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Nude
Self-Portraits

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Critical Review

The distinctive intimacy and confessional quality of Tracey Emin's art best come to life in the collection of works included in her Nude Self-Portraits. Throughout her career, Emin has experimented with many different mediums, working across filmmaking, installations, neon, photography and sculpture. However, drawing has always occupied a central position within Emin’s oeuvre, and it is indeed in her drawings - both of herself and of other people - that the interior turmoil of the artist finds its most dramatic and expressive outlet.

While the works included in her Nude Self-Portraits do not belong to an official category designated by Emin herself, all the drawings in the collection distinguish themselves for the sense of loneliness and anguish that characterises them. Most of the drawings portray Emin in a private interior setting, stripped bare of any decoration in order to call attention to the tentative and fragile figure of the artist. This fragility is conveyed by the thin, smudged lines through which Emin outlines the contours of her own body as if the character of the drawing could dissolve and disappear at any point. Sometimes the artist adds some form of text to add to the drawing, as in the case of At Night, where she states: “At Night I can’t sleep anymore. My mind is wrapped in unknown fear”.

The drawings attest not only to Emin’s predilection for the medium, which gives instant immediacy to her urgent visual confessions but also to her long-lasting commitment to truthful self-observation and honesty. In this, the artist claims to have been inspired by Egon Schiele’s paintings, where nude self-portraits are the focus of attention. However, the rushed and quick pencil line suggests also interesting connections with Expressionism, whereas the predilection for interior settings, particularly bedrooms, has led critics like Jonathan Jones to equate Emin’s drawings to Vincent Van Gogh’s iconic The Bedroom.

In an old interview on the occasion of her solo show at White Cube, I think about Sex, Emin declared: "When I think about sex... it makes me realise just how alone I feel. The idea of actually holding, touching, feeling a breath, knowing the smell of someone — and the fear of life. I am a demented warrior charging into battle on every heightened occasion. What the world perceives of me from the outside is not the same from within.” This sense of abandonment is clear and painfully comes alive in the images, but it is precisely her rawness and honesty in the face of dramatic events that have made Emin into one of the most important and pioneering figures of 20th-century art.

Much like in her Nude Drawings, Emin’s Nude Self-Portraits function like visual diaries that recount the artist’s journey through love, loss and fear and retain a visceral character that has earned them one of the most prominent places within the art history of the female nude.