Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch The Loneliness of the Soul

Royal Academy 18th May to 1st August 2021

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Emin/Munch exhibition started before the pandemic and the RA is determined to allow it to run, I was glad to hear that grabbed one of the few tickets available and headed off to Burlington Gardens in anticipation.

The show is quite small and intimate and highly personal to Emin.  I’ve always been a fan of hers as I really like her bravery in sticking her neck out about the reality of being a woman and a woman artist, at that.  In between Damien Hirst’s putrefying cow heads in A thousand years, 1990, and the Chapman brothers’ various mutilations such as Sex 1, 2003, Emin has placed the female voice through equally aggressive attention grabbing such the famous My Bed, 1998, and vitrines displaying used tampons, The History of Painting, 1999, both showcasing the reality and messiness of womanhood in contrast to its idealisation.  I wasn’t then, expecting an easy journey, and I didn’t get one. 

A showcase of Emin’s art alongside Munch’s seems an almost inevitable combination with their twinned sense of showing the interior self in all it’s raw vulnerability.  From the first room, Munch and Emin’s paintings are hung near each other to good effect making it easy for the visitor to compare their work and approaches.  Emin chose the Munch inclusions for the exhibition and said, in her conversation with Edith Devany in the guide, that she decided to focus on paintings that reflect the loneliness and vulnerability in his work for this show.

‘Being an artist isn’t about making something beautiful, ….. our job as an artist it to battle with the soul.’

Tracey Emin

There’s a set of Munch’s paintings in this room of female nudes, they stand, recline, crouch and sit, some are awkwardly posed, such as No 6, Female Nude, showing a level of discomfiture in the model with one leg on the floor and the other on the couch.  In contrast No 3, Seated Female Nude, is much more pensive, more reflective, you certainly get a sense of the contemplations going on in the head here.  Much, obviously, is made of the male gaze and the painting of women for the consumption of men but there is none of that with these nudes, while they are explicit, they are empathetic rather than predatory.  Of the paintings from Emin in this room, the one that stood out for me was, It – didn’t stop – I didn’t stop, 2019, I have to say I found this image hard to look at. It’s incredibly vulnerable, there’s such a starkness about the colours, red for blood, black for darkness and all played out in frenzied drawing and painting so that I found its implications a bit too much to face. 

In the next room,  three of Emin’s painting hang like a triptych,  The stain of you 2017, You came to me at night, 2017, and, I came here for you, 2018. Painted in Emin’s spare style, they express a lot from what appears simplistic, with bare canvas and monochrome colours, the connection comes from the violence of the brush strokes, we’re left in no doubt that these are difficult emotions.  The woman portrayed, presumably Emin, is only faintly visible suggesting that she is overwhelmed by the issues that haunt her.

The only Emin painting in the show that gave some relief from the continual grief for me, was, You were here like the ground underneath my feet, 2016.  Still painted in Emin’s distinctive style, somehow the mood is quite different, much less despairing and calmer, this gave me a chance to get away from the turbulent emotions of the other paintings to see a more contemplative state.  Behind the female outline is a shadowy figure, is that the ‘you’ of the title?  Does Emin feel like someone has her back here?  For me, the tone of this painting compares with Munch’s, Consolation, 1907.  A woman consoles another in tears, Munch’s colours and brushstrokes communicating emotion to the viewer in a similar way to Emin.  You can almost sense the tenderly placed hand on the leg and consoling words said. 

This was a small exhibition but it does pack a lot of emotion in for the viewer.  I have to say I struggled a little to connect with it, for two reasons I think, my knowledge of Munch is limited to his self-reflexive, emotion laden, images that always convey distress to me and my expectation was that we would see these kind of paintings next to Emin but the selection of Munch’s paintings are all of him in observation and, although also highly emotional, they were on a different level to Emin’s. As such, he comes off as more serene and the connection between the two artist’s work is not obviously as palpable as I imagined it would be.   

Secondly, the gallery’s hand is almost absent, this may have been intentional, and that in this situation we were expected to go with our senses rather than the context usually provided by galleries through labelling or the guide.  However, without reading the full catalogue to start with, the viewer is left on thier own. The small guide provided says very little and contains an extract of Emin conversation with Devany, which, though interesting, says very little about the origins and ideas about the concept of the show.

That is not to denigrate the quality of the artworks in the show, they are worth viewing for their raw emotion alone.  Do though, expect an explicit show that may not make for easy viewing but, as Emin says in the guide, ‘Being an artist isn’t about making something beautiful, ….. our job as an artist it to battle with the soul.’

Rita – Gallery Tart


Leave a Comment

  1. How long is this running?
    Again an excellent read. (Except the early “is” – the ever present teacher🤦‍♀️) thank you. Much enjoyed and really keen to see this one.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s