Published  26/08/2009

Book review: One Thousand Drawings by Tracey Emin

One Thousand Drawings by Tracey Emin

Rizzoli International Publications
New York, 2009


Tracey Emin: Those Who Suffer Love was shown at White Cube Gallery, London earlier this year (29 May–4 July 2009) to coincide this year with the publication of One Thousand Drawings by Tracey Emin (Rizzoli). The show confronted the transience and emotional cost of love, of waning passion and in doing so presented a rare account of middle-aged female sexuality.

The figures in Emin’s drawings in this exhibition were not intended to address herself as an individual, indeed they were faceless figures, intended to personify the “idea of woman, of romanticism, poetry, those feelings locked in our minds when we are in love”. These are images of raw emotion, “you cannot argue with heartbreak, with failure, with jealousy – it is what it is”.1 The immediacy of the drawn image is an ideal tool for the exploration of inner feelings; the transmission of the drawn line makes it a fitting medium for the direct response that Emin seeks. “The title for my show is self-explanatory: love rarely comes easily and if it does, it usually goes quite quickly. And there is death, and loss, which at some point in our lives we all have to deal with. I’m constantly fighting with the notion of love and passion. Love, sex, lust – in my heart and mind there is always some battle, some kind of conflict. This show is essentially a drawings show. Everything is simple and linear, straight to the point ... New works in the show include an animation, made up of many drawings of a woman masturbating. I say, a woman, because I didn’t necessarily mean it to be myself, but it is a symbol of lust and loneliness, as well as self-preservation. Other works in the show date from as early as 1991. There is a simplicity and modesty about this show that has made me feel very happy and complete, like I have gone a full circle and I’m back to what I really know.” 2

Drawing, as the most direct form of expression, with a history going back centuries, and which has enjoyed an unprecedented revival over the past 10 years, is an appropriate means of traversing the critical storms and culs-de-sac that have created barriers for the comprehension and enjoyment of much contemporary art. The poet Seamus Heaney has described drawing, as an art form that occupies, ‘a placeless heaven,’ freed from the literal.

Drawing is closer to the pure moment of perception. The blanknesses, which the line travels through in a drawing, are not evidence of any incapacity on the artist’s part to fill them in. They attest rather to an absolute and all-absorbing need within the line itself to keep on the move. And it is exactly that self-propulsion and airy career of drawing, that mood of buoyancy, that sense of self-sufficiency in the discovery of a direction rather than any sense of anxiety about the need for a destination ...3

(Seamus Heaney, excerpt from his essay ‘The Placeless Heaven’ on the poet Patrick Kavanagh in Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971-2001). In working intensely in drawing, Tracey Emin has made a vital progression from the literal events of her own life, to a more universal position, representing shared female experience. The direct and courageous mining of her psyche over the past 20 years, have become distilled in more universal images. In this Emin’s contribution to art and to the feminist movement represents a significant and a hard-won stature. Tracey Emin’s work exemplifies a number of key feminist issues, especially the use of autobiographical experiences as subject matter. 

In Art & Today (2008) Eleanor Heartney described the importance of the feminist movement, in the 1970s, which “challenged long-sacred notions about the universality of taste, quality and aesthetic standards. Feminist critics pointed out that the so-called canon – that authoritative catalogue of historic masterpieces and masters (the very words reeked of prejudice) – was far from neutral, and in fact expressed a specific (Eurocentric, male) bias. One seminal essay, written by art historian Linda Nochlin in 1971, asked, with knowing irony, “Why are there no great women artists?” She answered the question by analyzing the institutional barriers that had historically prevented women artists from achieving parity with men. Committed to correcting that situation, feminists demanded not only a wholesale rewriting of art history that acknowledged the existence of forgotten female artists, but also the removal of the structural and psychological barriers that prevented women from entering the art world in the first place.”4

It was the challenge of the feminist movement, to received truths, which coincided with and gave impetus to the emergence of Postmodernism, which existed, by definition, as a set of negations that led to the overthrow of the certainty, unity and authority that had become the basis of domination by Eurocentric male values. In uncovering the reasons for women being unable to become great artists, they sought to dismantle the hierarchies that existed within the production and appreciation of art for centuries.  The feminist movement also enabled other excluded groups to make their presence felt. Traditional art history favoured white male, European artists, and in doing so, relegated women artists and artists from other races and ethnicities to the periphery of culture. As recently as 1984 it was still possible for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to stage the exhibition “International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” showcasing the work of 169 artists. Only 14 were women, which prompted protest and the establishment of the Guerilla Girls, a group to whom Emin and her generation feel a significant debt: “The Guerilla Girls made a fantastic poster that said to be a successful artist you had to wear an Armani suit and smoke a big fat cigar. I told Sarah Lucas this; we thought it sounded like a great idea so went off and got some Armani suits and great, big, fat cigars. Seriously, I think that what a lot of women did in the 70s in terms of feminism was fantastic because it has now enabled me, and my generation of artists to do what we want.”5

