“I’m not trying to make a beautiful painting.” Tracey Emin indicates a large picture of a nude woman, a hint of exasperation in her voice. It’s the kind of statement that would have landed her in trouble in the past. An enfant terrible of the Young British Artist scene in the 1990s, she earned a reputation for being outspoken.
But the 1990s was a long time ago. Today, we are at her London gallery, White Cube, where new canvases are propped against the walls waiting to be hung in a show that opens here next month, which also includes photographs, films and neons.
Emin has always painted, but until a decade ago she rarely exhibited the results. The paintings here are mostly nude self-portraits, though they are not recognisably her. Some are densely worked, the paint layered and dripping in the manner of Cy Twombly, the figure blotted out with angry strokes of white. Others are so delicate and minimal she threatens to dissolve into the canvas.
I first met Emin in Hong Kong in 2016, where she was showing paintings similar to these — tender, almost trembling depictions of a female nude. And yet in the new works, mostly made between 2017-18, there is a palpable shift in tone. Emin’s mother died in 2016 and she has been grieving, through her art, since then. The soft, pulsating pinks of the earlier paintings have given way to stark reds. If those works were about sex, these are about loss. “A lot of this show, even the raunchier pictures — everything has a kind of sadness to it,” she says.
Emin describes herself as “a crier”; she has called the show A Fortnight of Tears. Does she find crying cathartic? “Yes, totally,” she replies. “Like art is a cathartic act for me, as well. I kind of went off that idea for a long time. I wanted to be superior to the act of what I do, which is really stupid.”
Emin is best known for making art out of the raw materials of her life. It’s what links the new paintings to earlier works, such as “My Bed” (1998): they depict the bed’s inhabitant. “The ‘Bed’, for me, is the closest thing that I have to [these] works,” Emin says, “because I stained that bed, I cried in that bed, I shit in that bed, I fucked in the bed, probably vomited in that bed. Everything that that bed is, is in [these] paintings.”
Abuse and abortion; love, loss and longing: these are the facts of her life and the themes of her work. She has been exploring them for more than 30 years, often in the face of harsh criticism. But as she talks of her “messy, strange, dysfunctional” upbringing in Margate, south-east England — no rules, no school, abusive sex at 13 — I wonder whether the #MeToo moment is also, in a sense, her moment.
Before I can ask, she is answering my question. “I’m really pleased that women are really shouting out and coming to the foreground and not being afraid. I’ve been doing it all my life and I can show you reviews where they say ‘Tracey Emin is screaming again about rape’. Of course I’m screaming about rape. Why shouldn’t I be?”
She has had more bad reviews than many artists. Some call her work narcissistic or talentless; others have made more pointed attacks. Does she deserve such personal criticism for making personal art? To argue that she does is surely to misunderstand the work of autobiography. Writing memoir requires no less skill than writing fiction; a self-portrait is no less artful than a portrait.
In the 1990s, the reaction to Emin’s work was, in part, discomfort — the discomfort of seeing a stranger’s life laid bare, used condoms and all. But it was sexism and snobbery, too. At the Royal College of Art in the late 1980s, she felt like an outsider, “a working-class female mascot”. Later, reviews of her exhibitions would “start off talking about my breasts or my accent. I don’t see that happening very much with, say, Jeff Koons.”
Emin makes work about the fullness of female sexuality, from desire to bitter disappointment. What people sometimes miss in her art is that, by using the facts of her life, she is saying something more broadly about female experience. Two decades after “My Bed”, much of it remains taboo.
A Fortnight of Tears might be Emin’s most personal exhibition to date. “After this show,” she says, “for me, there’s no turning back. If people don’t like it, if it unnerves people, there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m not going to change. It’s out now. It’s all here.”
And she is squaring up to her critics. “That’s a finger up to the people who think I can’t draw,” she says, pointing to the perfect foot described in a sweeping line in “But you never wanted me” (2018). It’s a moment of clarity in a figure that seems to struggle for definition, like a person overwhelmed by her environment. The struggle is not one of draughtsmanship; if some lines look precise, others hesitant or blurry, that’s because they describe the vicissitudes of an inward struggle.
At 55, Emin is more self-assured than the brash, brittle young woman who so riled the tabloids. There are flashes of her famous spikiness — when I remark that her four-metre bronze, “The Mother”, reminds me of Louise Bourgeois’ giant “Maman”, she shoots back defensively, “What, you mean you think it looks like a spider?” — but for most of the morning we spend together her manner is soft and open.
“I’m not feeling sorry for myself at all. I’ve had a brilliant, fun life,” she says, with a glint in her eye. “But I think living in party central — Tracey, the first person to arrive/last person to leave reputation — has not really helped my art career at all. I’ve slowly grown into the kind of artist I want to be.”
The kind of artist she wants to be is a popular one. Not in the sense of being well-liked, but of reaching people beyond the art world. Her paintings, she says, are “easy to understand. If you have a painting called ‘The Abortion Waiting Room’, you haven’t got to be Einstein to understand what that is about, with two figures sitting on two chairs, before and after. It sounds so basic but it isn’t, because when did you last see a painting like that? Never.”
Emin’s early film about her abortions, “How It Feels” (1996), will be shown alongside her new paintings. Many of them allude to abortion, and to the way present grief uncovers past griefs, the loss of a mother conjuring the spectre of a lost child. They are not literal depictions but abstracted, emotional ones — and this emotional, romantic vein puts Emin outside prevailing trends in art. “There aren’t many painters now that are action painters,” she says. “They paint intellectually, they paint conceptually, they don’t paint emotionally.”
She is more influenced by Expressionism than by her contemporaries; Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele, painters of the tortured psyche, are particular favourites. When I point out that making work about love might be seen as old-fashioned, she responds cheerfully, “Yes, it is. I’m quite old-fashioned.”
Emin is an artist both in and out of step with the times. The past decade has seen a flourishing of “confessional” art by women, from television to autofiction. At a time when the personal and professional increasingly overlap online, the expectation is that we share our “authentic” selves with strangers. But Emin was the original over-sharer. And whether she likes it or not, her intensely personal work resonates now.
- White Cube Bermondsey, February 6-April 7.
- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019.