Updated: Sep 21, 2021
Some initial thoughts on Tracey Emin and Edvard Munch’s exhibition at The Royal Academy of Art
by Rue Richardson
Loneliness is a feeling particularly relevant in the wake of lockdown. A sudden surge in dead time and isolation catalysed wave of introspection and consequentially, a widespread rise in a keen sense of loneliness. With more free time and less distractions loneliness was something that was amplified in those who already struggled with the feeling and crept into the lives of many who previously felt well connected and supported. Into the aftermath of the height of the pandemic, just as London begins to open back up, comes the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Tracey Emin and Edvard Munch’s work in ‘The Loneliness of the Soul’. Their work is created roughly a century apart but captures loneliness in a way that revitalizes what can often be an insipid, meaningless word through its overuse. Loneliness to me instinctively invokes a soft feeling, like a dull aching kind of pain, but Emin and Munch’s work reframes this feeling as something sharp and all consuming and intensely devastating.
The two artists share and obsessive compulsion to work though the perilous territory of interior and psychic life, with this exhibition facilitating a climactic duet between the works of two epitomes of the tortured artist. The paintings also have a feeling of movement and energy, and a subversive quality, all of which feels incongruous to the reverential quietness and clean cavernous rooms of the Royal Academy. Both Emin and Munch have a quality of rawness and painful vitality, which instinctively should jar with their sullen subjects of grief, death, depression, and heartbreak but instead draws out the intensity of those emotions and experiences. The free, erratic brushstrokes and intensely bright colour pallets physically manifests the inner life of the artists. Munch’s The Death of Marat initially outraged viewers in 1907 with its crude crosshatched aesthetic. The violence of the subject matter is captured through the sense of fervor and physicality in the method Munch uses and this serves as the perfect precursor to Emin’s visceral, tangibly physical process of creating her art. Looking closely at any of their paintings you can see a palimpsest of emotional tumult manifested onto the canvas. Through the layers of multi-media watercolor washes and crosshatches of oil paint you can follow the artists’ trains of thought etching over the subjects and imagine how their impulses pushed them during their creative processes.
The berating, recurrent motifs of the collections are that of blood, tears and the female form, all of which are quintessential elements of femininity. From taking in what was selected for the exhibition I thought that Munch portrayed femininity with a sense of realism, intimacy and sympathy for his subject. ‘Consolation’ is a piece which encompasses these ideas and illustrates them through all the key motifs of the female form, tears and blood. The usual innate sexuality and objectification imposed upon the female nude is removed by both Emin and Munch throughout the collection of their works. And in ‘Consolation’ in particular, although illustrating two female nudes, the scene captured is deeply intimate and emotional, but refreshingly, entirely desexualized. This individuality in Munch’s perspective could be described as expressing qualities associated with the ‘female gaze’, which focuses on the minutiae of intimacy and physical expressions of emotional connection.
Even when in Munch’s ‘The Death of Marat’ he overtly depicts the female nude, centralizing the viewer’s focus on her body, he resists sexualizing her through the way the figure stares back unflinchingly, defiantly back at the observer. It almost seems as though Munch has anticipated the potential in the nudity and femininity to be sexualized and preempts this by giving the woman a powerful presence of confidence, self assuredly staring back at the viewer, as if daring them to not meet her gaze. Furthermore, the figure’s long red hair, pale skin, and the way she seems to be rising and abstracting out of the swirling floor invokes depictions of the Goddess Venus in classical sculpture or in particular, Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’. The reference to this work, invoking the status of both the artist and the character of the goddess, has a deifying effect on the woman, giving her a quality of radiance and power.
In a somewhat different way to Munch, Emin’s work violently resists being sexualized under the male gaze through the abstraction of the female from, the incompleteness of the figures, and the conflicting senses of violence against the archetypical softness of female sexuality. She invokes these devices and motifs throughout her work and here, its clear that in the nascence of this collection was Munch’s sympathy for, and unexploitative interest in, the meeting of female mental illness and sexuality. It’s understandable why Munch was so formative in Emin’s artistic growth as his frank, and understanding approach to women in painting cultivated an environment in which Emin could push what Munch began into what has now become her signature furious, explosive, fitful, but also highly sensual, vulnerable, and intimate depiction of the relationship between sexuality and mental illness in women.
When confined in a room together Munch’s work becomes a premonition of Emin’s, and her adoration of him and his art is evident throughout her own disquieting female bodies existing in a disturbing intersection eroticism and indulgence, and vulnerability and illness. The medium of watercolour they both often use imbues the natural forms they paint with vitality; innate to the medium is a beautiful sense of fluidity and volatility which emulates the nature of their focal motifs- flesh, femininity, weeping and bleeding.
While walking through the exhibition the popular Cesar A. Cruz saying ‘Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’ kept coming to mind. ‘The loneliness of the soul’ is a masterful expression of this; Emin joins her muse Munch in becoming an artist who creates open environments that bring a shocking but sympathetic exploration of mental illness into the centre of the public discourse, at a time when it’s indisputably needed.