Tracey Emin and William Blake Not Such Strange Bedfellows Tate Liverpool

Tracey Emin

On entering the exhibition, it is slightly dark and there is a warm familiar and welcoming atmosphere if not slightly nostalgic. Tracy Emin’s famous bed, I would think is a familiar scene for many a woman. I certainly found it reminded me of my youth because I am a woman and those items from Tracy Emin’s youth and the overall scene is familiar. The bed transfers its meaning through time and space and will no doubt have significance for each person. As a woman now seeing this in real life I know that I relate to it and admire this bed. It is a symbol of womanhood and life experience.

The bed is similar to an entry in a diary, the beginning of a novel or a scene from a film or the scene from the opening of a play. It is very film noir in some ways and has a feeling of French avant-guard cinema. There is also an essence of Marilyn Monroe about it and those last pure white dishevelled sheets in her later life and in her earlier life within films such as Niagara and the bed could be said to transform a symbolic message of self-destruction, sexuality, death and sacrifice. The bed itself also has religious connotations. Reflecting upon it later, I felt it reminded me of a tomb and a shroud which in context with William Blake’s religious and visionary paintings merged well. It is also a very romantic but also a rebellious installation. There are many ideas you can gain from this artwork and many things one can gain from appreciating this kind of artwork in galleries.

The bed is a story frozen in time, an autobiography of a woman’s life and her youth, her environment and the changes she entails within her life and the emotions she experienced. Look into it as a narrative and you will discover an autobiography. It is also a reminder that our rooms become an homage to our lives, a reflection of our inner thoughts and feelings and our inner selves. Our beds and our surroundings are symbolic of our relationships, our souls and our hidden psyches, an extremely intimate aspect of our lives and therefore I feel it is brave to put this confessional artwork out there.

Tracy Emin’s bed is a confessional installation and a still life, a self-portrait showing us a glimpse into her youth and a specific time she experienced. Each object surrounding the bed reflects a part of her life; the cigarettes, the slippers, screwed up pieces of paper, bottle of vodka, photographs and much more. Have a look at these objects and also notice how they have changed over time It is an interesting reminiscence activity and an insight into the artist’s life and also reflects many aspects of art history.

For instance, the renaissance portraits of people and their status objects of choice that once represented who they were, meant something to them,for example, Holbein’s depiction of Les Ambassadeurs, within the tradition of showing learned men with books and instruments, making references to contemporary religious divisions. Emin’s bed challenges gender traditions and status objects and also turns this idea into a more personal reflection and confessional poem of her life without involving her physical presence. Instead her spiritual presence is there, allowing us to reflect upon the objects themselves, the life of the person who embodies these objects as well as our own lives, similar to when we see a painting by the artist, Van Gogh for instance,a painting of his bedroom or a painting of his pipe on his chair. The bed is a very humble and a tender insight into the human condition and particularly that of a young woman.

In the tradition of art assemblage, the bed is also a ready-made and relates to the Dada anti-art movement of 1913, using the ‘normal every day’, object to speak for itself and fight against the norm and the establishment. However, Tracy Emin, although using this medium has created a very personal piece that conveys meaning on a multitude of levels. Rather than using the object to convey its own meaning she uses all the objects in relation to each other and as a narrative, a painting, and performance.

I think what also stands out is the composition as a whole. There is a white cubic form with shades of different whites, beautifully crumpled and dishevelled. Then we have a muted blue rug in the foreground covered in objects from her life. This could be a scene from a painting by Cezanne or Van Gogh but somehow with the muted lighting, I can’t help gaining something theatrical from this scene, almost Gothic, or a scene

from an 18th-century play or novel. I think this is the beauty of this artwork in that it can be interpreted in a multitude of ways and perhaps even the artist herself can at times appropriate the artwork into new concepts in order to enquire and engage herself with its ongoing journey through time. I find this communication with an artwork from one’s past in relation to the present an interesting idea.

As you walk on, you will see a display of works by the great poet and artist William Blake. These artworks are outstanding in their visionary content, beauty, and drama. They show paintings from his illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy 1826 – 7 and also works from his Songs of Innocence. It is incredible to see them in real life. It is at this point I am interested to see if I can find correlations between his works and the work of Tracy Emin and why?

”In his epic poem known as the Divine Comedy, Dante creates a fictional version of himself who travels through the farthest reaches of hell(Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio) and paradise (Paradiso). Many details that he describes along this journey have left a lasting impression on the Western imagination for more than half a millennium. In fact, the rather stereotypical images of the afterlife… are all represented in his work. But Dante also found novel ways to portray already well-formed concepts, thus further solidifying them while also reshaping them into new guises that would become familiar to countless generations that followed.”

