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Tracey Emin: a Particular Honesty by Rudi Fuchs

Tracey Emin has said in interviews and in her own writing that The Scream by Edvard Munch is her favorite historical painting. In 1998, she made a short film entitled Homage to Edvard Munch and All My Dead Children set on a wooden jetty at the edge of the Oslo Fjord, the same location that Munch used as background for his iconic figure. In Emin's film, we are first shown the artist naked and curled in a foetal position, from behind; then the camera moves to the fjord's resplendent water, and we hear Emin scream, the sharp sound filling the screen for almost a minute. Somehow Emin's version of Munch's universal image of anguish is more horrifying than the original picture. Munch formulated that image within an Expressionist practice, and a highly personal one at that. But the painting is also objective. Mostly it is assumed that the figure screaming on the jetty is a man, but when I consult a lithograph of the painting made in 1895, I am no longer so sure. It might be a woman. This being unclear, the figure must be Everyman (Everywoman). Munch employed a style that allows the screaming person to be impersonal and general, that is, symbolistic. By contrast, Emin's adaptation of the painting is extremely realistic.

The Scream is one of Munch's early paintings, but it demonstrates such conviction that one could regard it as an artistic manifesto. It incorporates an intense and dark emotion, one that was certainly part of Munch’s motivation for creating the painting in the first place. To remain true to his emotions, he continued to develop within Expressionism a style that became increasingly idiosyncratic and obsessively personal. In 1908, after a number of years in Germany, Munch suffered a breakdown brought on by depression and alcoholism; following a period in a clinic in Copenhagen, he returned to Norway the following year to settle permanently. Although initially he continued to travel and attend foreign exhibitions of his work, he gradually withdrew, ending up as a virtual recluse. Correspondingly, his art became more solitary and more out of touch with artistic developments elsewhere. Munch literally painted himself out of the modernist mainstream and the world began to see him as the odd man out. Indeed, his later work, particularly that from the beginning of the nineteen twenties until his death in 1944, came to be regarded as not “the real Munch.” I discovered this in a strange conversation I had in Oslo in 1984 with the chief curator of the Munch Museum, who suggested that “the real Munch” was the painter of the period up to and including the great paintings for Oslo University, completed between 1910 and1916. I think what the curator meant was that until that time, Munch stayed somewhat stylistically in touch with international art. Afterwards he became, by choice, a Norwegian artist, an anti-modernist even, and thus beyond favorable comparison with, for instance, his contemporary, Henri Matisse. This shift had its roots back in 1904 when Norway became independent and the country's artists, including Munch, became interested in the idea of a specific Norwegian culture. Many years later, the curator from the Munch Museum had a different cultural priority; he wanted Norway to have a great international artist: Munch when he was still in touch with the European avant-garde in France and Germany; Munch before he went “local.”

This is a particularly twentieth century problem in an era where a non-nationalistic, international modernist movement has become the mainstream style. After World War Two and the subsequent American ascendancy, the Parisian avant garde moved across the Atlantic and mingled with young painters in New York. It was this historic encounter that became the nucleus of modernism. Those who, for whatever reason, remained outside the mainstream were branded “provincial.” This idea came to mind when, some years ago, a friend asked me why the young British artists were so good. Eventually I answered, “because they stayed home.” By that I meant that it is obvious that artists such as Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and others (including their predecessors Gilbert & George) found vital subject matter in their local British culture. I believe that they had no reason to go to America to groom themselves in international modernism. Tracey Emin has the Margate seaside and her adolescence there, and much more besides. In order to give these experiences a vibrant and effective narrative form she found, as did the others in this group, a new version of realism. And she had to stay close to it even if she was distantly inspired by Edvard Munch or Egon Schiele or Bruce Nauman. For me, these young artists – all real individuals – represent an important moment of renewal or rupture in English art, as well as a vital moment in the context of international art. I don't think they are local, but rather locally inspired (as Munch was in Norway) – and their proximity to that inspiration makes their work very real.

* [11]

Here is the incomparable Wordsworth, aged twenty-eight years old, standing above Tintern Abbey in Wales, in the warm summer of 1798:

Once again I see

These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines

Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,

Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke

Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!

