The birds in Tracey Emin’s oeuvre are selected for their symbolic associations, and titled evocatively, with titles including "Bird On A Wing", and "Foundling and Fledglings". Addressing the many facets of interior life, her birds soar high or sit contemplatively on branches, conveying a poignant self-possession, but also painful solitude.

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Meaning & Analysis

British artist Tracey Emin was born in the far south of London in 1963. She grew up in the midst of a blooming technicolour age referred to as ‘The Swinging Sixties’. Her adolescent years were characterised by a youth-driven cultural revolution built on modern and self-indulgent ways of thinking.

Emin studied fashion at Medway College of Design in Kent and later also achieved a degree in painting from the Royal College of Art in London. She has, since 2011, been active within academia as a Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy of Arts. During the late 1980s, Emin became a prominent member of the Young British Artists group patroned by gallerist Charles Saatchi. The collective worked specifically on adding a previously rare commercialist dimension to artistic practice.

Emin cemented her notorious reputation by appearing intoxicated on a live television show about the Turner Prize in 1997. Two years later, the artist herself was nominated for the award for her ingenious work, My Bed (1998).

Themes of oppression, assault, disorders and abortion soon came to dominate Emin’s creative approach. She frequently incorporates traditional methods, like needlework and appliques, firmly establishing her place within a feminist discourse in art. Emin's work continues to influence female artists who create self-confessional pieces about the female experience through the means of “low art”.

Emin’s outstanding artistry is defined by her innate ability to convey emotion through the process of drawing. Her works on paper are technically accomplished and manifest her devotion to her craft. She is an expressionist whose jagged contours and rapid lines convey our anxiety at being human when confronted with the complexities of life.

Emin’s works on paper portray love, humans, and various types of animals. The birds collection of works includes Bird On A Wing, Self-Portrait as a Small Bird, Sometimes I Feel Lonely But It’s OK, Believe In Extraordinary, Birds, and Foundling and Fledglings. The artist here utilises the symbolic connotations of various bird breeds, featuring sparrows, blue jays, robins and nightingales. Her birds soar high, spreading their wings wide, or to sit quietly and contemplatively on a branch.

These drawn pieces reflect the ever-changing realities humans endure over the course of a life cycle. There are raw sentiments at work here as well as gentle intellect, as Emin embraces and harnesses the most fragile art form of all. This collection is captivating, unsettling, and picturesque at the same time. The illustrations are specially designed to reveal both the unique beauty and the disarray of existence.

Emin’s birds address the confinement of inner life, a necessary introspection, but also the oftentimes laborious solitude that accompanies spiritual journeys. Emin is not only an adept master but also an active participant of her artworks, equipping each piece with humour and vulnerability. She engages directly with notions of modern identity, allowing viewers to enter into a shared exploration of the human social condition. Emin’s birds are mementoes of life inhabited, personal yet universal, sailing, gliding, hovering, fluttering from one day to the next.