Tracey Emin & William Blake Study Day

Tate Liverpool  December 2016

The Tracey Emin & William Blake in Focus Exhibition creates an imaginative dialogue across the centuries of two celebrated British artists. The Study Day, led by Julie Robson from the University of Liverpool, was an opportunity to examine Emin and Blake  through slide presentations, group discussion and visit to the exhibits.

I enjoyed this day very much particularly the exploration of how the work of one artist may help to see things in the work of another, both similarities and contrasts. Here are a few brief notes of my reactions  two work  by the artists from what was a full and fascinating session.

My Bed 1998, Tracey EminMy Bed 1998 by Tracey Emin born 1963

This famous and controversial piece, created following a very low point in Emin’s life, reeks of rubbish, disorder, chaos, abandonment, loss, suffering, pain. It is a self portrait of Emin following what she herself has described as a lost weekend following an abortion. But there is also a strange beauty in the piece the more you spend time with it. For example,  in the folds created by the bedding pushed aside when the bed was vacated. It is also a deeply personal and private piece – who else would want their unmade bed to be seen by anyone? Each time the bed is exhibited Emin on her own in the gallery insists on setting it up, she re-visits and re-inhabits it again, though it is now the bed the other person she once was.

Soul Hovering Over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life, c. 1803 William BlakeThe Soul Hovering over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life c.1805 by William Blake 1757-1827

I was drawn to this little preparatory sketch done for a book  illustration of a poem by Robert Blair, The Grave. It is a subtle and gentle sketch which like Emin’s work is about loss and death. In Emin it is the loss of a whole weekend wasted, the loss of some aspects of her self and the loss of life through abortion, perhaps the loss of hope that things can get better. For me that loss in Emin is a kind of death which seems to be underlined by the resonances with graves seen as beds and here the bed clothes as grave clothes.Blake draws dead male figure whose more feminine soul looks longingly at the body. He captures the sense in Blair’s poem of death wrenching us apart from the people and things we love. Invidious Grave—how dost thou rend in sunder, Whom love has knit, and sympathy made one!


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