Review

Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul, RA, review: a graceful love letter from Emin to her hero

4/5

The British artist, recently diagnosed with cancer, finds an emotional kinship with the great Norwegian expressionist

 Edvard Munch's Crouching Nude, 1917-1919
 Edvard Munch's Crouching Nude, 1917-1919 Credit: @ Munchmuseet

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. 

Edvard Munch, The Death of Marat, 1907 Credit: The Munch Museum

So, when Oslo’s Munch Museum invited her to exhibit with her “friend in art”, she leapt at this “magical chance of a lifetime”, as she gushes in the catalogue. Rummaging in Munch’s archive, she alighted on the theme of loneliness. Really, though, the show compares approaches to sexuality and the female nude. Munch was, Emin suggests, “brilliant” at breasts, but not so hot when it came to depicting vaginas. 

The latter is where she comes in. The first work we encounter is “Ruined” (2007), Emin’s take on “L’Origine du monde” (1766) by Courbet, reclaiming female genitalia from the male gaze. Indeed, on the evidence at the RA, she prefers painting crotches to faces, which are mostly blank or cast in shadow, covered with paint as though splatted with custard pie. 

 Tracey Emin, You Kept it Coming, 2019 Credit: © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020

A highlight in the opening room is a wall of 10 intimate, incandescent watercolours of female models created by Munch in his fifties and sixties, and tinged with a wistful, detached eroticism. They’re just gorgeous. When Emin first set eyes upon them, she started crying, prompting the museum’s staff to whip them away before they were deluged by tears. 

She also includes eight oils by Munch, several with streaky, parallel brushstrokes that strike wonderful chromatic chords. The paintings show nudes in various states of distress: a woman with flushed cheeks bows her head in a bedroom while, behind her, wallpaper throbs. Another clutches at her face with bright red hands, as though freshly dipped in gore. A third, with lank, straggly tresses, contemplates a splash of red upon an armchair. It reminds Emin of abortion. “Women in Hospital” (1897), meanwhile, daringly (for the time) dwells on an ageing female body. 

Hats off to Emin: her pick of Munch’s art is immaculate. By contrast, her own work appears uneven. The sculptures are a misstep, especially three grey blocks inscribed with words and topped with tiny figurines (a swan, a stag) like trite cake toppers on slabs of Battenberg. Inevitably, there are a couple of neons: 2014’s “More Solitude” (hasn’t lockdown provided enough?), and another, spelling out the words “My c*** is wet with fear”, from 1998, evoking her YBA glory days that she says she has outgrown. It feels out of place. 

Tracey Emin, It - didnt stop - I didnt stop, 2019 Credit: © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020

Come instead for Emin’s vast, splashy paintings, which in reproduction can seem mimsy but, at first hand, are raw, heart-on-sleeve and, yes, courageous. Not all are a success, but at least Emin isn’t afraid of risks. By painting these writhing, coupling, pain-stricken bodies, she puts herself out there. Summoned with a frenzy of thrashing drips and lines, her nudes offer a sense of a body from within. None is titillating or exploitative. 

What always surprises me is how graceful her marks can be. Expressionist painting implies a kind of splurge, but on close inspection there is a calligraphic elegance to Emin’s line that offsets her in-your-face subject matter. The subtle, buttery-white under-layer with which she blocks in flesh is surprisingly sensuous, too. 

For all the fey, teasing titles suggesting doomed love affairs, then, there is a sophisticated aesthetic intelligence at work. So, thank you, Tracey. Get well soon.

Until Feb 28; information: royalacademy.org.uk, 020 7300 8090