Tracey Emin and William Blake: In Focus at Tate Liverpool compares important works from both artists focusing on the themes of death, birth and spirituality. The exhibition originated from Emin’s own idea to be juxtaposed against Blake’s work using her iconic My Bed (1998) piece along with a selection of her drawings, with the aim of highlighting their shared idea of artistic authenticity through existential pain and the possibility of a spiritual rebirth through art.
Emin’s My Bed is not only the first piece that comes to mind when her name is mentioned, but is the first piece encountered within the exhibition. It is the portrayal of the fragile psyche created in response to Emin’s nervous breakdown, and in its raw existence it strips away the barrier between viewer and artists, inviting them to share the most personal of spaces. The selection of Blake’s accompanying illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy mirrors this, in his exploration of the fragile human condition he displays visions of human despair as seen in The Circle of the Lustful (1825–27) and The Pit of Disease: The Falsifiers (1826–7), in which the tortured soul and the darkness of life is explored. It is this connection which reinforces the link between the two artists and for me, resonates stronger than the clearly defined subjects of death, birth and spiritualism that the exhibition text focuses on. This palpable link is integral due to the weight My Bed carries as a representation of YBA shock art and therefore could be in danger of overpowering the subtle and deeper meanings of the work and also the connection to Blake’s pieces within the exhibition.
The final room encourages the conversation surrounding the portrayal of women. It contains a series of gouache drawings of a reclining female body by Emin that sit alongside Blake’s paintings on subjects taken from the bible and mythology. Blake’s depiction of women is the typical saint/sinner connotation of the period, illustrated in works such as The Death of the Virgin (1803), in which women represent an ideal rather than existing as individuals. This is in contrast to Emin’s portrayal of women, in her gouache pieces such as All for You (2014) they exude sexuality and exist as empowered individuals even though their face is omitted from the paintings.
It is this distinction between the two artists that makes the exhibition so intriguing; William Blake’s pieces being typical of the romantic period and feature Christian themes, whilst Tracey Emin makes autobiographical work that establishes an intimacy with the viewer. Nevertheless once you explore their practices and context, both offer an insightful discussion around the human condition. It is this which makes the exhibition so compelling as it explores two artist that wouldn’t normally be associated with each other and aligning the two highlights different concepts that may be overlooked due to their celebrity.
Claire Walker is a writer based in Wigan
Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool
16 September 2016 to 3 September 2017