Over the past ten years, drawing has assumed a pivotal role in defining contemporary culture. With powerful threads running from cave art through nineteenth century academies and salons, drawing has absorbed history and knowledge as artists themselves absorb influences from history, education, research and autobiography. Drawing at the present moment is seen to occupy a position of critical ascendancy. A significant number of artists who have achieved a high profile in their careers have chosen drawing as their primary activity. In practical terms methods of transporting, framing, and installing exhibitions of drawing, have been improved, enabling fragile, awkward or cumbersome works, or works where the scale has been amplified, to be accommodated and shown. At once private and portable, essentially preliminary or diaristic, drawings continue to provide an immediate form of expression, ideally suited to modern life, travel, allowing a greater independence of conventional studio spaces.

It is a basic human instinct to make marks, to draw, to write. As a force for change, ‘new’ media has been pivotal – neon tubes, for example, as elements of the mass media with the immediacy of the drawn line, have given artists the opportunity to combine primal and technological elements in art practice. The sewn line is considered to be a form of drawing now that the definition of drawing has been expanded and redefined to include stitched lines. It could be perceived as ironic, that charged with the knowledge of new technology and the multitude of new forms and attitudes, that artists have chosen drawing in manifold forms. Over the past ten years, drawing has assumed a pivotal role.

In 2007 Tracey Emin represented Britain at the Venice Biennale and was made a Royal Academician, a far cry from the enfant terrible image she acquired in the late nineties when her work was included in Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition. While Emin’s spectacular publicity is unsurpassed in this country, she has received her share of vitriol as well. Richard Dorment, critic of The Telegraph, described her Venice Biennale exhibition as the worst exhibition he had seen in 22 years. Emin finds it utterly demoralising to have to deal with criticism that is often a reaction to the shock-value of her work rather than its artistic value. Asked whether she thought that people often misunderstood the real meaning and substance of her work, she responded: “I find it heart breaking. The criticism I received after the Venice Biennale nearly killed me it hurt so much. I think a lot of critics are thoughtless and insensitive, but I have pleasure in knowing [that] that’s not true about myself. I don’t mind being criticized for my art, I can take that, but it’s the personal, vitriolic attacks that really get me down.”6 Nietzsche believed that art was ultimately consolation for the difficulties of life.  One wonders if an artist such as Emin had not experienced traumas as rape and abortion, whether she would have become as accomplished an artist. When asked whether pain was necessary for art to be potent, she responded in a typically matter-of-fact way: I think all experiences add to make the person but I could have well done without the traumas in my life. What I’ve done is used my experiences to my advantage, turning the negative around to a positive. That’s one of the greatest things that trauma can teach.”7

The feminist movement encouraged the use of non-traditional materials, often choosing those with symbolic reference, and those from ordinary, domestic activities. The use of found objects, and an Arte Povera attitude to a hierarchical system in the arts, freed artistic expression to a profound extent. Boundaries between different areas of expression became blurred, and further redefined with the proliferation of technological advances, such as digital imaging. Tracey Emin uses a wide range of ‘new’ materials – ranging from embroidery to neon tubes. In each form, it is the directness of drawing that underpins her direct image-making.

Emin is as much a writer as a visual artist: words feature prominently in much of her work. Her appliqué blankets, for example, are graphic banners – they hark back to the feminist revival and celebration of quilt making in the 1970s, as well as the political arena of protest marches, and grassroots participation. Slogans not poetry, placards not paintings, they also belong in the world of ‘outsider art’ as do her personal memoirs. Much of her work, where she employs a range of methods such as embroidery and etching, with a preoccupation with method, and which require skill, the work is rudimentary. Her embroideries are imperfect, like those of a young girl, large samplers in which to learn the different stitches. In Emin’s life, learning the language runs parallel to learning basic survival in a life where abandonment and exploitation were repeated. In such technical terms imperfection is celebrated, a conspicuous lack of craft is apparent, where spelling mistakes and crooked stitching appear to be those of a child creating objects without close parental guidance or help. Her drawing is at times unsure and tentative; at times it conveys the pain of the charged lines that reveal the deepest pain, the rawest experiences are recollected anxiously through memory or subconscious wanderings. Emin’s monoprints are smudged too, revealing her personal conflict above the desire to master a craft and yet she works constantly and in an obsessive mode.

