The work was made in 2007 and Elton John owns it. The strokes of paint are thready and fragmentary. They peter out before they are quite complete. Its title is “Ruined.”

Swivel your head to the right, and you will catch sight of a dark wall on which one of Emin’s neon signs declares in pink letters: “My Cunt Is Wet with Fear” (1998). Precisely, and our fears have only grown worse over the succeeding decades. 

Do Emin and Munch really have much in common other than a burning desire to embrace, and be defined by, the miseries of life? What does this exhibition tell us? The first thing is this: Munch’s main subject here is mostly women, whereas Emin is mostly painting herself. 

Tracey Emin, It – didnt stop – I didnt stop, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 152 x 183.5 x 3.7 cm.  Xavier Hufkens © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020

Munch was not so much in the business of identifying with the loneliness of women as in emphasizing the solitariness of humanity in general — and especially the solitariness of Edvard Munch. He is a cold painter; none have ever warmed their hands at a Munch. His drifty, drizzle-haired, somnambulistic women can be creepily ethereal. They are certainly not vulnerable. They do not plead for sympathy. They are too removed from us for that. 

Not so Emin. Emin is in our faces, shouting into our ears. Even though she may paint thinly, she is not ethereal. She is visceral. The trials she has endured are all too real to resort to the vagaries of Munch’s Symbolism.

Another thing to be said is that there are surprisingly few major paintings by Munch in this show. (Not so Emin. Emin is everywhere.) Was there a problem with loans? Has the new Munch museum in Oslo — to be opened this coming spring — kept most of its dearly beloved Munchs close to its chest? 

Though Munch’s scaled-up work is sparsely represented, a large cluster of smallish paintings of female nudes is on display in the first gallery. These small nudes provide a model for Emin’s self-representations, the way they lay, as if on a slab, curled into a fetal position. 

Gallery view of Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul, from 7 December 2020 until 28 February 2021, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (© Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020. Photo: © David Parry. Exhibition organized by MUNCH, Oslo, Norway, in partnership with the Royal Academy of Arts)

Emin heightens the drama of self-exposure with her use of red, red, red. As with Munch in “Weeping Woman” (1907-9), smearings of red obliterate the features of a face entirely. Many of these paintings feel blood-suffused, blood-borne. It is the red of sacrifice, the red of the victim, the red of emotional evisceration. 

The red pigment streams and welters to such an extent that it brings to mind a line by the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe: See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament! Emin’s painted strokes, scribbled, slashed, or left to drip, look feverishly provisional, as if no procedure involving hand and eye could capture quickly enough what she is trying to bring to birth. Her drizzling of paint is reminiscent of Munch’s open-mesh brushstrokes, his bodies made of lines and smears and stains. 

Her titles spirit us through a rapid succession of fragmentary autobiographical moments: “You were here like the ground underneath my feet” (2016); “It – didnt stop – I didnt stop” (2019); “You kept it coming” (2019).

Edvard Munch, “Crouching Nude” (1917-1919), oil on canvas, 70 x 90 cm, Munchmuseet

Munch’s women, by comparison, appear trapped in slow time. Look at the solemn woman in profile who seems to be slow-treading the very air in “Woman in Hospital” (1897).

The most significant Munch here is a masterpiece, and it is given the prominence and the dramatic sightline that it fully deserves. This is “The Death of Marat” (1907). Marat is dead on the bed. Charlotte Corday stands in front of him, facing us, the naked assassin, hair frizzed and electrified, body rigid, a-shimmer. Such strange potency!

In some of Emin’s larger recent works, much of the canvas remains unpainted; she seems to have chosen to lose sight of herself, to be slipping away, to be almost unpaintable, unfathomable. The best of her work has always been a thing composed of fragmentary strokes. But some of her larger paintings in this show seem to be strangely empty of content. Although the size is bold enough, full of promise, the painted lines are very few. These are images moving toward a fuller realization of themselves, but that have, somehow, failed or stopped, leaving an inner emptiness. Such is the incompleteness of the soul, the nature of solitude.

Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, England) through February 28, and then tours to the Munch Museum, Oslo, in the summer of 2022.

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