Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2522

William Blake’s paintings give Tracey Emin’s famous bed new meaning

This article is over 7 years, 10 months old
An exhibition in Liverpool offers a rare chance to see two very different giants of art, writes Alex May
Issue 2522
Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) at Tate Liverpool
Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) at Tate Liverpool (Pic: Alex May)

Tate Liverpool’s new exhibition claims to reveal surprising links between artists Tracey Emin and William Blake. At first glance there are few if any.

Blake, often penniless, devoted his life and artistic abilities to exposing the horror and alienation of early capitalist society, contrasting this with visions of a future liberated humanity.

Emin makes no secret of enjoying the wealth and celebrity her art brings her.

The first thing you see entering the gallery is Emin’s 1999 Turner Prize entry, “My Bed”, which didn’t win but made her name.

Emin describes a “four day breakdown” when she stayed in bed. Getting up then returning to the bedroom, she saw her life in the mess of the bed and wanted to see it in a huge space as an artwork.

A shell or a butterfly wing can be beautiful and even move us. However they are not art but works of nature unmediated by humans.

Can an unmade bed be art if the only mediation is to move it to an art gallery?

I think it can and I accept the description of it as “an unflinching self-portrait in which the artist is absent”.


Recurring themes of birth, death, dreams and sex are expressed.

Some critics dismiss Emin as a “biographical documentarist” concerned only with “the minutiae of her narcissistic personality”.

But it must be valid to convey experiences from your life, as Emin does in a variety of ways through needlework, drawing, sculpture and installations. Six drawings by Emin skilfully convey in a few strokes the human figure—hers.

The works by Blake here are said, in the context of My Bed, to symbolise the absent figure.

His painting “Pity” shows a winged angel snatching a baby from its sleeping mother. Emin has described in drawings her feelings about such things as an abortion she had.

Blake’s “Visions of the daughters of Albion” accompanies his poem attacking colonialism, sexual repression and attitudes towards women.

Some of the hostility towards Emin by critics, usually male, may be due to sexist attitudes.

I would encourage people to see this exhibition. Blake’s works are wonderful to see close up and are simply dazzling. These make it worth the trip to Tate Liverpool on their own.

Whether you accept My Bed as art or not it’s the first time it’s been up North, so go see what you think.

Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus, Tate Liverpool, 16 Sep 2016—7 Sep 2017

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance