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Newsletter 370

Published December 21, 2020
Edvard Munch tries to keep a straight face while being channelled by Tracey Emin  

As the end of the year approaches things are not winding up for me but becoming rather more hectic. Apologies once more for the lateness of this newsletter, which had to be put aside while I paid my first visit to Melbourne in 10 months and got through some pressured work to deadline. Time is an intractable problem when you’re a one-man-band.

I’m getting a couple of weeks’ respite from the art column over the Christmas period although I’ve got other things to keep me busy. The final column for the year looks at the work of Marion Mahony Griffin at the Museum of Sydney – a prodigiously talented artist, architect and designer who is finally getting some recognition, after spending decades playing second fiddle to her husband, Walter Burley Griffin. The MoS survey is not as comprehensive or as seamless as one might wish, partly because of COVID-19, one suspects, but there’s still enough to get an impression of a powerful creative personality.

Speaking of personalities this week’s film is Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan – Julien Temple’s portrait of the former frontman for the Pogues, now a shambolic ruin, after a life of wild indulgence. The documentary remains more of a celebration than a cautionary tale. It investigates MacGowan’s passionate attachment to all things Irish, and reminds us that the Pogues must have been the most hard-working and hard-drinking band of all time. Born from the unlikely marriage of punk rock and Irish folk music, there was a character to their music that has never been duplicated.

As a talking point this week I was surprised to learn that Brian Kennedy, the former director of the National Gallery of Australia, is leaving his current post as director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem after 18 months. The announcement was immediate, and the sole reason given was “a personnel issue”. One can only wonder what happened and imagine that more will come out over time. With his directorship in Toledo and then the move to Salem it looked as if Brian had got his act together in America, but that assessment may have to be revised. Maybe Julien Temple should make a documentary about him. Crock of….

The other art news item that leapt out at me was that the Royal Academy in London is hosting an exhibition called Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul. The chief stimulus for this seems to have been Emin’s diagnosis and subsequent treatment for bladder cancer – a fate one wouldn’t wish on anybody. This kind of illness is no joke but there’s something so obscene about pairing Emin with Edvard Munch that it makes me feel as if we have really, finally, lost all sense of value in art.

The Edvard Munch retrospective, which I saw (twice) in Olso, in 2013, was one of the great experiences of my gallery-going life. To get a handle on Munch it’s worth reading Sue Prideaux’s 2005 biography, or watching Peter Watkins’s magisterial doc-drama of 1974, but there’s no denying the psychological agony that characterised his life and work. When I lived in London I was amazed by a frivolous piece written by Andrew Graham-Dixon in The Independent, in which he sneered at a Munch exhibition, joking that in The Scream, the ghostly figure was really howling with laughter. I thought at the time the English just don’t get Munch – they’re embarrassed by the rawness of the work, by the exposure of so much pent-up emotion.

Now we find that Munch has a British admirer in Tracey Emin, the most successful talentless narcissist in the contemporary art firmament. Emin’s entire career is based on advertising her own victimhood and her own perceived miseries. The art world has lapped it up. And yet it takes very little before she starts talking about the problems of being so rich and famous. She boasts about her sponsorships and flash gigs like her professorship of drawing at the Royal Academy. She complains about people who don’t understand her work, and on and on. For “don’t understand” read “don’t like”, as there’s very little to understand. It’s a long way from Edvard Munch’s lonely existence in Norway, as he retreated from the world and concentrated on his late, underrated paintings.

Everything Emin does is staged in the full light of publicity – even her bladder cancer, and the terrible operation she endured – yet another reason to present herself as one of life’s victims. Take away the PR and there is little substance: almost-blank canvases with figures loosely scrawled in paint, teensy-weensy sculptures, words in neon that sound like Céline Dion song titles. The sentiment is shallow and cliched, the hype is monumental. Watching artists, critics and curators falling over themselves to praise Emin’s drawings is like watching people in the grip of a collective hallucination. To accept this work one has to take Emin at her own estimate – as a genius whose every mark is laden with deep emotion. But try as I might, all I see is deep banality.