Today I’d like to talk about a particularly interesting exhibit I visited in Liverpool several weeks ago. Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus sees the work of two brilliant artists exhibited together in the same space. The two artists in question are not usually associated with one another.
Tracey Emin was born in 1963 and rose to prominence as a member of the Young British Artists, alongside contemporaries Damien Hirst and Angela Bulloch. On her website it is written that “Emin’s work has an immediacy and often sexually provocative attitude that firmly locates her oeuvre within the tradition of feminist discourse.” I have been reading a book about the Young British Artists called Artrage!: The Story of the BritArt Revolution. In it, Emin’s works have stood out to me for their broad range of mediums and brutal– at times repelling– emotional honesty.
On the other hand, William Blake was born in 1757. His relief etchings and paintings, influenced by his peculiar views on the supernatural and sexuality, were largely criticized during his lifetime. The post-humous publication of his biography in the mid 19th century propelled his legacy into the foreground of artistic and philosophical thought. Today Blake is considered one of the most important artists in Britain’s history.
So why has the Tate Liverpool chosen to exhibit the works of these artists together? On its website, the museum cites “a shared concern with birth, death, and spirituality” as the reason for comparing the two artists side-by-side. It also touches on Blake’s categorization as a Romanticist. The Romanticism movement witnessed a creative shift towards the individual, his emotions, and his place in the natural world (alongside God, as well as plants and animals). According to the Tate Liverpool, the exhibit “affirms Blake’s romantic idea of artistic truth through existential pain and the possibility of spiritual rebirth through art.”
In this post, I will explore how Blake’s journey for artistic truth mirrors and enhances the emotional gravity of Emin’s famous work, My Bed (1998).
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First, take a look at Emin’s installation:
Note the array of items strewn across the carpet– condoms, a bottle of alcohol, slippers, a newspaper, a razor, a cigarette box, dirty tissues, a belt, dirty underwear, and a stuffed animal, to name a few. Note also how the mattress has not been sanitarily fitted with a sheet, but haphazardly covered with a thin layer of sweat-drenched bedding.
Emin created My Bed after spending a weekend in her bed– this bed– guzzling alcohol after a sour break-up. She woke up one morning to the scene that us visitors now have the privilege to see as objective outsiders. She looked down upon the mess of bottles, tampons, and cigarette butts and realized that this bed, and all of the items around it, were the purest expression of her emotional state. Any other attempt to express herself at this specific moment in time wouldn’t hold a candle to the stark reality of her bedroom. And so, she exhibited the bed and all its accouterments at the Tate Gallery in 1999.
My Bed was met with a variety of responses, all of them impassioned. After all, how could one have a lukewarm impression of such a bold, shocking work? Some found it to be genius, a moving snapshot of the artist at a breaking point. Others ridiculed it, stating that a collection of objects– which anyone could piece together– could never be art. This was a perspective put forward by a visitor to the Tate Liverpool during a lecture I attended. The basis of the woman’s argument was that each individual aspect of the work, such as a single sock, was not art, so therefore the entire work could not be. The lecturer responded brilliantly. First he said, “You believe that you could have done this. And yet, think of the darkest time of your entire life. Everything you felt, deep inside. Now imagine sharing that with the entire world. Would you do that? Most people wouldn’t. But Tracey did. That is why it is so special.”
Secondly, he listed an idea and skill as the two concepts that can be utilized to make art. He pointed out that Emin undoubtedly has technical skill– it is evident in many of her other works. But an idea, too, can be art. And her idea was an emotional, painful, never-before-seen idea that causes visitors to stop and feel something. I personally really like My Bed. When I first saw it, I felt a pang inside my chest. While I have never gone on a three-day-long alcohol binge without eating, I have experienced loneliness– we all have. One’s bedroom ought to be a place of solace, but during dark times it can morph into a cave of isolation. Since it is no one’s space but your own, it is easy to retreat into it, and never expect anyone to come looking.
Here is a photograph of My Bed in the context of the room, and one of me beside it:
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With everything I’ve said about Emin in mind, let’s switch gears and take a look at a series of works by William Blake.
This first painting is a work entitled Pity (1795).
