Tracey Emin/ Edvard Munch: The loneliness of the soul

Tracey Emin/ Edvard Munch

“The Loneliness of The Soul”

Edvard Munch and Tracey Emin  the “strange couple”, protagonist of the latest exhibition project at The Royal Academy Of Art in London: “The Leonliness of the soul”, are very far and yet close. All that matters: love and death, desire and despair, loss and loneliness. It’s all laid bare in this exhibition. Two artists born a hundred years apart, but both with one less skin layer than the rest of us. It is a very personal exploration of the complexities of the human soul. Their parallel confrontantions and exploration of the emotional register clearly reflect the primary of authentic expression for both artists. I have the pleasure of sharing with you, an excerpts from the whole conversation about this exhibition between Tracey Emin and Edith Devaney made to present their  entire project.

Where it all comes from…

ED You’ve chosen a selectionn of Munch’snwork taht’s very bmuch about ageing and death, but above all about vulnerability and isolation. Is that something you recognised immediately in his work?

TE I went through all of Munch’s archive. I looked at 800 paintings, 2,000 watercolours and graphic works. I could have chosen another selection of Munch’s works and had a completely different show. I could have had a landscape, moonscape, seascapes, erotic works, but I went for loneliness and vulnerability and the fragileness of the emotions, because that was what Munch was really good at.

ED It shows that very sensitive side to him. He understands the destructive side to him. He understands the destructive qualities of love, the feelings of isolation and vulnerability, but it’s done with an honesty and in the end with a kind of tenderness. There’s not a harshness in his vision.

TE What’s interesting is that he’s not violent at hall, in his paint or in his approach. He’s accepted and understood the situation, whereas I haven’t understood the situation and I certainly haven’t accepted it. I have an anger, I’m still fighting with it and understanding it through the painting. So while he’s saying “ I’ve done the walk, and now I’m going to draw the map of where I’ve just been”, I’m going to draw the map of where I’ve just been”, I’m going hang on, where the fuck have I been? I don’t know where I am, I’ve got to find out, I’m fighting on the canvans trying to find out where I am.

ED Something you see in your work as well as Munch’s is that it’s uncomfortable to view, but that’s something that you have to put up with because the goal is honesty.

TE Yes, a lot of young people think that being an artisti s making something beautiful. But the most beautiful thing is honesty, even if it’s really painful to look at.

ED Encountering your first Munch painting must have been an incredible sensation. You’d really engaged with this artist in reproduction and then you’re faced with the canvans, how did that feel?

TE The thing about Munch is that in a lot of his paintings the paint is quite dormant and flat, more like pastel than paint. That was quite shocking, because in reproductions you imagine the paint to be really thick and it’s not. It’s like it’s sleeping and it’s the colour that makes the paint jump a bit more.

ED He’s very interesting on scale as well, isn’t he? That’s something that you’re able to go between too: doing a very small intimate drawing and then working on canvans the size you do. Similarly, Munch is able to have that emotional intensity of something very small as well as massive vistas.

TE It’s a bit like when you see The Scream for the first time, you can’t believe how tiny it is, because you’ve blow it out of all propotion in your mind. Munch does that, you look at these little reproductions in a book and you invest all this emotional content into them, and then when you go to see the painting it’s totally different from how you imagined.

ED One of the things he had a really hard time Justifying was the way he use paint. In The

Death of  Marat, for example, he use cross-hatching in a way taht people felt was really beyond the pale.

TE Well, Munch learnt to paint really technically and academically, it’s a bit like Picasso with his Blue Period, they had to learn to paint like the Masters. But with Munch or Picasso, they understood that to be an artist was no good making something that’s already been made, it had to be a new delivery, a new response. So, for Munch using the paint like that was his way of invention. No-one had ever seen anything like it before, it had not exsisted before, unless it was primitive art. But Munch wasn’t primitve, he was ahead of his time in lots af ways. His response to nature and his emotional response weren’t primitive, they were primal.

ED That license to use paint in any way he wanted, how did you feel about that when you were a young artist just starting off? Did that give you the sense that anything was possible?

TE Instinctively, yes, but 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.

ED His works are so much about his emotional temperature. You’ve said that your work isn’t your diary, but your personal experiences are still very much present. Did you feel right from the start that need and impulse that Munch felt to be honest about your emotions?

TE No, because when you’re younger, you make pictures, and you colour them it. You’re not in tune with your emotions when you’re very young, so you paint something that looks emotional. You might be jealous, so you paint something that looks like jealousy, not the emotional feeling of it. It’s different.

