My Bed, Tracey Emin 1998, and Nebuchadnezzer, William Blake 1795-c1805
Tracey Emin and William Blake are an interesting pairing for an exhibition. Their work shares a keen sense of draughtmanship and the use of a strong dramatic line- Tracey Emin can draw quite beautifully, something which people who have not seen much of her work don’t always realise, and for Blake his ability as a draughtsman was at the core of his skill as a master printmaker. More than anything though it is the deeply personal, dramatic nature of their work that links them for me. Everything that Emin makes or draws is searingly honest and direct, straight from the heart, and when you look at Blake’s work you can see his demons being exorcised and driven straight onto the page. Blake had little recognition in his own lifetime, he was often thought of as mad, thanks to his headstong temperament and unconventional behaviour. He was a true visionary who went his own way and produced work that proved to be both ground breaking and influential. A true original. Tracey Emin has done the same in her career to date, attracting a lot of praise along with some criticism, particularly for work like My Bed, which she made in 1998.
Nebuchadnezzer, who lived from c.605-c.562 was the second king of the Babylonian empire, a powerful, warlike all conquering figure who enlarged the empire which he inherited from his father and embarked on great civic projects, temples, processional roads and bridges. Blake has chosen to show him in not in his pomp but in his later years, when he became a vulnerable elderly man, irrational and suspicious of even his family. This led to the break down of his empire in the years after his death. It is a powerful image in which we can still see the power and dignity of a once great ruler, reduced to an almost animal like state as he crawls along the ground, naked and unkempt. His hair is long and wild, dragging along the wet ground and his nails are uncut, making his hands and feet look like great clawed paws. We can still see the strength of his muscles and the bulging blood vessels but this strength is now achieving nothing. He stares out, wide eyed, unsure of where he is or what he is doing. It is an image of desperation, a cry for help.
Tracey Emin’s My Bed is also a cry for help from the year 1998, almost twenty years ago now. It records the moment when she looked at the wreckage of her bed, in effect the wreckage of her life, and realised I can make Art out of this. I can survive. I can grow. It records a turning point in her life. We are so used to seeing this work now that the bravery and originality of removing the object wholesale and placing it in a gallery, exactly as it was, as a record of the squalor and pain of that moment, is hard to appreciate. It is an object so powerful that even people who have little interest in Art will often have something to say about it. There are strong opinions and controversy, perhaps because there is no visible skill on show. “We could all do that”. Well perhaps we could……….. but we didn’t, did we? The power of that moment when Tracey Emin DID do that still resonates. Unless we are very lucky we have all had those desperate moments when life reached a turning point for us and this bed represents those moments. It was rock bottom for Emin. The only way was up. Her creativity would save her- just as it did William Blake. So long as they could continue to produce Art they could both survive.