10 works on grief and loneliness by Tracey Emin and Edvard Munch
By Wes Gilpin
Published on 20 November 2020
From 'My Bed' to 'The Scream', Tracey Emin and Edvard Munch are two artists who are able to distill pure, raw emotion into their works. Here are 10 that encapsulate those feelings of anxiety, grief and loneliness.
How to turn life into art
My Bed made headlines in 1999 when it was shortlisted for the Turner Prize and displayed at Tate Britain.
It documents a difficult period in Emin’s life which she describes as a “mini nervous breakdown… [In which she] didn’t get out of bed for four days.” When she eventually got up for water, she looked back at the bed and wondered what it might have looked like had she died.
She then thought to herself: “What if ‘here’ wasn’t here? What if I took out this bed-with all its detritus, with all the bottles, the shitty sheets, the vomit stains, the used condoms, the dirty underwear, the old newspapers – what if I took all of that out of this bedroom and placed it into a white space?” In that moment, the artwork was created.
How not to get over a break up
This painting is Munch’s take on Jacques-Louis David’s original painting, depicting the murder of French Revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat by the French radical, Charlotte Corday. The image of a naked man in the bath – murdered by a woman – is potent, both in a historical and political sense, but also opens up an intimate sexual dynamic.
This definitely touched a nerve for Munch and to a degree mirrored his own troubled relationships – the most tumultuous being a four-year relationship with Tulla Larsen which ended with a bang (quite literally) in 1902. The pair’s last-ever meeting involved an explosive argument which ended with a gun being accidentally fired, permanently damaging Munch’s middle finger.
Munch became obsessed with this break up and constantly revisited the event through a series of works, including Murder, The Murderess, and The Death of Marat. All of these works are tied together with the same motif: a nude female figure standing beside the corpse of a man lying in bed. Surely there are better ways to get over a break up?
How to paint rage
In the Dead Dark of Night I Wanted You depicts a reclining nude whose face has been attacked with thick, angry slashes of black paint. These marks appear as remnants from a fit of rage, an act of censorship to mute the figure and remove the image from the face of the world.
Combining aggressive brushstrokes, sinister blood-red drips of paint and flowing figurative gestures, Emin builds up layers of composition as complex as the experience and emotions she is trying to evoke.
Within this painting, Emin’s love for one of her favourite artists, Egon Schiele, shines through. The unapologetic marks that build and surround the figure create a drama on par with the work of Schiele. It is fuelled with a ferocity of feeling.
How to paint a feeling
Weeping Woman features a naked female figure standing beside a bed, head forlorn and face reddened. Despite its title, the woman’s weeping tears are not visible, but rather implied by the figure’s dejected stance. The figure’s claustrophobic isolation, deep in thought and despair, is a powerful example of the emotion Munch could instil his paintings.
He had a complicated relationship with women. They were a strong influence in his upbringing, having been surrounded by his three sisters and his stepmother (who was an artist herself). He also had entanglements with a number of women, although most were brief flings and never amounted to serious relationships or marriage. In spite of his close connections with women, he often held questionable views about their roles. He believed they impeded a man’s creative power, going as far as to write: “I have lived in a time of transition towards women’s emancipation… [and now] the man [is] the weaker [sex].”
Nevertheless, Munch’s reoccurring subject matters of trauma and pain have resonated with many artists including Tracey Emin. Describing her relationship to Munch, Emin has said: "I think mainly I just felt emotionally that “he’s one of me”, “I’m one of him”, and that he was my friend in art.”
How to revisit a work
Emin created I am The Last of my Kind in 2019 whilst preparing for the RA exhibition The Loneliness of the Soul. Built up in pale pink and bluish hues, this almost sketch-like painting portrays a naked female figure – arms hanging limply and head looking downwards, avoiding the gaze of the viewer. A ghostly outline surrounds her head and upper torso, appearing like a protective shroud, shielding her but also entrapping the figure in her own isolation.
