Tracey Emin on her 40-year relationship with Edvard Munch

Published 22 December 2020

In this highly personal piece Tracey Emin discusses her lifelong ‘friend in art’, Edvard Munch, and tells us more about the creation of the joint exhibition The Loneliness of the Soul at the Royal Academy of Arts, supported by Art Fund.

Self portrait, August 2020, © Tracey Emin

When I was about 17, I really became aware of Munch. I realised he was different from the other Expressionists. In fact, he wasn’t really an Expressionist; he was more of a Jungian emotionalist. He made art about emotion, not about expression, and that was very different.

I wasn’t aware there was art where people could express their emotions, and that is what I related to. I’ve been expressing my emotions since the age of two. My whole personality is based on that. I began responding to Munch’s work. I made homages to him. I made hundreds of multicoloured woodcuts. I made woodblock frames around my paintings. I copied Munch, for want of a better word, but with my own subject matter.

Munch had a really deep respect and regard for women. He held them quite high on a pedestal. He was good friends with the women he painted. For a long time, I thought Munch was gay because his interpretation of women is very romantic, and the sexual energy behind the women is more archetypal – a femme fatale, a Madonna, a mother or a sister. It’s not about fecundity. He never got married, and he spent a lot of his life alone.

Edvard Munch, Female Nude, 1919-24, Munchmuseet, © Munchmuseet

When I’m with other people, I go all spongiform, and I don’t think properly. It completely softens me and also then interferes with my work. I start drawing kittens and stuff like that, and Munch did this as well. He painted lots of animals. His paintings of dogs are so beautiful. As an artist, you will think more purely and profoundly alone than you will if you are with somebody else.

The title of the exhibition at the RA is ‘The Loneliness of the Soul’. The soul just drifts around, looking for a soulmate. The soul doesn’t just want the boy or girl next door; it is looking for eternal love. Munch was looking for that. He was trying to find that within his work, within his life, within the way he lived.

When you find your kindred spirit, even if they’re dead, and you look at their work, and their work is sincere and profound, and you link into it, it makes you feel better. You think: ‘Ah yes, phew.’ I just had really terrible cancer, so my attitude about being alone is slightly different from before, because I realised that if I hadn’t had the people around me who love me, I don’t know if I would have made it. I think it’s love that’s kept me strong. But death and solitude and loneliness are all completely related. No one is going with you, the same as no one is born with you.

Tracey Emin, You Kept it Coming, 2019. The artist & Xavier Hufkens, Brussels. © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020

I spent a lot of time in Oslo preparing for the exhibition, going through the Munch archive. I went through all his works on paper, watercolours, notebooks, sketchbooks, his clothes, his old paints, his drinks cabinet, his furniture. Imagine being the number-one Munch fan and then having access to all that stuff. It was like a dream come true. I ran my hand along his sofa, and I thought: ‘Oh god, that’s so weird,’ because he must have done that 100,000 times.

The vaults where the work is kept are like bank vaults, and the door closed. The door weighs a ton. It just can’t close on its own. It’s not possible. It’s about energy. If you think about the amount of emotion that I had in that room, thinking about Munch, it could actually make the door close. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Munch’s ghost, just the energy of the room.

When I decided that the theme of the exhibition would be loneliness, I did it like a story in my mind. There were more than 800 paintings in the archive, but I purposely didn’t want to choose those which Munch is really known for. I was trying to tell a story with me and Munch, in collaboration, like a dialogue. Imagine if Munch was alive and said to me: ‘OK, Trace, right, you’re my mate. I’ll let you have maybe 20 works: 10 watercolours, 10 paintings. Do you want any photos? Anything else you want?’ I go: ‘No, I’ll just have the watercolours and the paintings. Do you mind if I hang the watercolours in a cloud hang?’ He goes: ‘No, do what you like.’ And then we talk about loneliness, suffering, unrequited love. We talk about despair, abortion, all these things. Then, through that, we come up with the show together. That’s how I’ve been talking to Munch since I was 17.

Tracey Emin, Because You Kept Touching Me, 2019. Private collection, California. © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2020

As an artist, when you like another artist’s work, you have a rapport with them; that’s how you learn. I wrote my thesis on him, when I was at art school. It was called My Man Munch. Essentially, it was just a really big fucking love letter to Edvard Munch.

Interview by Anna McNay. A version of this article first appeared in the winter 2020 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul at the Royal Academy of Arts is supported by Art Fund.

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