Seminal (and often controversial) modern artist Tracey Emin has long had a fascination with impressionist painter Edvard Munch. In this virtual version of an exhibition opening at the Royal Academy Of Arts in May, Emin selects masterpieces by Munch to show alongside her most recent paintings. 3 of our writers opened their minds (and their laptops) to channel their inner art critics and see what the fuss was all about.
I’ve had a longstanding interest in art having studied it at university. I’ve been lucky enough to visit numerous galleries before many were forced to close and go digital due to multiple Covid lockdowns, which has completely altered the way we view art (I’m hoping not forever). This opportunity to view the exhibition ‘Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul’ online is definitely a welcomed one, though it doesn’t quite compare to really being there.
I’ll start by saying that I’m not a massive fan of Tracey Emin’s installation based works (‘My Bed’ springs to mind) but I do appreciate her emotional honesty surrounding feminist subject matter and her reflection on her own lived experiences as a woman, for which she has a lot to share. In this RA exhibition, Tracey Emin’s work is exhibited alongside Edvard Munch which is humbling, given that Munch is an artist whom Emin felt so connected to and inspired by, giving a really nice narrative to the exhibition by drawing strong connections between their individual works, and for this, the exhibition is charming.
I won’t talk about the specific artworks in detail because if you are interested in them, but I would recommend you view the exhibition online, as you might see something I completely missed, which I think is the appealing thing about art, there’s no right or wrong interpretation!
Initially, I was worried that the detail from the artworks would be lost by not being able to get up really close like you would in person (though not too close of course) but I was pleased to see that the RA drew focus on some paintings to highlight certain marks and gestures. Despite this though, it’s a real shame being unable to view the exhibition as a whole, to see how the artworks work in conjunction with one another and to do so at my own pace without the need to irritatingly, quickly press pause. I’m the sort of art gallery visitor that likes to take a scan of the room and be sure to view every work but only spend long amounts of time on those that instantly intrigue me, swiftly moving on from those that don’t. So, I’m not so sure this virtual tour is quite suited to the way I navigate an art gallery.
Potentially controversially, (working in an art gallery myself, I often have people ask me for the meanings behind artworks when there aren’t any contextual descriptions) I really appreciated the absence of contextual descriptions accompanying each artwork. I feel this can totally alter the viewing experience from one that could be personal and interpretive, to one that leaves you spending more time reading someone else’s interpretation than appreciating the artwork itself. Therefore, I was able to focus more on the art, a lot of which I have never seen before, which is why virtual tours like this can be really worthwhile.
Annoyingly though, I can’t ignore the continuous soundtrack that accompanies the virtual tour. And before you think, ‘well, just press mute’: I can’t mute real noises inside a gallery (sadly) so why should I now? The reason for the soundtrack? I’m not really sure. Perhaps it’s to make the experience more immersive but the music just doesn’t represent the real art gallery ‘soundtrack’; chuck in some ‘discreet’ sneezes, whispery chit chat and footsteps amongst silence then that probably would be far more realistic in my opinion.
I think it’s great to be able to view an exhibition from the comfort of your own home, especially during a pandemic. More importantly, it’s great that virtual tours like this make art so much more accessible to those who may not have the opportunities to visit a gallery or who may have felt too intimidated to. However, having visited a gallery I have an experience to compare this virtual one to and sadly, it just doesn’t give me the same captivating viewing experience.
Before I began the Tracey Emin and Edvard Munch: Loneliness of the Soul virtual tour, I thought it would be a important to start this review with a disclaimer about not being an art critic: to confess that my art education stops after GCSE and that I really love going to galleries, for the art, but also equally for the nice cafes that they often have. After finishing the tour I realise now that this probably isn’t important; I don’t feel like Tracey Emin or Edvard Munch’s work requires you to be a cultural expert to enjoy it, you can just be a normal person with empathy, looking to find connection.