It is worth mentioning that Blake claimed to see visions for the entirety of his life. Thus, the supernatural elements in a work like Pity take on a more series significance. This is not merely a religious depiction of an angel peering down at a sleeping woman, but a scene that Blake took to be real, to some degree. Blake saw a very thin barrier between the living and the death, the divine and the human; a barrier that could easily be penetrated. The title of the work, “Pity” suggests that the angel above the sleeping woman is taking pity on her for some reason or another. Perhaps the figure dangling from his fingers is a man he is sending down to earth to be with the lonely woman. Or perhaps the figure has just died, and the angel is taking him up to heaven, away from the grieving woman. Either way, the fact that the angel has an opinion about the woman, and takes an active role in improving her well-being suggests that Blake viewed his own life as being influenced by supernatural beings. It reinforces Blake’s romantic interest in his own self and his place within the greater scheme of life. It also demonstrates what the Tate Liverpool describes as his desire to seek artistic truth through the depiction of his perception of the universe.
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Another work that achieves a similarly eerie effect is The Soul Hovering Over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life (1805).
Here, a wispy series of lines designates the outline of a soul. It peers down at the dead body below, longing to be with him. This drawing reflects Blake’s perception of life and death, and his characterization of the relationship between the soul and the human body. Perhaps it was his own fear of death that propelled him to make such a work; it reinforced the notion that there is some sort of existence after the body has expired. Or perhaps Blake witnessed such an occurrence in one of his visions. Either way, the drawing is another example of the artist’s exploration of his own place in a multi-dimensional world.
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I was quite fond of Blake’s 1826 painting, The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve for its emotional depiction of each member of the family.
In this scene, Blake’s religious upbringing is evident. He depicts Eve bending over the body of her dead son Abel in sorrow, her arms contorting out of their sockets above her head. Behind her, Adam looks towards Cain with an expression of confusion and sadness. His hands are flexed upwards in a manner that today seems effeminate, but likely were composed with the intention of appearing shocked; the angle and straightness of the fingers can only be maintained with great tension and effort. Lastly, Cain flees the scene in a manner that manages to be both graceful and deeply distressed. Note his pointed right foot and the straightness of his right leg. He looks as if he is in the middle of a ballet. Blake maintained a high level of craftsmanship while simultaneously breaking traditional molds to show these biblical figures with real, human emotions. Take a look at Cain’s face below:
Cain’s eyes dip to one direction, staring into nothingness as he panics about what he has done, rather than seeing what is directly in front of him. The sense of distress is reinforced by his furrowed eyebrows, carved from several upward brushstrokes and mirrored by upturned eyelids. An open expression of fear is frozen on his mouth. Though we cannot see Cain physically tearing his hair out, the tension in his arms– specifically a bulging vein in his left forearm– indicate the strength with which he is pulling at his hair.
The intensity of Cain’s expression, as well as those of Adam and Eve, serve to humanize a religious tale, placing it closer to the realm of reality. This signifies Blake’s own relationship with religion, or at least with the morals religion teaches. His conflation of the supernatural/divine with the real suggest that there is not such a strong boundary between the two. Furthermore, it reveals Blake’s own journey for truth through an exploration of morality.
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I have now delved deeply into My Bed and a series of Blake’s works. Before I wrote that this post would elucidate how similar the two artists are, and how their work reinforces the emotional weight of the other. Can you infer before reading further how this is so?
First and foremost, the two artists broke traditional expectations of what art is supposed to be. Emin created an installation that pushed the boundaries of modern art. She created a concept, withholding her technical skill, to showcase a moment of her life more truly and deeply than she believed a painting ever could. Furthermore, its autobiographical nature, unshielded by a frame or allegory, tested many people’s limits. Blake created religious images that challenged the norms of religious paintings by humanizing characters from the bible. He also confronted societal perceptions of life, death, the divine, and the supernatural by depicting interactions between these supposedly separate entities.
Secondly, the two artists used their own methods to explore the possibility of spiritual and artistic rebirth. Emin, though the display of My Bed, was able to look objectively at a moment in her life and realize its emotional power. In sharing this dark part of her soul, she accepted its place in her life and could potentially move past it. In doing so, she broke the rules about art and moved into a new creative headspace. Blake, with the aid of his visions and unique philosophical views, explored his place in the world through paintings that conflated seemingly disparate entities. This process legitimized his perception of the world while simultaneously shifting the paradigm of religious art.
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I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it! If you’d like to read more about Tracey Emin I suggest you take a look at ArtRage! And if you’re interested in William Blake as I am, well, accompany me to the library because we both have quite a lot of reading to do. In my background research I also found several sources that touched upon his liberal sexual politics– apparently Blake also disagreed with marriage as an institution. How does that knowledge influence your reading of his works? I’m interested to hear.
And if you have the luck to be in Liverpool before early September, swing by the Tate. You won’t regret it.
Until next time!