Bbefore Tracey Emin, there was Traci Emin. This is how the young woman who would become a star of conceptual art signed her name on a black and white woodcut poster in 1986. It was for her graduation from Maidstone College of Art, where she graduated. got a first in engraving. This caught my eye a year ago as I was exploring the archives in his studio.
The woodcut – showing two desperate lovers clinging together on a dark soul night, the woman with an anchor tattoo – is part of an unseen treasure of Emin’s almost forgotten early works that reveals a side different from the artist of any of the most people think they know. Much of it is lost and only exists in slide form, with the originals having been destroyed, she believes, by a former boyfriend. They show the sincere and talented artist that Emin was before she became a household name and infamous figure to many. When I saw these student works, I wanted to have them published so that everyone could meet this intense young soul. I was thrilled when she let me include them in a new visual book on her art.
In the 90s, Emin became the eloquently drunken spokesperson for a generation that seemed to despise craftsmanship and revere Marcel Duchamp’s idea of the ready-made work of art. His display of his chaotic 1999 Turner Prize bed – littered with used condoms, queer butts, gaskets and liquor bottles – is to many the most impressive readymade in recent memory.
But Emin had a secret: she was not at all a follower of Duchamp. Today she sees him as a bad painter who invented conceptual art to hide his lack of ability. And she puts that belief into practice. For the past few years, Emin has been painting like one possessed. Much of this has been done in her mountain estate in Provence, where she can work in splendid seclusion in a low-rise, modest studio nestled in a small valley where there is nothing to disturb her but the song of the cicadas. .
When I visited her a few years ago, she unrolled some of her last canvases on the withered late summer grass under the olive trees. I was electrified. The freedom in the way she applies paint to the canvas, the raw real-life violence that she manages to keep in her colors – both are a marvel. What intrigued me was how she got here, how an artist who made a name for herself through her conceptual work turned into an exciting painter.
And here now, that rainy day in his London studio, was the answer. Its creative director, Harry Weller, released the first works after the first works on screen: lonely women in bedrooms, Christ on the cross, a harbor full of sailboats, an enigmatic love triangle, friends sharing wine on the beach. In fierce monochrome and punchy color, I saw that Emin has always been a painter and printmaker. Where it is now is where it started, in front of a blank sheet or canvas. She filled him then, as she does now, with wild life.
Artist Billy Childish, her then-boyfriend, appears in one of his first powerful woodcuts as an almost Frankensteinian character: tall, brutal, and hyper-masculine. His name is Billy, Drunk, Learing With a Drink in His Hand and captures him reeling in a half-timbered nautical pub with an anchor on the wall. This is a prime example of what you might call Emin’s seaside expressionist phase.
In a whole series of woodcuts with similar rough edges, she creates a romantic vision of her hometown Margate and the sweeping view of the Kent Sea: even more desperate lovers, adrift between fishing boats and alcohols. The content may be local, but the inspiration is German, as it translates the style of expressionists such as Ludwig Kirchner, Käthe Kollwitz and Oskar Kokoschka into a myth of his own life. His tumultuous relationship with Childish haunts these works. One is this woodcut for his diploma. It’s called, with a strangely poetic ringtone, Jaw Wrestling.
Emin effectively left school at age 13 and spent his teenage years hanging out in the most dubious haunts of Margate. All of this is recorded in his storytelling works, such as Why I Never Became a Dancer. But there was another side to her story: she had a born artistry. She still has a clay model of a fruit stall she made on one of her rare visits to school, a beautifully crafted object, like a piece of painted terracotta you might see in a nursery. Christmas in Naples.
It’s clear why Emin entered Maidstone to study printmaking – and her woodcuts show why she earned a first-class degree. She not only masters this medium, she also uses it to convey an original vision of life as an extreme drama of loneliness and love, with people whose masked faces are carved out of pain. From there, in 1987, she entered the prestigious painting course at the Royal College of Art in London.
Emin says that while at RCA she became interested in abstract expressionist painter Cy Twombly, believing the artist to be a woman. But, too driven by her own life, she had not yet ventured into abstraction. Emin’s father, Enver, was a Turkish Cypriot, and in the mid-1980s she set out to explore Turkey on her own. A pretty series of watercolors recounts this search for his heritage, which ends in a love affair with a fisherman.
A sense of adventure resonates through these works, whose vivid colors sometimes spill over the edges of the newspaper. Istanbul at first glance seems a charming cityscape, almost a tourist sight – but take a closer look and you see inside the city, spotting a woman in bed and an old-fashioned kitchen. Other scenes show traditionally dressed women in rooms with dilapidated wood stoves. Their interior space is explored as evocatively as their exterior behavior.
Other works glorify a man and a woman making love with Laurentian intensity in the open air. A tale seems to emerge from illicit love and rivalry, a tangled emotional soap opera. It is the beginning of the abandonment that runs through Emin’s art, from this bed of rubbish to his last paintings.
In truth, Emin never stopped taking pictures. The passion for drawing and painting, so evident in these early works, meant that she could never become a purely conceptual artist. Some of his most compelling prints are hard-scraped images of funfairs and cemeteries – and they all date from his years as a young British artist. When she first started drawing birds, she recalls, people thought she was making an ironic point. “But I wasn’t. I was just drawing birds.
In fact, Emin even claims that his bed is “a painting.” It’s true that when I watched her put it on at Tate Liverpool a few years ago, she put the rotting condoms on as if to put the finishing touches on a canvas. She even donned the crumpled tights like an action painter. Emin’s true artistic evolution is not from ready-mades to painting, but from Expressionism to Abstract Expressionism. I can’t wait to see what she’s going to paint next.