Tracy Emin’s bed works well with the idea of purgatory and paradise. The narrative of the bed and its surrounding objects represent a journey that transcribes a world that could represent darkness and light and has religious connotations. Similarly Blake’s works pull the viewer into this visionary world of personal torment and self discovery. Although very different artists in style, there are some interesting and similar dialogues taking place between the two artists in this exhibition and context.

”..Blake’s work The Songs of Innocence and of Experience is an illustrated collection of poems. It appeared in two phases. A few first copies were printed and illuminated by William Blake himself in 1789; Five years later he bound these poems with a set of new poems in a volume titled Songs of Innocence and of Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Blake uses the simple structure of short, lyrical poems to subtly question and criticises the practices of his society and the church at the time. Blake was deeply religious but .”

According to his longtime friend John Thomas Smith, “He did not for the last forty years attend any place of Divine worship.” For Blake, true worship was private communion with the spirit.”

”In 2009 Tracy Emin was the winner of the Art and Christianity Enquiry (ACE) Award for Art in a Religious Context for her work, For You which was commissioned by the Cathedral Chapter as the Cathedral’s contribution to Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture 2008. The previous year this work also enabled the Cathedral to win the first Liverpool Chamber of Commerce Arts Award…The artist writes: “The Church has always been a place, for me, for contemplation. I wanted to make something for Liverpool Cathedral about love and the sharing of love. Love is a feeling which we internalise; a feeling very hard to explain. I thought it would be nice for people to sit in the Cathedral and have a moment to contemplate the feelings of love, it’s something we just don’t have enough time to think about and I hope this work creates this space in time.” Liverpool Echo, September 2008.

The more ambiguous aspects of Emin’s works are her six drawings of the human form within the exhibition at Tate Liverpool. Her series of six gouache works on paper are exhibited near to Blake’s works. They are expressive sketches of the female figure. The titles are: ‘All for you’, ‘Just waiting’, ‘ ‘I could feel you’, ‘Total reverse’, ‘Stay up’, and ‘On her side’, reveal an intimate portrait of sexuality, love, and intimacy. These drawings relate to relationships and we think of love and again the bed and how the idea of the bed keeps emerging as a symbol of our most intimate thoughts and relationships with others as well as ourselves throughout our lives

These raw and rough sketches are quite beautiful and depict the passionate and vulnerable heart of a woman’s love which I felt was very important to Tracy Emin. Within this quiet space of self-confession, there is also the voice of tenderness. This exhibition reminds us that the human condition is as always ever prevalent. At the end of the day, we are all vulnerable and open to pain, love, and joy.

”From the summit of Purgatory, Dante ascends in the Paradiso, guided by Beatrice, into the celestial Paradise, where love, truth, and beauty intertwine in his great vision of the Christian revelation. Yet, the Commedia is essential reading not merely for Christians, poets, and historians, but for anyone struggling with issues of morality, the ethical framework of society, and the challenge of living the true life.”

The question is, what is true life? What are we looking for? What is it we want? We are all looking for a good life. We are all looking for joy. We don’t really need a lot to get it. Our eyes should be open to the joy around us. This is how we start out our lives. Where can life be found? We search for it in many different places. Could it be if we have a bigger house we will enjoy life? We keep seeking the answer to satisfy us. For some of us, it is relationships. Perhaps we are just looking for someone to make us happy. This is true but we may find a lot of heartache in this area. Or maybe it is self-image. How people see us in the right way means we will be happy? Or is it education? We have this status and degree so we will be respected? Success, comfort, relationship, possessions are the main things people seek. The trouble is not much of this really works. What do we do when people hurt us? What do we do when our possessions break or get lost or decline? However much this brings us fulfilment it will also disappoint us.

I am looking around at some of my favourite paintings by William Blake, the deeply religious artist of his time. There is so much to think about here, this visionary element and also this sense of suffering and sacrifice. Tracy Emin’s bed becomes a symbol of suffering and sacrifice in context with this exhibition. Tracy Emin, the controversial artist of her time expressing her thoughts and feelings and analysing her own life through her art has also been the target of much criticism. How the artist is perceived in context with their time is present within this exhibition. Like Tracy Emin, Blake was regarded with suspicion and generally misunderstood in his day.’Today Blake is acknowledged as a seminal figure in British culture and Romantic art whose influence is felt across artistic disciplines.’ It is good to see that Tracy Emin’s art is reaching out beyond the confinements of London and starting to engage with those people further afield who do not normally get a chance to see major exhibitions of female contemporary artists.

This is a beautifully curated exhibition and fascinating to view these works together. Do go and see!

References: late-gothic/a/dante’s-divine-comedy-in-late-medieval-and-early-renaissance-art

Words/Photo Alice Lenkiewicz © Artlyst 2016



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