What living artist would agree to a group show where the only other group member is Edvard Munch? A brave one, clearly: someone who doesn’t mind being called self-serving, self-aggrandizing, or self-obsessed. I can’t imagine a better partner for Munch than the 57-year-old painter and conceptualist Tracey Emin, because—like Munch—she’s been called all these things and worse and couldn’t care less. This is the same Tracey Emin who filled a gallery with giant selfies, who titled one of her creations Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (bet you can’t guess what it’s about!), and who turns discussion panels into one-woman shows. Her Expressionist canvases and confessional installations have the rawness of a private crisis—small wonder she’d be drawn to the creator of The Scream.
Emin’s public appearances, a staple of the U.K. scene since the 1990s, are bold, canny works of art in their own right. In pictures, her face never changes: Frida Kahlo eyebrows, flared nostrils, a pose as calculated as Tom Cruise’s grin. The Royal Academy’s new “Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch” show makes a strong case for its subjects as troubled soul-searchers. But there’s a more obvious point of comparison: they both rose to fame with brilliant self-promotion. The 1892 Berlin show that made Munch’s reputation closed after the organizers deemed him “diseased”—“I could hardly have had better publicity,” he wrote. A century later, Emin figured out that Brit-pop London was hungry for a brooding enfant terrible and never looked back.
Not that Munch or Emin had to pretend to brood. Munch lost family to tuberculosis and had more than one nervous breakdown. Emin was assaulted as a child and recently disclosed (with her usual panache) an extensive, painful surgery for cancer. I hope to see her sneering face in the tabloids for years to come—there are plenty of artist-provocateurs but few who’ve dug deeper into themselves. Just because she’s performing doesn’t mean she’s not sincere. Besides, it’s hard not to love the woman who told the philosopher Roger Scruton, “You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” on national television. —Jackson Arn