Tracey Emin’s lifelong affinity with Edvard Munch

Published 30 November 2020

As the Royal Academy brings Tracey Emin and Edvard Munch’s work together, Jennifer Higgie, host of ‘Bow Down: Women in Art History’ podcast, asks Emin what makes them kindred spirits.

  • Jennifer Higgie is Editor-at-Large of Frieze, host of Bow Down podcast and author of ‘Mirror & the Palette: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits’, published in March 2021 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

    When Tracey Emin RA was a teenager, she was, in her words, “a huge fan of David Bowie”. Around the age of 15, a friend told her that the covers of his albums Heroes and Lodger were inspired by paintings by the Austrian artist Egon Schiele. Emin had never heard of Schiele but was intrigued. She went to the Albion Bookshop in her hometown of Margate and asked if they had anything on him. They handed her a book on Expressionism containing reproductions not only of works by Schiele but of paintings by Oskar Kokoschka and Edvard Munch. She was immediately entranced, and her eye was particularly taken by Munch. When she speaks to me over Zoom from her studio in Margate in September, Emin recalls that her sense of recognition was immediate: “That’s my art, that’s me. That’s my world.”

    By the time she went to Maidstone Art College in 1984, she was, in her words, “an aficionado” of the Norwegian artist. She says that, at the time, she “didn’t even know who Jeff Koons was”, as her head was “stuck in Europe between 1880 and 1945.” She was interested in psychology and “opening up new ways of thinking about what art could be.”

  • Emin recalls that her sense of recognition was immediate: ‘That’s my art, that’s me. That’s my world.’

  • While other students were in thrall to contemporary art, Emin was making her versions of Munch’s paintings and prints. She channelled his acute sensitivity – to landscapes, to picturing the soul, to physical and emotional pain, to what it means to be human – into her deeply personal exploration of her place in the world. She made “thousands of woodcuts using his [Munch’s] colours”; her lithographs were influenced by his techniques and the focus of her final-year dissertation was four of his paintings. Laughing, she tells me that she raffishly titled it ‘My Man Munch’ and that her irreverent yet adoring first line was: “Munch was not a mad woolly Norwegian running over fields screaming.” She wrote it on an overnight ferry from Amsterdam: it was less an academic treatise than a letter to a dear friend.

    In the 35 years or so since that ferry ride, Emin’s love for and fascination with Munch has never abated. Reflecting on the opportunity to curate a show of his work alongside her own for the MUNCH and the Royal Academy, she tells me, with something akin to wonder: “Imagine me at the age of 19 at Maidstone College of Art; who’d have thought that now I’d have open sesame to all of Munch’s archive?”

  • Tracey Emin, Homage to Edvard Munch and All My Dead Children

    Tracey Emin, Homage to Edvard Munch and All My Dead Children, 1998.

    Edition 3/10 Single screen projection and sound (shot on a Super 8 transferred to DVD). Duration: 2 minutes 10 seconds. White Cube, London © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020.

  • In 1998, Emin had travelled to Norway to take part in a TV programme about art. She was in a bad way: she had just had a miscarriage and was in emotional turmoil in the aftermath. They had been filming at Munch’s country home in Åsgårdstrand, which overlooks the Oslo fjord. At dawn one morning, Emin walked to the end of a small jetty and lay down. As the sun came up, she made a video of herself, curled up and howling. She gave it the title Homage to Edvard Munch and all my dead children (1998, above). Making the video was cathartic: she realised that, as an adult, she had never properly screamed. For the first time, she was fully expressing her broken heart, her loss and sadness in a way that was at once primal and therapeutic.

    She was also paying something of a homage to Munch’s best-known work, The Scream (1893), which, to Emin, “looks like a foetus in the tombs in the Valley of the Kings”. She has always believed that Munch’s intention was less to portray someone screaming than to make visible a torment that emanates from the landscape itself – the figure is covering his ears to dull the all-enveloping shriek. This is supported by Munch’s recollection: apparently, one evening he was walking with friends in the countryside when, vibrating in his ears, he heard “a huge endless scream course through nature”. As if attempting to purge himself of the memory, he kept returning to the subject – in two paintings, two pastels and numerous prints. As an image of terrible instability – not even the earth is solid – and extreme anxiety, in many ways it embodies the turmoil of the 20th century.