A gentle observation. I looked it up when I got back just now from a slow walk near the coast in North Norfolk. It was a mild, hazy morning and beyond the sloping meadows, greyish green, and the darker trees, the sea was hardly visible, and instead of water there was soft, white space. It was a traditional and beautiful view of the English landscape – which is so beautiful because such views have been weighed and shaped over many years and then lodged indelibly in people's minds after having been first formulated by poets and painters such as William Wordsworth and John Constable. Nothing in human culture ever comes just by itself; beauty is, time and again, carefully constructed, then it is cherished, and when it begins to fade, as it always does over time, people sense its loss.

With the violent changes in style and attitude that we now experience in both life and art, it is almost inconceivable that some people were offended by the simplicity of Wordsworth's lines and his quaint effort to be precise about small things (hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows). They remembered an art more lofty and metaphorical; above all, they wanted their art to be sublime and certainly not close to home, but that was exactly what was about to happen. While in England and elsewhere the actual landscape was being discovered, writers and artists discovered the people who inhabited it: not heroes and heroines, but normal people whose daily lives, sometimes miserable, began to fuel the narratives of, for example, the novels of Charles Dickens. This new interest in the raw realism of life also prompted the invention of photography; earlier when the protagonists in painting or poetry were grand inventions, there had been no real need for this new medium, although the optical and chemical technology it could probably have been made available. Who wanted realism when art could provide beautiful fantasy? Yet today, when Tracey Emin offers us bitter and sentimental stories from her own life, the public at large is scandalized, even if her art is, as I see it, firmly rooted in this existing tradition of social realism and private revelation.

In a long and famous letter written in America to his brother George and his wife Georgina, dated 14 February–3 May 1819, John Keats reflected on the formation of the personality and on the value of things experienced rather than merely learned. “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?” I do not imply that Tracey Emin has intimate knowledge of nineteenth century English poetry or that Keats's wonderful observation was a direct inspiration to her. That is beside the point. The notion that people learn in the hard School of Life is now commonplace; that fact is enacted every night in Coronation Street, Eastenders, reality TV and the Jerry Springer Show. So why, then, are people so offended by the sentiment of Tracey Emin's notorious soiled bed? Because it is presented as art? Because they think that art should be beautiful, that it should elevate us and transport us out of the misery of daily life into happiness, like advertising? I remember T.S. Eliot’s essay on William Blake’s poetry in which he reads “a particular honesty, which in a world too frightened to be honest, is particularly terrifying. It is an honesty against which the whole world conspires, because it is unpleasant. Blake's poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry.” Would it too presumptuous for me to compare the honesty of Blake with the honesty of Tracey Emin's art? I have only to remind you of what was said in the high street about John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger or the violent music of the Sex Pistols or the frank art of Gilbert & George or Damien Hirst's floating sheep. The point is that artists, if they are any good, have to force their issues, with violence if necessary. The outcome does not necessarily have to be, as in Tracey Emin's case, an intimate tent with the names of all the people she has slept with, or a sweet neon image about anal sex; it could be Alan Charlton’s inscrutable grey monochrome paintings. Time and again, debates flare up about the illusory function of artists in society, because the general public cannot stand their so-called irresponsibility or what Eliot called their “particular honesty.” I can understand that: It is much easier not to confront realities and smoothly meander one’s way through life. However, we need artists to confront us with life, to show us that things do not have to remain as they are, that they can change. By following his urge and his particular honesty as a real artist, Wordsworth gave us a vitally new perception of the English landscape. True, that was very long ago, but when I walked in North Norfolk I could not help thinking of the great poet because there, at least, it was still Wordsworth’s landscape that I was walking in.

* [16]

A few summers ago, I was in the small Norfolk market town of Fakenham, in its quaint provincial shopping mall, Millers Walk. A young couple, a boy and a girl: She was sitting on a bench in front of the newsagents, sipping Diet Coke; he was standing next to her eating chips. I found them beautiful, but a few years earlier I would not have thought so. The boy’s head was shaven; he wore a torn black shirt, black trousers and heavy black boots; he had rings in his ears, a chain around his neck and nose-piercings. The girl also wore black, and also had rings and piercings; her short hair was dyed red with streaks of bright green. When she got up, I saw that she was pregnant. Her short black skirt only just covered her belly and upper thighs. They walked away, his arm around her shoulder. They seemed deeply in love and at ease. I had seen such Gothic people in cities like London and Amsterdam, and sometimes I had felt uneasy about them. They were strange to me. How did they see the world? Here in the quiet of rural England they really stood out; suddenly I realised that my Wordsworthian or Dickensian idea of England that had lingered so long in my mind (and, I am sure, in the minds of many other people) was now pointless. Obviously another culture was emerging and becoming very visible indeed.

