The past, in Tracey Emin’s work, is not a distant memory. It’s right here, right now. As Jonathan Jones writes in his recent short monograph on the British artist: “She recaptures the past still bloody, and slams it on to canvas with a scream.” His brief book — hardly more than an essay, though richly accompanied by reproductions that make it an education in itself — is devoted to explaining what that scream consists of.
Jones, art critic for The Guardian and known for his acid opinions, has often torn Emin’s work to shreds. When she rose to celebrity on the tide of the Young British Artists of the late 1980s, Jones was among the first and loudest to slam what he saw as the easy sensationalism of a time when, as he writes here, “fame was inversely related to anything that resembled old-fashioned art-making.”
Then came his epiphany. Three years ago, Emin invited her ferocious detractor to visit her studio in the south of France. It wasn’t the luxurious invitation it sounds, for a man — as he confessed in a newspaper article about the visit — with a plethora of phobias. Scared of heights (they reached her mountain home in a helicopter taxi). Also of snakes (there were plenty). Also of swimming in the sea (bobbing in the blue Mediterranean, Emin informed him she’d lured him there to drown him for giving her such horrible reviews). Yet during the visit, his view of her work made an abrupt volte face. Once, as he wrote, “the infamy of ‘My Bed’ [the notorious unmade bed installation of 1998] seemed to be eclipsing what I saw then as more serious contemporary art. Now I think ‘My Bed’ is one of the most enduring and poetic works of our time.”
Jones became Emin’s greatest champion. In this latest of several monographs, he writes of her “heroism” in the “refusal to look away from the simple truths of life, love and time” and proclaims that: “Her art is serious because it focuses relentlessly on one person’s joy and anguish.”
Yet although unashamedly the work of an admirer, Jones’s book makes a persuasive objective case, investigating Emin’s art and its development with all his considerable acuity and skill. He divides his short text into even shorter chapters: on the early life and work in her hometown of Margate in Kent, on her Expressionist heroes and student work (he shows us some rarely seen early watercolours), on the “readymades”, the embroidered blankets, the neon pieces, and finally (best) on the nudes.
In fact Emin’s nudes are the real subject here. He places “My Bed” firmly in the great art historical tradition of the female nude: Emin’s empty scrumpled bed, littered around with the slummy detritus of a life (overflowing ashtray, used tissues and condoms, a vodka bottle, discarded tights) is not so much a readymade installation, he asserts, as “a plinth that lacks its nude”. As “forensic evidence — traces of the woman whose bed this was”, he sees a modern-day version of Manet’s Olympia, just risen from those scuzzy sheets.
Discussing Emin’s parallels with Expressionism — the movement in art devoted to investing external objects with the artist’s interior states of mind — Jones lists Emin’s heroes as Egon Schiele, the Austrian artist whose portrayals of naked women are savage, remorselessly unsentimentalised, and Edvard Munch. Her own nudes — often apparently rushed, sketchy, furiously scribbled — are frequently as brutal as Schiele’s: abstracted, exploded, missing limbs and often the head, expressing inner pain and turmoil as a great sea of blood red or a ferocious scumble of black, a dissolution of personality in the chaos of sex and its joys and miseries. They are a world away from, for instance, the calm odalisques of Matisse — an artist, Jones says, she regards as “a decorator”.
Jones doesn’t locate Emin in any tradition of nudes by female artists — but that’s because there isn’t such a tradition. Or not much of one, until recently. The famous male gaze for which the nude in art came into existence has no place in the un-airbrushed self-examination of a female artist.
So rather than placing her in the tradition of the male-made nude, we could think of the hundreds of often highly explicit paintings, drawings and photographs Emin has made around her own body as one great act of self-portraiture. Jones never uses this term: he talks eloquently of her honesty and her remorseless self-exposure (betrayal, rape, abortion), the rawness of her portrayal of sexuality, pain and violence — all of it true. But he doesn’t comment on the titles she gives the works, and their insistence on the self-referential.
These works are not about everywoman, or the female condition; they are about her. It’s not “Bed” but “My Bed”; in almost every work, there’s a first-person pronoun. In the neons, it’s as if the titles stand alone, shorn of their works and reduced to the proclamation of self writ large and bright: “Every part of me is bleeding”, “I want my time with you”, and many more. The titles plead, cajole, demand (“Kiss me, kiss me”); they reach out to a viewer (“Dreamt of you”, “The memory of your touch”); they speak of need, misery, anger, self-abasement (a nude on all fours is entitled “I am the animal you want me to be”).
Emin can be funny, too — though it’s humour tinged with sadness. A photograph of 2000 called “I’ve got it all” has her sitting on a floor showered with coins, clutching a great wad of banknotes between her bare splayed legs: a joke about her success and wealth, but in the end a pathetic image. And more recent self-portraiture has real pathos: “Insomnia Room” (2019) is a gallery-sized installation of giant blow-ups of selfies taken lying in bed — of her face only, for once. As Jones describes it, “She studies, and forces us to study, every incipient wrinkle and blemish as she lies awake at night, sleepless, scrutinising herself.”
He has written a powerful and incisive tribute to one of the most bravely self-revealing female artists we have. Or perhaps of all time. “Not many people could live in public to this degree,” he writes. “Yet she seems most herself when projecting her inner life outwards.”
‘Tracey Emin (Art File)’ by Jonathan Jones is published by Laurence King, £14.99/$19.99
This article has been amended since publication to reflect the fact that Egon Schiele was Austrian rather than German