A few weeks ago, Tracey Emin dropped a bombshell, revealing that over the summer she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. By any standard her suffering, as she underwent brutal surgery, has been extreme, and nobody could fail to salute her honesty or courage.
“Courageous”, too, is how I’d characterise her paintings of agonised female nudes in her latest exhibition, “The Loneliness of the Soul”, which presents 26 recent works at the Royal Academy, alongside a selection of 18 oils and watercolours by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch.
Of course, we shouldn’t view Emin’s paintings, which predate her diagnosis, through the prism of her illness. But my goodness, with their crimson rivulets and dark, ominous clots, it’s hard not to. Munch is known as an “Expressionist” because, as an artist, he pioneered emotional intensity. Here, though, Emin out-hollers the creator of “The Scream”. Her no-holds-barred canvases about (at least to these male eyes) the experience of living in a woman’s body, are the pictorial equivalent of an anguished howl reverberating across a wasteland. In comparison, Munch’s pictures seem somewhat buttoned-up.
Exhibitions pairing artists from different historical periods are tricky to pull off, but this one works, because it is a love letter that Emin has been wanting to write for decades. Even before art school, during her traumatic, turbulent early years knocking around the run-down seaside resort of Margate, she considered Munch a lodestar. Besides, as couples go, Munch and Emin, though born exactly a hundred years apart, are not that odd: both childless, unlucky in love, known for confessional art.