This new culture was carried by young people who were also very self-conscious; I could see that in Fakenham. What seems to have happened is that the old moulds of English society can no longer contain many young people; now they can express themselves much more freely. They have become competitive, asserting their subjective emotions in the world of ideas and behaviour. The world is their world as well. I like to think that the emergence of the forceful and irreverent group of British artists. of which Tracey Emin is a prime exponent, is an outcome of that cultural change. And once one starts to think that, it’s easy to accept that the eloquent and particular work of those artists is actually helping to shape the visual physiognomy of the new culture. They are defining it for us to see and recognise as it presents itself. Maybe I noticed that sweet couple in Fakenham more than before because I saw them within the framework of Emin's art. I do not think this is too far-fetched. This is what artists do; their instinct and their particular honesty can lead them to a recognition of the new life that is coming, even if currently it is still dormant. Here, honesty means trusting one’s own instinct and distrusting the old established style. “The artist,” said Ezra Pound,” must make it new.” This means exactly what it says: It cannot be as it was before.

I suspect that people who say that Tracey Emin is a vulgar girl who makes too much money with her rubbish would claim that she cannot even draw or spell properly. That is true when her drawings are compared with the now generally admired drawings of David Hockney. But Emin's drawings are full of anger and sentimentality, and that is why they are as effective as they are. They are new and unpleasant. Her honesty and her trust in her own feelings, has made her avoid making beautiful drawings. But I predict that her drawings will become beautiful, just as Wordsworth's contested descriptions of the English landscape, or Constable's paintings turned out to be so convincing and so beautiful that, in the end, they came to represent the quintessential English landscape.

I believe that the art of Tracey Emin has become an example, if not an icon, of what seems to be changing in our culture. When she had her show in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 2002, I could surmise from the reviews and what I heard from the public that Emin is revered. Why is that? Cultural change in the world is reported every day in newspapers, on television, and on the internet. It cannot just be the content that makes Emin's art so intriguing and compelling. It must be the physical and formal quality of the pieces, the sharpness and precision of their construction. Above all, she is a great and passionate storyteller. In a short introduction I wrote for the catalogue for the Stedelijk show, I suggested that Emin's storytelling is typically female. I began by quoting from a poem by Christina Rossetti, because I think I found in her poetry a certain prim sentimentality that reminded me of Emin's storytelling. Here is part of that quotation from “The Thread of Life”:

What heart shall touch thy heart? what hand thy hand? –

And I am sometimes proud and somtimes meek,

And sometimes I remember days of old

When fellowship seemed not so far to seek

And all the world and I seemed much less cold,

And at the rainbow's foot lay surely gold,

And hope felt strong and life itself not weak.

Then my text continued on to describe how I had once ended up in a discussion about women and art, or maybe women in art. The question was, do women make different art? Or do women like Tracey Emin perhaps make art differently, in a formal and technical sense? One of the things one notices in Victorian poetry is an extreme attention to detail. Detailed description is important for the reality and the impact of a narrative. Here are a few lines from Christina Rosetti's great “Goblin Market”:

Come buy our orchard fruits,

Come buy, come buy:

Apples and quinces,

Lemons and oranges,

Plump unpecked cherries,

Melons and raspberries,

Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,

Swart-headed mulberries...

And the list goes on, in very free verse, uncluttered by artistry. Precise realism was also vitally important in Pre-Raphaelite painting. I mention this because it occurs to me that the Pre-Raphaelite shake-up of English art, considered scandalous at the outset, is comparable with the emergence of the contemporary British movement, even though this movement—if it really is one—is so much looser than The Brotherhood.