Emin’s drawings reveal a range of emotions and views – they are aggressive, prickly, and angry whilst also exposing her own fragility and vulnerability. It is not surprising then to discover that her work is particularly admired, by young women, for whom Emin has removed barriers that often exist between artists and their viewing public. Drawing which is such a direct and ideal medium for the conveying of one’s innermost feelings, in Emin’s oeuvre, increasingly conveys the level of energy and conviction that one finds in her early writing. Strangeland possesses a candour and frankness that her recent drawing now achieves. Her bemused attitude when interviewed for the White Cube show, revealed an element of the young woman, so bewildered by terrible experiences, yet brave enough to take on the world. Tracey is at 46 confronting the possibility of ideas having become more important to her than sex, which she says had always been the driving force in her life, what got her up in the morning, the ardour of her life. Was her sexual desire going to burn out, would she become a spiritual 70 year-old, living on another plane?8

Those Who Suffer Love, she said was a questioning of her sexuality, possibly saying goodbye to it. In interview, the sadness of the prospect of such a loss, naturally does not possess the intensity of her representations of the theft of her sexuality that came with being abused and raped. There is in her demeanour, an acceptance of the future. The works themselves, however, tell a different story, where the barbed-wire drawn and etched lines have the intensity of the young distraught woman who gave a voice to the unspoken issues that had previously not been allowed in the precincts of a gallery or museum. Sexual disappointment of the almost 50 year-old woman is Tracey Emin’s newest taboo, which she addresses with candour and frankness.

Strangeland was published by Tracey Emin, in 2005 from a series of memoirs, and articles written between 1994 and 2002.9 Together they make up a description of her life. Motherland describes her childhood in Margate. Fatherland, describes the Turkish world of her father; and Traceyland, the present-day London of her personal and public life. It has an uncompromising honesty, a lively prose, and is highly readable and impressive. The message is of courage, compassion, injustice and survival. ‘Redemption through form’, to quote the late Peter Fuller, (1947-90) has never been more appropriate. Emin’s life, for all its horror and suffering is told with humour and warmth. The reader is inevitably moved. In his essay for the Edinburgh exhibition catalogue, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner”, Julian Schnabel describes Tracey Emin’s words as “the loneliness, the fragility, the disappointment and honesty, the clarity of it all”.10 Of her work he writes:

Tracey’s need to be honest supercedes all decisions in her life and art. The crystalline presentation of the most intimate and private emotions, are what she wants to share with us. Sometimes not easy to stomach, and at the same time precious, prismatic tears, poignant with loss, broken lines charting broken hearts and brokenness tied back together like a bundle of sticks supporting the weight of our disasters and victories as we pull ourselves together in the rain of our time here in and out of love.

I’ve always thought that there’s no personal language, just a personal selection, and that goes for materials too. So in many cases, an artist is not the first to work with that material, but artists do make that material their own…. And Tracey Emin’s selection of what to present carries alchemic truth and magic.11

Tracey Emin’s drawn images bring to the fore of a discussion of contemporary art, the importance of drawing as a direct medium; and the issues of feminism that have been profoundly significant to the emergence of manifold movements and visual manifestations. Where previous ‘heroines’ of feminism worked in relative isolation for much of their careers, Tracey Emin embraces a celebrity status of the twenty-first century so that her life, her writings, her statements make up her public persona and inform the works. The works themselves are less accomplished in formal terms compared to those of Nancy Spero or Kiki Smith, so that her emotionally charged visual marks - the immediate form of drawing - is ideally suited to her intent. For Louise Bourgeois and Nancy Spero, art world recognition came relatively late in their careers both having three sons. Spero became militant: “she marched, demonstrated, wrote and organized to further the recognition of women in art”.12 Bourgeois’s response to marginalisation was different. For although she took part in women’s movement activities, she stated in 1992, “I worked in peace for 40 years”, a position that gave her the privacy she required to create “a deeply psychological body of work exploring her past and her own complex inner workings”.13 The feminist movement was a career-defining experience and absolutely crucial to the critical reception, of Spero and Bourgeois and many artists of their generation. The authors of After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art, in their Introduction point out, however, that the “fervent, single-minded feminism of the early political phase became more complicated and ambivalent as the women’s movement progressed.”14

