If you think Instagram has skewed our ideas on natural beauty, consider the Ancient Greeks. Back in 4th-century BC Athens, it was the men who had it tough. Surrounded by statues of passive-faced muscle men (many of whom were, quite literally, Greek gods), they were taught that outer beauty reflected inner perfection. It was an ideal that again found traction in the Renaissance – even if Michelangelo’s ripped torsos were later joined by Rubens’ bosomy beauties.
The works in the Royal Academy’s exhibition, The Loneliness of the Soul (currently closed due to coronavirus but scheduled to reopen when rules allow), reveal a more honest portrayal of the human body, influenced by both the emotional and physical pain of the artists involved. Showing a selection of Edvard Munch paintings chosen by Tracey Emin alongside pieces by the artist herself, they’re an unflinching look at inner turmoil or abject happiness wrought through physical imagery. How did we get from the blank faces and perfect bodies of the ancients to these very real depictions of the human body and mind?
In the century before Munch began to paint, huge strides were made in artist’s subject matter. Realist painters keen to subvert 19th-century prudishness had turned their attention to more graphic and honest portrayals of human activity and form. The French socialist Gustave Courbet was particularly daring, at once celebrated and vilified for his portrayals of prostitutes and lesbians – including The Origin Of The World, a graphic painting that still holds considerable shock value.
Looking at these pictures with a 21st century gaze, you won’t find much emotion on the canvas, despite the more realistic subject matter. But, almost one hundred years later, Rodin took the classical statue and imbued it with an inner turmoil rarely seen before. In his sculpture Adam, the Classical notion of a perfect body is clearly evident. But unlike body-beautifuls such as Michelangelo’s proud David, this man turns away from the viewer, head bowed in shame and leg bent to protect his modesty. Adam (whose physique is borrowed from the Sistine Chapel) is not a happy man, and we know it instantly.
Munch was a teenager when Rodin made Adam, but he’d already experienced a lifetime of disaster. A sickly child, he lost both his mother and favourite sister before he reached adulthood. To make matters worse, Munch believed his father was religious to the point of madness, and that his mental instability had been passed down. Encouraged by the philosopher Hans Jaeger, he set out to relay his troubles through painting.
His love life offered plenty to inspire: an ill-fated affair with Mathilde ‘Tulla’ Larsen (which ended with a gun wound to Munch’s finger) resulted in the painting Head by head, in which he and Larsen look sad and distant despite their naked physical proximity; in another series of paintings influenced by the relationship, a dead man lies on bloodstained sheets, while a naked woman stands beside him impassively. The woman in his famous Madonna is menacingly seductive, her perfect body a thing to be both feared and revered. In other nudes, Munch evokes a terrific discomfort akin to many of Emin’s most famous pieces. Female subjects are depicted collapsed and weeping, or distant and thoughtful.
It’s Munch’s ability to convey a complexity of emotions, both in the subject and the viewer, that makes him a natural pairing with Emin. She has long credited him with being an influence on her work which, like his, is inseparable from her life and memories.
Emin’s assertion in a 1997 Frieze interview that “love isn’t always gentle” chimes well with Munch’s perception of romantic liaisons. Like Munch, Emin had a troubled adolescence and young adulthood, which is detailed in her early work. Long before the #metoo movement, her pieces raised questions about consent and power, including a series created in Hamburg in 1995, in which she angrily taunts previous sexual partners. What’s markedly different about Emin’s artistic journey is her honest portrayal of a woman’s life as time passes, wrought both in her depictions of her changing body and the subjects that preoccupy her – including latterly the death of her mother along with her own childlessness.
Of course, it’s too simplistic to draw a line straight between Munch and Emin. Between them and in a changing cultural landscape, female artists began documenting their life experiences through art, paving the way for women to express themselves candidly in their work. Among them was Louise Bourgeois, who pioneered confessional art based around the human body (including arresting pieces around childbirth and motherhood); one of her last series of watercolours was a collaboration with Emin which centred around unifying interests in sexuality and the human form.
In the last decade, a cohort of new female artists has emerged, each with their own take on the human body and mind. Social media may offer viewers the modern equivalent of those Ancient Greek statues, with its perfect bodies in perfect squares, but the art world continues to convey the human body in innovative and interesting ways – depicting the heart and the soul as well as the surface.
For further info on Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness Of The Soul, click here. For more information on available works by Tracey Emin, contact us.