The Pre-Raphaelite painters (contemporaries of Rossetti) began painting in a new way, using bright thin colours on a white ground. Their aim was to achieve the intense luminosity of stained-glass windows, in which real light intensified colour. The artistic establishment complained, because Sir Joshua Reynolds had preached that paintings should be not too detailed; the imagery should show itself somewhat veiled by pleasant chiaroscuro ; too much detail was unpleasant and not artistic. Only the other day I tried to convince a young German curator that Tracey Emin was a great artist. He said, “But is it art?”. It was not quite clear where his problem lay, but I think it was with the realism. I believe that the realism, which in Emin's art is extremely literal, is simply necessary, as it was for Christina Rosetti, to make the story precise and aggressive. Earlier I said that The Scream was possibly Munch's artistic manifesto. It may well be that this picture, even if Expressionist in style was, in Munch's perception, a precise, realistic image of an anguished scream. Therefore Tracey Emin's version in Homage to Edvard Munch had to be as realistic, within the context of using film.

Here then, realism is the violent chisel with which to dislodge an image and a content, from its historical and aesthetic overgrowth and make it vital again, and shockingly real. Come to think of it, maybe Emin's artistic manifesto is Everyone I Have Ever Slept With. (To put the record straight, this work is not only about sex; the names of her mother and her twin brother are also embroidered in the tent. So it is also about intimacy and vulnerability, though the tent itself may have come to Emin after an affair with a Turkish gentleman in Turkey, in a tent, an episode she recounts in her writing.

But why should it be an artistic manifesto? Often in the course of the history of art we see how a particular system of style begins to wane when it fails to convince, when forms become numb. It’s in such a strange and weak interlude that we see how one or two great artists turn to realism. That was the case with Caravaggio in Rome and Naples in the early seventeenth century. When he began his career, painting was in a late phase of Mannerism: beautiful, elegant, smooth, rhetorical but-- so Caravaggio must have thought--no longer convincing and no longer real. His great talent lay the painting of martyrdoms. To break the aesthetic deadlock, he painted The Death of the Virgin in such a way that the monks who had commissioned him were shocked, and refused the painting. They said the Virgin was too dead. She looked like a bloody corpse. Also it was rumored that Caravaggio used a famous Roman prostitute he knew well for a model. She had been asleep when he painted her, but he had stripped the image of the usual and traditional beauty, making it harsh and tough. Caravaggio's realism was violent, and it became more so. In the summer of 1608 he painted a Beheading of St John the Baptist of unparalleled violence, signing his name (the only time he did so) with his finger in the blood-red paint that trickled from the martyr's cut throat. Realism, I would argue, is the way by which art can rid itself from aesthetics and again find a sense of the real. Damien Hirst's floating sheep was a similar act of liberating realism, as were the infamous Dirty Words pictures by Gilbert & George.

From the beginning, the system of style on the wane that bothered Tracey Emin was, of course, international Conceptual Art. By that time – 1995 – it become another form of Mannerism, the Mannerism that Bruce Nauman, our Caravaggio, was up against. It had deftly appropriated all media (even painting in the painting of Gerhard Richter) and it could express everything, and in any form. Emin could have named all the people she ever slept with by putting photographs on a wall but that would have turned the project into an aesthetic exercise. The tent with the embroidered names was exactly right, the names named like the fruits in Christina Rosetti's poem. Suddenly, the names in the tent became as real as the blood of John the Baptist. The art of Emin is located precisely at this breaking point, in the interlude between styles. She has introduced a practice of realism, and a particular honesty, from which there is no returning. She is an honest realist. But there is another great painting under which sign her real emotion might be better represented than The Scream. One of Caravaggio's last paintings before his death in 1610, possibly his very last, was David with the Head of Goliath. There is the young hero, sword in right hand, while the left hand thrusts forth, like a lantern to illuminate the dark, the decapitated head of Goliath. Some people say that the face of young David resembles that of Caravaggio himself. I believe that. It makes sense with this realist artist; the dead head of Goliath is certainly a self-portrait at the time that he painted the picture: one eye is half closed, as if he had been hit in a fight, and the mouth is frozen in a hideous grimace. Imagine an artist portraying himself dead, all for realism. That is one tough image Tracey Emin might imagine in her efforts to incorporate her life into her art: to make it real.

First published in Fuchs, Rudi. Tracey Emin: When I Think About Sex..., (London: Jay Jopling/White Cube, 2005)