While many women artists recognised the benefits of entering an art world more open to women, and seized the opportunity to create work that explored a multiplicity of subjects, styles, media and ideas, others distanced themselves from the movement for fear of being ghettoized.15

As Murray said in 1984, “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as women’s art. It’s a distasteful phrase, like any categorization … I see my own work as androgynous.” Yet she freely introduced more conventionally female, domestic imagery into her painting and she has spoken openly about her warm family life, acknowledging a pleasure in domesticity that might have seemed problematic to an earlier generation of women trying to make it in a man’s world.16

For Kiki Smith, the female form depicted not as the idealized object of male desire, but as the site of women’s lived experience. Smith assumed an unflinchingly feminist point of view in her reclamation of the female body as a subject, and she remains clear about her allegiance to its principles, stating, “I came of age in the sixties and seventies and that I exist is a result of feminism.”17 For her own work, Tracey Emin rejects this agenda.18

Feminists suggested that certain subject matter, materials and approaches had historically, been dismissed from serious consideration because they were associated with female experience and forms of expression. These developments opened the door to a new generation of women artists who were not afraid to create from their unique place in the world and the exploration continues today. In 1975, feminist critic Lucy Lippard listed some of the recurring motifs that she believed suggested a female sensibility. These included the abstracted sensibility inherent in circles, domes, eggs, spheres, boxes and biomorphic shapes; a preoccupation with body and body-like materials; and a fragmentary, nonlinear approach in the work of women that set it of from their male counterparts. Lippard argued that such qualities could be traced to societal differences, noting the “overwhelming fact remains that a woman’s experience in this society – society and biological – is simply not like that of a man. If art comes from inside, as it must, then the art of men and women must be different too. And if this factor does not show up in art then only repression can be to blame”.19

This new freedom has led women in remarkably different directions. Postmodern feminist theory developed and, by the 1990s, feminism had become so integrated into the fabric of women’s lives that rights and privileges which seemed hard-won only a few years before were assumed to be normal. The early and impressive successes of a younger generation of women artists indicate the degree to which the status and opportunities available to women through education, in particular has changed.  Discussion of the art market is usually considered taboo in a historical and critical study of contemporary art. Gallery representation and market demand, however, do reveal change - indeed Emin’s phenomenal success in commercial terms and in terms of public profile exemplify the shift. Women artists’ growing presence in major public and private collections is clear, as the Centre Pompidou’s present exhibition (2009)20 of women artists in their collection reveals. The establishment in 2007 of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art and the permanent installation there of Judy Chicago’s, Dinner Party (1974-79) is a further sign of institutional acceptance.

One Thousand Drawings by Tracey Eminhas been complied in close collaboration with the artist – its scale alone revealing the artist’s passion for the drawn image and for the act of drawing itself. The volume includes drawings that have been made in their own right, and those that indicate the working methods of some of her well-known multimedia pieces. Ranging from 1965 to the present, the collection of works reveals the methods and preoccupations and the artistic processing that Emin has developed over 40 years. They are often enigmatic, scribbles, at times tense works where the mark-making is tantamount to the psychological processing of issues at the core of her personal experience; at other times the works are more considered and worked, such as her self-portraits. Rizzoli have presented the works in a splendid hard-cover volume, using fine paper, thus making the book a collector’s item in itself.

1. Tracey Emin, ‘Those Who Suffer Love”, White Cube Gallery, London, Interview, May 2009.
2. Ibid.
3. Seamus Heaney, “The Placeless Heaven”, Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971-2001, Faber and Faber, London, 2002.
4. Eleanor Heartney, Art & Today, Phaidon, London, 2008, p.9.
5. Tracey Emin, email to Janet McKenzie, 28 July 2009.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. White Cube interview, op.cit.
9. Tracey Emin, Strangeland, Sceptre, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2005.
10. Julian Schnabel, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner”, Tracey Emin 20 Years, (with Patrick Elliott), National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2008, p.11.
11. Ibid, p.11.
12. After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art, Foreword by Linda Nochlin. Text by Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, Sue Scott.Prestel, Munich, Berlin, London, New York, 2007, p.11.
13. Ibid, p.11.
14. Ibid, p.11.
15. Ibid, p.11.
16. Ibid, p.11.
17. Ibid, p.12.
18. Tracey Emin email to Janet McKenzie, 28 July 2009.
19. After the Revolution, op.cit., p.14.
20. Women Artists in the Collection of the National Modern Art Museum: elles@centrepompidou

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