  • For the first time, Emin was fully expressing her broken heart, her loss and sadness in a way that was at once primal and therapeutic.

  • One of the reasons Emin was, and is, drawn to Munch is because he wasn’t afraid to express his emotions – unusual for a 19th-century man – which aligned with supposedly feminine attributes such as vulnerability, subjectivity and sensitivity. Also, like Emin, even as he embraced the modern world, Munch was an artist to whom the past was ever-present. He mirrored his memories in a sinuous fusion of feeling and form; a place where borders between skin and the air and between time and place dissolve into an evocation of longing and loss. In this regard, Emin finds Munch’s paintings from the 1920s and ’30s particularly fascinating, as they often depict women in 19th-century clothing: clear illustrations of the pull of the artist’s memory towards episodes in his youth that he expresses in a uniquely 20th-century language.

    Emin explains that she admires Munch’s writing and his poetry as much as she does his paintings and prints. She believes that he was not only a great artist but also a “fine fellow”: forward-thinking and compassionate, respectful of his female models, sympathetic to Jewish refugees during the Second World War and a supporter of the rights of workers. “I’m not a socialist,” she says, “but I am a humanitarian, and Munch treated people equally, which was radical thinking back then.”

  • Tracey Emin, I never Asked to Fall in Love - You made me Feel like This

    Tracey Emin, I never Asked to Fall in Love - You made me Feel like This, 2018.

    Acrylic on canvas. 182.8 x 214.8 cm. Private collection © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020.

  • When Munch was five years old, his mother died of tuberculosis; when he was 14, his beloved sister Sophie met the same fate. When he grew up, his love life was a disaster and he never married. While he often returned to the pain of his youth, he shifted his focus outwards: his depiction of human mortality is less a portrait of individuals than a howl of protest at the loneliness and grief every human must encounter. In the same way, when Emin – who has recently been dealing with cancer – paints herself, details are subsumed by feeling. The restless intensity of these pictures pushes back against the assumption of painting as something inert: “I’m not painting a self, I’m painting a moment which is explained to me within the painting.”

    Art, for both Emin and Munch, is something alive, a language that is in a constant state of flux, one that communicates as much to the artist as the artist communicates through it. “I start to draw,” Emin explains, “and then it starts telling me something I didn’t know before.” When she begins a painting, she throws paint at a canvas in order to see what happens – or perhaps to see what it wants her to do. This communion with art – as if it were something alive, something able to convey its intentions – recalls Munch’s habit of leaving a painting out in the snow until it learned to behave itself.

    Emin leapt at the chance of selecting Munch’s works for the RA’s exhibition, which was conceived in an expanded form by MUNCH in Oslo. Quite apart from her deep admiration for the artist, she feels his work is ripe for re-evaluation, especially at a time of planetary crisis. “People are so desperate now for true conviction and feelings and emotions and what is real. People want to see things that are touched by other human beings.”

    During the selection process for the RA show, Emin looked at more than 800 works, something that she found moving and illuminating in equal measure. At one point, she was looking at Munch’s watercolours and was so overcome by them that she began to weep. She quickly moved away, so that her tears would not fall on the paper, dissolve the pigments and so alter the images forever.

  • Edvard Munch, The Death of Marat

    Edvard Munch, The Death of Marat, 1907.

    Oil on canvas. 153 x 149 cm. Munchmuseet.

  • Emin’s intention for the show, subtitled The Loneliness of the Soul, was deceptively straightforward: “I wanted to pinpoint, to express, what loneliness feels like.” All of the 20 or so works by Munch that she chose depict naked women, from youth to old age: sleeping, resting, standing, sitting, gazing into space. While his models were actual women – each has great personality – seen together, they evoke a collective sense of sorrow. (Emin points out how often Munch’s titles include the words ‘sorrow’ or ‘regret’.) Most of the women are alone, their bodies tenderly rendered with sparse, pale lines; they are less portraits than studies of the myriad ways introspection can be expressed. None of them is idealised: they have real bodies that age, sag, wrinkle and droop.