ED And it’s only with maturity that you’re able to really examine how you feel and to understand those complexities? And then somehow that comes out on the canvans?

TE Yeah, but sometimes it doesn’t. I was talking to a friend the other day, an artist. She always makes beautiful things and I just said to her: smash right through the barrier, completely riun the painting, totally fuck it up because it’s yours. Being an artist isn’t about making something beautiful, let the designers make something beatiful. Our job as an artisti s to battle with the soul. Sometimes we lose, but that’s what it’s about.

ED Munch believed very much that he was dissecting souls in his work. He talked about taking them apart, including his own in his self-portraits.

TE When he was old, he tried to paint an apple every day. He’d sit at the table and try to paint the apple, and he said before he died, “when I paint the apple and I feel that I can eat it, then I know I’ve succeeded”. He was the same about the self-portraits, or when he captured jealousy. He had to really feel it, he had to understand the emotion. Me and David Dawson, we often talk about the “thing in the painting. If the “thing” isn’t there then painting isn’t complete. You can’t inventi t, almost a paranormal thing that lives inside the painting, shaking a little bit.

ED It gives it its life.

TE Yeah, exactly

ED It’s baring the soul, it’s what he calls holiness. It really is a thing of wonder when artists are exposing their emotional intensity in the way.

TE That’s why I’m so happy to be painting now. I felt guilty about the fact I stopped painting, buti t was hard in the late 1980s and early 1990s, because people took the piss a lot out of people like me. They thought I was regressive or that I wasn’t getting it. I wrote a lot. It was a way I could express myself without people tripping me up fo it. Then I went through a big period a few years ago of really being angry at myself for stopping painting for so long. I had to stop because after I was pregnant I felt too guilty, I couldn’t do it. The weird thing is that I really only came back to painting when I was too old to have children.

ED What do you understand by that? Do you see painting as the ultimate creativity?

TE Totally. I relly love the fear of the canvans, the fear of the moment of beginning. There are a lot of painters that work with grids, with projectors, with photography, or other people do the paintings for them. It’s a conceptual way of painting. I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about the cave woman. I’m talking about the last woman on earth making a message.

ED It’s so pared down. It’s just you, with your emotional state, brush in hand, bare canvans, and that’s it, nothing else. That’s scary!

TE It frightens the life out of me. Sometimes it’s like splitting the atom or cracking a code. It’s really dangerous – and dangerous to m yself. When I fuck up a painting, I get so depressed, it’s like being in mourning. I have to go back to it and save it; fight, wrestle and then when I’ve done it I feel so good. It’s a language, it’s a code, it’s an emotional challenge. It’s like going into battle, it’s like sex.

ED And then that state of contentment and catharis when you’ve finished it and you’re happy with it, when the emotion that you’ve had insie you is expressed fully on the canvans.

TE It’s a massive relief. The other relief is the feeling that you’re doing the right thing. Imagine living your life never knowing if you’re doing the right thing or not. And then, suddenly, at this age you realise: “I’m doing the right thing. It’s just me and it. It’s got nothing to do with anybody else or anything at all”.

ED I also wanted to ask you about drawing, because you draw bautifully and it underpins everything you do. Drawing for me is such an interesting comparison between your work and Munch’s. Tell me about your reaction to seeing Munch’s drawing, when you were going through the archives.

TE Well, when I looked at the watercolours, I started crying, and the museum staff suddenly went “Oh my God” and rushed in to move them away. Can you imagine, if my tears dripped of them? Anyway, Munch could draw really well, academically. I spent seven years learning to draw. For a couple of years at life-drawing classes I just couldn’t do foreshortening,

I couldn’t judge the distance of things. My big breakthrough was getting glasses and being able to actually see. Once I got some glasses I could suddenly understand why I couldn’t draw. When I first started, I was making “Tracey drawing”, and then I thought: “no, you’ve got to look, watch, see, concentrate”. After about an hour I was able to draw really academically again. I didn’t know I could still do it and it came as such a good feeling, I loved it.

ED It’s the foundation of everything you do, and you wouldn’t be able to paint in that way if you didn’t have that ability to draw.

TE The thing with painting is that you’d never go to a fortune teller and be happy if they told you something you already knew. That’s the same with painting. When you’re painting, you don’t want to do a painting you’ve already done, you want to do a painting you’ve never seen before”