In defence of Tracey Emin’s divisive Penguin covers

Date
3 June 2015
Reading Time
2 minute read

Earlier this week I came across cover artwork Tracey Emin has created for the new Penguin editions of Henry Miller’s twin novels Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Knowing full well Tracey Emin is a notoriously polarising force I was still taken aback by some of the vitriol this inspired. By all means opposing opinion and varied taste is what makes life more interesting, but sometimes I think people dismiss her work too quickly.

People frequently decry her lack of technical skill. “She can’t draw,” they say. I think this tends to miss the point as much as the worn out reproach, “my three year-old could do that.” In the context of contemporary art, perhaps far more important than being an accomplished draughtsman is the ability to produce gesture and affect. Emin can do this. I also happen to respond well to her loose, evocative hand and think her gouache nudes are visually very strong. I remember reading a typically scathing review from Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard a couple of years ago where he described one of her drawings as a “squalid smudge.”

Elsewhere I’ve read that based on her ability she is undeserving of her success, that there are more talented artists who will never reach her dizzying heights, that her emphasis on sex is gratuitous and that she shows contempt for anything that is pleasing to the eye. I’m not going to pick apart every criticism, but because Emin is successful and someone else is not fails to invalidate her work (I’d also add that the two are not contingent on one another), to channel her sexuality into her work is her prerogative as a woman in the 21st Century, and as for the question of beauty, by now art has shown it can be ugly and still worthy.

Emin’s catch-22 is that because she is so present in her own work, her practice comes under fire because it betrays her personality. Her work creates tension between the boundaries of her life and her art, and it is unapologetic about doing so. She is often unflinching, confrontational and candid, and these are qualities some might still hold at odds with femininity. This is why her covers for Henry Miller’s frank and daring novels readdress the balance. Their pairing feels right and is far more considered than I think some have allowed for.


Above

Tracey Emin: Tropic of Capricorn illustration

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