The end of the second lockdown started with the most anticipated exhibition of the season, “Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch” at the Royal Academy of Arts to explore poignant new works by Emin alongside her selected paintings by Munch.
Review by Zoltan Alexander
LONELINESS OF THE SOUL
Tracey Emin & Edvard Munch / © video by Zoltan Alexander ZOLTAN+MEDIA
There are some exhibitions that talk for themselves and a few words would be perfectly enough to describe them. In Tracey Emin’s case, it is even shorter: 9 words.
The exhibition is a true love story. Simply Stunning.
… and I might as well wrap my article here.
For those who would like to know more ...
Despite that for most of 2020, the Royal Academy of Arts kept their doors closed, they presented two stunning shows this year, the traditional “Summer Exhibition” running into winter, closing on 3 January 2021, and “Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch, The Loneliness of the Soul”, until 28 February 2021. The latter is due to go next year to the MUNCH Museum in Oslo.
Let’s start with a simple fact: Emin never met Munch in person.
The dead can be as vocal and as present as the living. When Emin was asked whose idea it was to pair the artists, she looked astonished by the question: “It was Munch’s, of course.”
We need to understand Emin’s reaction first. She was not joking. It is a true, lifelong affinity with Munch’s work, a true love story and profound dedication.
Tracey Emin, CBE, RA is a Royal Academician. Beside Damien Hirst, she is one of the core figures of the Young British Artists Group of the 90s. The others have gradually faded away.
Back to Margate for D-tour deviation.
Emin is 15.
She had never heard of Munch but she is crazy about Bowie.
She finds the cover of Heroes and Lodger inspired by Egon Schiele.
Emin had never heard of Schiele either.
She goes to a bookshop and picks up a book on Expressionism with Schiele, Kokoschka, Munch, and immediately taken by the work of Edvard Munch, especially from the 1920s and 30s. Emin develops a lifelong relationship with his work.
“That’s my art, that’s my world.”
Emin started making her version of Munch, channelling her sensitivity into her deeply personal exploration of her place in the universe and more precisely in the contemporary art world.
“Munch was not a mad woolly Norwegian running over the fields screaming. He was forward-thinking, compassionate, respectful of his female models, supportive of Jewish refugees during the Second World War and definitely humanitarian. Munch treated people equally, which was radical thinking back then.” Tracey Emin
I would say, it’s radical even now.
1998 was a significant year in Emin’s life, she just had a miscarriage and was in emotional turmoil. It was also the year when she went to Munch’s country home in Åsgårdstrand, near Oslo. One morning she walked to the nearby pond, laid down, curled up, and made a short video of herself. She titled it “Homage to Edvard Munch and All my Dead Children.” She realised for the first time, that she was expressing her broken heart, her loss and sadness in a deep therapeutical way.
She also paid an homage to Munch’s best-known work, “The Scream”. She has always believed that Munch’s intention was less to portray someone screaming than to make visible a torment that emanates from the landscape itself.
Apparently, one evening Munch was walking through a field with friends in the countryside when he heard a sharp vibration in his ears and an endless scream through nature as if attempting to purge himself of the memory. Through the years he kept returning to his subject in two paintings and numerous prints. As an image of terrible instability and extreme anxiety, in many ways, it embodies the turmoil of the 20th century.
Returning to 2020, to the Royal Academy, Emin’s show explores poignant new works alongside her carefully selected paintings of the Early Modernist Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. This passion was shared with her former boyfriend, Billy Childish who has remained one of Munch’s most loyal contemporary disciples.
During the selection process for the Royal Academy show, Emin looked at more than 800 works. The show, which was conceived in an expanded form by MUNCH in Oslo, consists 26 works by Emin including neons, small-scale sculptures and large-scale paintings predominantly in red surrounded with a large portion of whites and monochromes, almost thought of as large, spontaneous drawings.
Emin was primarily drawn to Munch because he wasn’t afraid to express his emotions, unusual for a 19th-century man, which was supposedly feminine value like vulnerability or sensitivity.
When Munch was 5 years old, his mother died of tuberculosis; at age 14, he lost his sister Sophie who died of the same illness. He often returned to the pain of his youth. His love life was also a disaster and he never married. His depiction of human mortality is less a portrait of individuals than a howl of protest at the loneliness and grief every human must encounter.
When Emin begins to paint, she throws paint at a canvas to see what happens or perhaps to see what she wants to happen. This eucharist with art recalls Munch’s habit of leaving his painting outdoors to expose them to the forces of nature. There is a theory that Munch has left “The Scream” outside and birds flying by literally added another layer to his masterpiece. "Bird shit can pose a significant threat to outdoor statues, monuments" Van der Snickt, cultural heritage scientist at the University of Antwerp. "But I never have associated it with paintings, and certainly not with quintessential masterpieces that are valued over 100 million dollars."
With all respect and deep admiration for the artist, Emin believes that Munch’s work could not have been timed better in the middle of our global crisis for re-evaluation. “People are so desperate now for true conviction, feelings and emotions and what is real. People want to see things that are touched by other human beings.” Tracey Emin
The show, subtitled "The Loneliness of the Soul" focuses on grief, loss and wanted to pinpoint what loneliness is about. Emin's subject puts the emphases on female nudes, identifying herself what her brush dictates. Art, for both Emin and Munch, is something painfully true, alive, a language that is in a constant state of flux, one that communicates as much to the artist as the artist communicates through it. Over twenty works by Munch that she chose to portray naked women, real women of all ages, sleeping, lounging, gazing into space. While his models were actual women with real bodies, age and wrinkles, they evoke a collective sense of sorrow.
Only one man made it to the picture but he is not even alive. “The Death of Marat” of Munch, reference to the assassination of the French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat, snaps back to Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting of the same title. When he painted it he was suffering the betrayal of his former fiancée Tulla Larsen. This is Munch’s revenge picture.
A radical man destroyed by a traitorous woman.
In a neon work from 2014, two words proclaim: “More Solitude” and in another room “My Cunt is Wet with Fear” … but Emin quickly adds “I’m not painting a self, I’m painting a moment, which is explained to me within the painting.”
Analysing the work any further of the two internationally renowned artists born 100 years apart would not make any sense. One should look at the exhibition as a whole, the shapes of female bodies, the colours, the subjects that all blend in perfectly. Though separated by time and history, explore the same emotional landscape in their works with remarkable intensity. Not once I have seen such perfection. Is it maybe her struggle with current health issues – Emin has recently been dealing with cancer - or the threat of death, which gives an exceptional power to the show?
Photo-montage by Zoltan Alexander
“I Never Asked to Fall in Love - You made me Fell like This” and “My Cunt is wet with Fear” neon installation by Tracey Emin
/ Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+MEDIA
TRACEY EMIN / EDVARD MUNCH
“The Loneliness of the Soul”
Royal Academy of Arts / Burlington House, Piccadilly, W1J 0BD London, UK
7 December 2020 – 28 February 2021
Tickets: £17 / time-slot with strict safety rules by reservation only