Wednesday, 28 September 2016 14:22

Tracey Emin meets William Blake

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Darren Pih, Exhibitions & Displays Curator, Tate Liverpool writes about Tracey Emin & William Blake in Focus at Tate Liverpool: 16 September 2016 to 3 September 2017.

Tracey Emin was born in 1963, around 200 years after the Romantic artist and poet William Blake. While perhaps it seems counterintuitive to bring the two artists together, a guiding curatorial principle across our displays at Tate Liverpool is to generate new meaning by juxtaposing groups of artworks that might seem dissimilar. Underpinned by a belief that artworks created at different points in time and location can be related in surprising ways, our displays aim to create a new knowledge and an understanding of art without the usual constraints of chronology and canonical influence.

Tracey Emin has been described as Margate’s answer to William Blake. To me, they share a certain Dionysian spirit with both artists’ embodying a commitment to uncompromised artistic and personal authenticity and freedom of expression. At the heart of our display is Emin’s 1998 sculptural installation My Bed, comprising a wooden bed with stained sheets, accompanied by dirty clutter and detritus. The work constitutes an unflinching self-portrait in which the artist herself is absent.

The work was triggered by Emin’s self-described ‘emotional suicide’ following a traumatic period in the early 1990s. Her recovery was driven by a realisation of a more authentic mode of creativity, leading her to exhibit her own bed to express the reality of her existence. My Bed also invokes spiritual themes and summarises her major artistic preoccupations, being a stage for birth, death, depressive isolation, recuperation, as well as sexual activity. We wanted the installation at Tate Liverpool to feel rather theatrical. The walls are painted deep red with the work installed at the centre of the gallery, sat in a pool of light like a crime scene.

When Tracey and I met at her studio, we discussed how we might present her work within a wider historical framework, away from the usual readings that position My Bed within the context of 1990s British art. The bed, of course, is a powerful and traditional motif found in literature and art history; it is deployed for metaphorical effect in the paintings of Edvard Munch, such The Sick Child 1907 which is held in the Tate collection. Emin has recently exhibited alongside Francis Bacon at Tate Britain as well as Egon Schiele at the Leopold Museum, Vienna; Schiele’s influence can be especially discerned in her recent figurative ink drawings that are also included in the display. These have a raw immediacy, Emin’s gestural marks and brushstrokes describing the reclining nude figure with fast economical surety.

When describing her artistic approach, Emin stated: ‘I work with what I know. But it goes beyond that. I start with myself and end up with the universe.’ This notion of drawing inspiration from the personal – and the corporeal – as a source of wisdom towards a more expansive form of artistic expression can be aligned with William Blake. A deeply religious man, his imaginative wellspring drew on themes of morality and Biblical subjects. For him, the imagination and religion were indivisible and his most dazzling works develop a uniquely personal and unconventional mythology of limitless intellectual ambition.

In juxtaposition with Emin, Blake’s figurative works such as Nebuchadnezzar 1795–c.1805 conflate human nakedness and nightmarish visions with personal symbolism and spiritual themes, perhaps invokes the absent figure from the bed. His pencil drawing The Soul Hovering over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life c.1805 offers a poetic vision of the passing of life. Other works illuminate how mankind gains wisdom and experience through their own liberty and self-discovery while the foetus-like ‘globe of blood’ depicted in The Book of Urizen is usually interpreted as connoting childbirth or menstruation.

Blake was regarded as being unorthodox in his lifetime. He was a radical who stood against the hypocrisies of his age and was vocal in his support of liberalism, above all advocating for limitless imaginative freedom. Though Emin and Blake were working at very different times in history, the display aims to illuminate shared artistic concerns and affirm the Romantic ideal of artistic authenticity through existential trauma and the possibility of redemption across both artists’ work.


Tracey Emin and William Blake In Focus is on at Tate Liverpool till September 2017.

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