Culture / Review

The Loneliness of the Soul: ‘Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch’ Exhibition Review

A rescheduled exhibition at the Royal Academy in London is fast approaching its end. The display brought together Edvard Munch’s watercolours and oil paintings. They were chosen by Tracey Emin, and she’s put them alongside her own work…

Xander Brett

Re-emerging from semi-lockdown, I thought I’d forgotten what to do. I navigated sitting at a café (something illegal for six months) and scanned my ticket at the Royal Academy. Was there something I needed to bring? Was there protocol I couldn’t remember? Luckily not. It’s still a question of turning up, looking at art and taking the next train home. If you need an exhibition that leads you gently back, this is it. I don’t mean it’s easy subject matter (though it’s not difficult either). I mean, rather, it’s small and easily presented. The paintings have taken just two rooms of the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries, hanging Tracey Emin and Edvard Munch together: 26 of her works, 18 of his.

Raw, red and emotionally confused, their art is virtually indistinguishable. Emin and Munch are like sister and brother. She discovered him young and describes him as a “friend in art”, recognising that his tortured psyche echoed her own feelings. At art school, Emin copied the visceral confrontation of his nudes. The archetypal painter of angst, she carried Munch’s scream of the soul to interrogate the female psychological state. Naked women bleeding into bed linen, standing alone: trapped and miserable. When Emin was shown Munch’s art, she broke down in tears. The museum staff had to rush in and move the watercolours before she ruined them. Would Munch have done the same, had he seen Emin’s work? Almost certainly. Emin was raped as a teenager, Munch was a paranoid alcoholic. Both became rich and famous (Emin opposes high tax rates). But both – Nordic or not – abide by the principles of Jante Law: they’re not flashy, in art or in life.

This exhibition is important. It was originally planned to inaugurate the newly relocated Munchmuseet in Oslo. Coronavirus changed plans, and it was rescheduled for 15th November in London, where it managed only a few weeks between lockdowns over Christmas. Rather than giving up, however, it was delayed until 18th May. Hours of promotion, including an accompanying BBC documentary, had to be wheeled out again. But the paintings stayed the same. With thousands to choose from, Emin needed a focus. She picked loneliness and vulnerability. Now in her fifties, it’s something she, like Munch, revisits often. Emin ensured many of the works she chose were painted in Munch’s fifties.

Their age, therefore, is the same. But, a hundred years later, nationality and time means differences in approach are apparent. Munch paints the idea of anger, scaling down and refining it. Emin’s large, splashy canvases, by contrast, prove she’s still angry (she was only cancer-clear in April, losing a good part of her anatomy in the process, and her inclusion of Munch’s 1897 painting Women in Hospital surely alludes to this). Emin told the RA’s Curator, Edith Devaney, that painting is like “going into battle”. Munch, meanwhile, painted one apple, slowly and carefully, every day for years. For him, painting was more “going into the supermarket” than “going into battle”. Munch is precise, Emin expressionist. But the loneliness of pain is their link through the ages.

Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul is at the Royal Academy in London until 1st August.

This article is a Fika Online exclusive.

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