The tour begins with a curator’s statement. This exhibit is the first time that the two artists’ work has been displayed together, born one-hundred years apart. I thought it was really beautiful that Emin described Munch as “a friend in art”; this relationship shows. Both artists explore the complexities of the female experience. Munch does this from a perceptive, empathetic, observational standpoint, whilst Emin fully exposes her inner turmoil and distress from a distinctly female perspective. Emin’s work reminded me of late night phone calls and emergency meet-ups with my friends, when we needed each other, during the times when life as a woman was difficult to navigate. Her paintings are red and chaotic and difficult to define, their shapelessness to me represents the feelings that don’t have easy solutions. Titles such as I never Asked to Fall in Love- You made me Feel like This and Every Part of me Kept Loving You echo broken-hearted girls’ diary entries and unsent letters made public and explicit.
Munch’s work compliments Emin’s. His series of female nudes express curiosity about the women he paints that goes beyond their form. Like Emin’s work, the subjects’ bodies are undefined with loose brush strokes and unnaturalistic colors; they say more about the mystery of what is going on underneath than the exterior reality of their bodies. The final piece in the series is Munch’s Consolation. I feel like this really nicely concludes the series as it reflects the artists’ relationship with each other, whilst their art materialises heartbreak and loneliness they are connected in this experience, and the viewers of the exhibition can find togetherness in shared isolation.
The digital format works for this exhibition, the camera draws you in close to see the details in the paintings and sculptures. It is comforting to imagine everyone sitting by themselves in their houses and consuming this work, reminding them that they are not alone in being alone.
What an eerie experience. Sitting still and alone, hypnotic music plays as the camera glides over artworks that exist without space. You don’t get up on your feet. There are no conversations around you. The screen presents the works at the director’s chosen angle. Your eyes are not your own.
The virtual tour left me longing to enter the physical gallery and explore the exhibition on my own terms. I didn’t like having my time with each work limited by the recording, nor how the camera would zoom to parts of each piece that I wasn’t interested in, choosing the viewing angle for me. I wanted to pause and reflect, pace back and forth to look at all the different perspectives on a piece, take the time to choose my favourites, get annoyed when my view is blocked by someone’s selfie. For everything that’s good about the artworks, the online experience was lacking.
That said, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to view The Loneliness of the Soul at all. Not just because lockdown has cut us all off from galleries, but also because I live 273 miles away from the Royal Academy and never would have been able to see this exhibition anyway. While it left me wanting more, it was a chance to see artworks I couldn’t have otherwise.
And I’m very grateful for that opportunity. The fact that I wanted more is a testament to the quality of the exhibition. The works were carefully chosen and it felt like Emin and Munch were always meant to be presented together. All the pieces present female forms that are simultaneously beautiful and upsetting; ghostly bodies that unravel into the canvas. Emin’s works are like Munch’s exploded outward; the blue and lonesome tones of his work persist, but her further abstractions give the pieces an intensity that isn’t present with Munch’s. There is rage and sorrow to them that I felt viscerally; the scrawls in place of faces evoked bodies that wanted to destroy themselves; the carved words “THERE IS NOTHING LEFT BUT YOU” stirred up conflicting feelings of love and loneliness.
Munch’s paintings evoke similar emotions. The gaunt-looking figures, in combination with the thick lines and pale colouration make everything about the paintings feel sad and vulnerable. Even the graceful figures of reclining women feel more like solemn subjects than the beautified objects of a portrait. The sadness of the bodies is intertwined with the form of Munch’s paintings just as the bodies’ anxiety and pain is to Emin’s work. The way both use images of female bodies in combination with expressionist style to portray complex emotions makes these artists a strong pair. If I’d gone to this exhibition in person I absolutely would have spent hours exploring the space.
Together the works appeal to something universal. Without words they reach out to anyone who’s ever felt loneliness, anxiety, heartbreak, felt the sense of misfit, or being somehow wrong, and reflect those feelings back to you in all their complexity. It’s what I love about expressionism. There is no attempt to rationalise or explain, things are not beautified, they are simply shown as they are: anxious and confused, denied form. The shape of the works reawakens all these tumultuous emotions in the onlooker and, even through a brief video on a screen, that shared experience of isolation makes us feel less alone.
You can view the virtual tour for yourself, and find details about the upcoming real life exhibition on the Royal Academy website.