When you think of Tracey Emin, you might see her in the same vein as Sarah Lucas or Damien Hurst. Yet this latest exhibition, currently showing at Tate Liverpool, makes a significantly more ambitious comparison: between Emin and Romantic artist William Blake, who died in 1827. The exhibition argues that – although realised in entirely different ways – Blake and Emin’s work share similar concerns of birth, death and spirituality. Just as Tracey Emin turned the art world on its head with the controversial artworks My Bed and Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, William Blake was equally unconventional for his time, championing freedom of expression and sexual liberation in his work. We spoke to Darren Pih, curator of the exhibition, about the challenges of exhibiting the two artists together and the surprising links that can be found between them.
Culture Calling: The topic of this exhibition is both quite surprising and ambitious. How did the idea come about?
Darren Pih: In recent years, Tate Liverpool has begun presenting In Focus displays of works by a single artist from the Tate collection. Last year we presented works by Henri Matisse, focusing on The Snail from 1953 and there’ll be a display of works by the American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein this September.
Tracey Emin’s My Bed is one of most talked about works of the past twenty years, but it has never been seen in the north of England. It may seem surprising to bring Blake and Emin together but at the same time I think many there are major themes shared in their work, despite them being separated by 200 years.
Tracey Emin, born 1963: My Bed 1998. Box frame, mattress, linens, pillows and various objects. Overall display dimensions variable. Lent by The Duerckheim Collection 2015.
CC: What were the challenges you had to overcome in putting together the exhibition?
DP: One challenge was presenting a contemporary artist alongside a figure from the Romantic era. There is a stylistic difference, but we wanted their work to be a dialogue across the gallery. We knew that My Bed would be the centrepiece and wanted the installation at Tate Liverpool to feel theatrical. The walls are painted deep blood red with the work installed at the heart of the gallery, sat in a pool of light like a crime scene. The Blake works are presented in a more nocturnal setting with darkest blue walls. It creates a sense of hushed intimacy, which works well for both artists’ work.
CC: In making comparisons between Blake and Emin, was it about comparing the styles that they adopt or was it more about the themes they cover and their shared status as rebellious and ahead of their time within their respective periods?
DP: It was a thematic link rather than a stylistic link. Both artists’ embody a commitment to uncompromised artistic and personal authenticity and freedom of expression. There’s also the spiritual relationship – the bed as a stage for birth and death, for example. Many of Blake’s works such as Nebuchadnezzar 1795–c.1805 conflate human nakedness with nightmarish visions, so there was a visceral aspect that related to Emin’s work.
William Blake, 1757-1827:The House of Death 1795-c, 1805. Colour print, ink and watercolour on paper. 485 x 610 mm. Tate. Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939
CC: It’s quite easy for a modern audience to understand how Emin’s work is groundbreaking, but how was Blake’s work ahead of its time?
DP: Blake was a radical and a true libertarian, which is one of the reasons why he remains such a major reference point for British culture today. In his time, he condemned the slave trade and supported women’s rights. Like Emin, he believed in absolute creative freedom.
CC: Blake’s work is described as being ‘presented in the context of Emin’s empty bed, and symbolising the absent figure.’ Can you tell us a bit more about that idea?
DP: There was a sense that My Bed is a self-portrait of Tracey Emin. It’s a forensic and unflinching self-portrait in which the body is absent. Blake’s work is largely figurative in its exploration of spiritual and moral themes.
CC: Apart from My Bed, what would you say is the standout piece in the exhibition?
DP: One of my favourite works on display is Blake’s drawing The Soul Hovering over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life c.1805. It offers a poetic vision of the passing of life. There are also the set recent figurative drawings by Emin, which have a raw and expressive immediacy, showing the influence of Egon Schiele.
See Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus at Tate Liverpool until 3 September 2017. Entrance is free. For more information, visit their website.