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  • Writer's pictureKATY HOWE

Saying it how it is: Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch & all the Lonely Souls

I Never asked to Fall in Love You made me feel Like this (Tracey Emin 2018)

The past eighteen months for most of us have been a strange and lonely time. We’ve been shut up and locked down due to Covid-19. I for one have yearned for contact, for connection, for touch and love, all those things that soothe our lonely souls. Cut off and starved of our usual connections, with everything shifting and uncertain, the loneliness has at times been almost unbearable and I’m sure I haven’t been the only one to feel this way. So “The Loneliness of the Soul” Emin/Munch, at The Royal Academy couldn’t have been more timely or more prescient.

Originally due to run from 15th November 2020 to 28th February 2021 the exhibition had to shut when England went into a second Lockdown just after it opened in November 2020. I remember thinking that I wouldn't get to see it at all because everything was so uncertain. Back then things were bleak. We were heading into a second wave of Covid that looked as though it would overwhelm our health system, fear and anxiety was palpable, winter was coming and vaccines were still not quite at the point of being rolled out. I remember wanting desperately to see family and friends, to do something, anything that felt a bit “normal” including going to galleries. So managing to get in to see The Loneliness of the Soul now, just before it ends in London, has meant a lot.

The exhibition is an intricate interplay of works by Tracey Emin and her beloved Edvard Munch. It demonstrates Emin’s deep empathy for and affinity with Munch’s work. She knows it and him intimately, and it shows. Throughout her life this deep fascination with Munch was what helped her realise that her own works were about expressing, often intense and intolerable emotions. In the Post Modern 80’s when she was studying at the Royal College of Art and it was unfashionable to paint or to even like paintings, particularly those that were about expression, Munch kept her in touch with raw emotion. She even made a film about him.

Weeping Woman (Edvard Munch 1907-09)

To select the works for the exhibition, Emin went through Munch’s archive of 800 paintings and nearly 200 watercolors and woodcuts. She says in the exhibition notes that she could have chosen a completely different selection and had a different show, but she decided to focus on works that were specifically to do with his complex relationship with women. She believes that Munch had a deep respect for and fascination with women. His paintings of them are tender and accepting of their vulnerabilities and the fragility of the sitters emotions. Her works sit in a reciprocal relationship to his. They talk the same language, they interrogate the same emotional landscape of the inner psyche, looking at grief, loss, longing, love, pain and growing older. Loneliness, vulnerability, isolation and fragility permeate. It is as though she has him there as her friend and support, his works calmer, softer, hers screaming out with raw emotion. His accepting, hers interrogating.

You Kept it Coming (Tracey Emin 2019)

Model by the wicker Chair (Edvard Munch 1919-21)

With all the difficulties that Tracey Emin has experienced in her life, she has banked more than enough raw material to channel into her work. Raped twice as a teenager, a botched abortion, a miscarriage, attempted suicide, and most recently cancer where she lost her uterus, fallopian tubes, bladder, part of her colon, ovaries, lymph nodes, and some of her vagina, her work is centred on female experience and expression. Her long and varied journey through conceptual art, film and video, neon, photography led her away from painting which she now regrets, but it is drawing and painting that she’s now come back to. Her work has always had a common thread…………. raw emotional expression.

This is Life Without you you made me Feel Like this (Tracey Emin 2018)

In her 2011 show “Love is What you Want” at the Hayward Gallery, London,

I saw her film “How it feels” for the first time.In it she describes her experience of having an abortion in a graphic but matter of fact way. I remember being completely lost in it, upset, angry, relieved, all at once because here she was talking openly about a still taboo subject. It chimed with my own experience and because of my own experience, this film gripped me and made me feel something so intense and visceral that I was shocked. It is this intensity that Emin is a master of invoking in her work. She is not afraid to say it how it is, to lay it out and make it visible, to expose the lonely soul. She speaks the unspeakable and reveals the un-feelable, the pain, the reality of the stuff we all gloss over, the things we try to ignore, because perhaps they’re too painful to acknowledge? She gives them credence and in doing so allows them to exist.

Now, looking at her paintings hanging in The Royal Academy, this is how I feel again, a gut wrenching, heart aching, pain. Her application of paint is instinctive, with lines, threads, layers and words some visible, some painted out. There are bleeding women in pinks and reds, violently and traumatically pulled apart and bloodied, enduring........ it. I find myself reeling with the complexities of the raw human emotion being played out on the canvas with the physicality of the paint. The pain is palpable and I am overcome with emotion, exacerbated by the trauma of the past 18 months and magnified by the isolation and the loneliness. I feel it grip inside my stomach, my heart aches and I’m so floored by having such a visceral response to paintings that I almost cry. Emin says that “The most beautiful thing is honesty, even if it’s really painful to look at”*. She embodies the Loneliness of the Soul in these works, and in doing so helps us confront and acknowledge the raw emotion that resides inside us all, but that we mostly do our best to hide.

*Quote from “Excerpts from Tracey Emin on Edvard Munch In Conversation with Edith Delaney” Exhibition guide.

The Loneliness of the Soul at the Royal Academy ends on the 1st August

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