    Only one man makes an appearance but he’s no longer alive: The Death of Marat (1907, pictured above), a reference to the assassination of the French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. His body – possibly Munch’s self-portrait – lies on a bed behind his murderer, Charlotte Corday, who stands to shocked attention, naked, her hands stiff, her hair the colour of old blood. Nothing could be further from the chilly realism of Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting of the subject from 1793. When Munch painted the picture he was suffering a sense of betrayal after his break-up with his former fiancée Tulla Larsen. This is his revenge picture: a radical man destroyed by a traitorous woman. That said, Charlotte/Tulla is in no way exultant. Rather, her brutal act has resulted in what appears to be misery and loss: jagged lines of blue, yellow and green paint shiver with the intensity of a body wracked with sobs.

  • Edvard Munch, Consolation

    Edvard Munch, Consolation, 1907.

    Oil on canvas. 89.5 x 108.5 cm. Munchmuseet.

  • In one rare instance of people communicating, Consolation (1907, pictured above), two naked women sit together. One, possibly weeping, has her face buried in her hands, which are rendered as a startling red slash. The other woman places a hand on her knee. The image is painted in swift, choppy brushstrokes; the green background vibrates against the yellow and pale-violet of the women’s flesh.

    Some of Munch’s paintings are extremely minimal: the only indication of any surroundings in Reclining Nude (1914-15), for example, is a curious ochre smudge that floats above the woman’s inert body. In a later work by Munch, Sitting Nude: Morning (1922-25) the ageing woman’s bedroom is painted with as much detail as her body, and is equally expressive: framed by feverish orange walls the sheets rise and fall like melancholy waves. In Women in Hospital (1897), a naked old woman, her body as solid as a statue, walks by three half-dressed patients: the misery of the group is embodied in the thin washes of burnt umber and chilly dusty blue of the floor and walls that contain them. If ever a room could weep, this is it.

  • When she begins a painting, Emin throws paint at a canvas in order to see what happens – or perhaps to see what it wants her to do.

    • In selecting her own work, Emin chose paintings, sculptures and neon text works that could converse with Munch’s. Again and again, she pictures a woman subsumed into her environment, as if her feelings have the power to shape the very air around her. In I never Asked to Fall in Love - You made me Feel like This (2018) a reclining woman’s body dissolves into a blood-red sea. In It - didnt stop - I didnt stop (2019) a sparsely delineated nude, her head scratched out, crawls beneath a violent purple sky. In Ruined (2007), a woman’s splayed legs – drawn in fluid, evocative lines – are almost obliterated by washes of white paint. Not all is lost, however: her pubic hair rises from the tumescence like a small proud mountain. In the sculpture I whisper to my past do I have another choice (2013), a naked woman clings heroically to the back of a stag. In a neon work from 2014, two words proclaim: ‘More Solitude’.

      And so the conversations continue, across time and geography. The fact that Emin never met Munch in person is irrelevant: the dead can be as vocal and as present as the living. I ask Emin whose idea it was to pair her with her hero. She looks at me, a little surprised at my question. “It was Munch’s”, she replies.

      From the Winter 2020 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA. Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul runs 7 December – 28 February 2021 in the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries, Royal Academy, London. Supported by Art Fund. Exhibition organised by MUNCH, Oslo, in partnership with the RA.

      Tracey Emin, It - didnt stop - I didnt stop

      Tracey Emin, It - didnt stop - I didnt stop, 2019.

      Acrylic on canvas. 152 x 183.5 cm. Courtesy of the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020.

    • Enjoyed this article?

      Become a Friend to receive RA Magazine

      As well as free entry to all of our exhibitions, Friends of the RA enjoy one of Britain’s most respected art magazines, delivered directly to your door. Why not join the club?

       RA Magazine