This painting returns to themes explored in Emin’s earlier work, Exploration of the Soul, which reflect on the emotional impact of her personal experience of rape, abuse and betrayal. The use of text emphasises the deeply autobiographical nature of Emin’s work, echoing phrases which feature prominently in her neon works. In the same way Munch explored his emotions in poetry as well as paintings, Emin uses language as an expressive tool in her work, with the same powerful impact as her choice of colours or brushstrokes.
How to portray pure anxiety
The universal symbol of anxiety, Munch’s The Scream encapsulates the feeling of dread – an emotion many of us can relate to in these troubling and unsettling times. Munch created various versions of the piece, including two paintings, two pastels and nearly 50 lithographic prints.
The artwork itself is autobiographical – a representation of a sensation Munch once felt in Ekeberg, Norway whilst on a walk that occurred when his two friends (seen behind him) had departed. Munch described the emotion that overcame him in that moment in the concluding line of a poem, “I sensed a great scream passing through nature.” The figure in the painting isn’t actually screaming, but instead they’re attempting to block out the scream of nature that surrounds them.
Both painted versions of The Scream have fallen victim to art theft. The first was in 1994 when the National Gallery of Oslo had their version stolen during a break-in (the artwork was found three months later and promptly returned). The second occurred 10 years later when an armed robber stormed into MUNCH and ran off with the other version of The Scream, as well as another of Munch’s paintings, Madonna.
How to jump into an artwork
In 1998, Emin created a video work a stone’s throw from Munch’s home in Åsgårdstrand. In this work, she lifts her head and lets out a scream for almost a minute. She is heartbroken and troubled by the events of recent years, not least the terminated pregnancies she experienced in 1992, and the physical and mental strain she endured following her miscarriage in 1998. The work was named Homage to Edvard Munch and All My Dead Children.
Emin described her first encounter with The Scream in her autobiography, Strangeland: “I had spent days crying. My eyes hurt: they were swollen puffy balls. I hadn’t eaten or slept properly in weeks and there I was, in Norway, paying homage to my favourite painting. But paying homage wasn’t enough, I wanted to jump inside the picture and cradle the Scream in my arms. Another lost soul.”
How to make brushstrokes that feel
Similar to The Scream, Munch created many works on the theme of consolation, all featuring a naked, crouching man with his arms embracing a woman, seemingly in despair. This version was painted around the same time as Munch’s The Death of Marat, yet the dynamic between the figures in these two works couldn’t be more different.
What ties these works together is the technique – the strong brushstrokes and cross-hatching create an image that cascades down the canvas. Describing this style, Munch later wrote: “The idea was to break through the surface and get to the depths – It was a kind of cubism you can also see in The Women on the Bridge – and the Reinhardt Frieze.”
How to make art from words
Emin’s neon works feature phrases that are deeply personal and often challenging, but can also be universally relatable, such as “I fell in love here” and “Trust yourself.”
When describing the phrases she chooses to use, Emin says: “Some of these things are what I say to other people, some of them are things I say to myself and some of them are things that people say to me.”
These works have increased in scale over the years: in 2018, Emin produced a neon sculpture in Emin produced a neon sculpture in London’s St. Pancras station that measured 20 metres long. It read “I want my time with you”, a politically charged message for those arriving in Britain amidst the current migrant crisis and Brexit.
How to live vicariously through watercolour
Munch’s watercolours show a raw and sensuous side to his work. Reclining Female Nude is an example of how he also used watercolour as a medium to explore the female body, and these works feel more playful and immediate compared to his work in oil.
When Munch was nearing his sixties, he was living an isolated life in Ekely and this watercolour would’ve been painted during this time. A large number of these are erotic drawings of nude figures in various poses on a bed.
Many of these works can be understood as a re-engagement with the subject of the female body and a sense of desire which, as a young man, he had found so complicated. Reflecting on the female form at an older age, Munch could explore them more fearlessly – using expressive, looser brushstrokes and more experimental colours.
Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul
She’s been a major figure in contemporary art for over 25 years; he pioneered a radical new style known as Expressionism. In this landmark exhibition, Tracey Emin selects masterpieces by Edvard Munch to show alongside her most recent paintings.
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