Art Culture

Translating Loneliness: the exhibitions borne out of lockdown

‘Make a little nest for your feelings about being alive, nurture them that they may fledge and fly’. An expression of hope in the time of Coronavirus as put by the artist Grayson Perry, who, over the first lockdown launched Grayson’s Art Club. He encouraged the nation to create and submit their art, prompted by new themes each session. Of the 10,000 works entered, a selection has now been made into an exhibition, at the Manchester Art Gallery.

As the frustration of the first lockdown fuelled Perry’s creativity, so too, did it fuel Tracey Emin’s, who finally brought to life her vision of one day exhibiting her works alongside those of her artistic idol, Edvard Munch. In the exhibition Loneliness of the Soul, Emin’s paintings explore her journey of emotional suffering.

The pain she has experienced throughout life has culminated with a series of nude self-portraits, which she intersperses among Munch’s brightly painted female nudes. However, the opening of Emin’s exhibition, like Perry’s, has been postponed till later in the year. Both instead have video tours.

As you virtually venture through Loneliness of the Soul, the dark backdrop illuminates Emin’s stark paintings. Some works like It – didn’t stop – I didn’t stop (2019), are based on the composition of Munch’s, but are linear and hollow, despite having the same punch of colour. Her outlined, defaced figures seem to reflect a shadow of Emin’s self, and although chosen from throughout her career, they resonate with the lockdown experience.

While this is a deeply personal exhibition, Emin’s art is bold in its representation of women, fragility and as the show title suggests, loneliness. However, the pandemic gives it new meaning; it has come to symbolise global isolation and internalisation, as well as Emin’s. We can now begin to translate a fraction of her loneliness having experienced it ourselves.

Tracey Emin, It – didn’t stop – I didn’t stop, 2019

By comparison, Grayson’s Art Club, also a product of the first lockdown, emanates a sense of collaboration. It is a testament to the nation’s endurance. The exhibition reflects how both Perry and the nation chose to cope through the first lockdown.

Perry poured his energy out to whoever would respond, as millions of us did throughout summer in an effort to reconnect – be it through shopping for the elderly or attempting to host a pub quiz on zoom. Emin’s reaction to the first lockdown, however, appears to be quite different. Instead, she drew her energy in, channelling it towards her relationship with Munch. 

The amateur collection of art in Grayson’s Art Club is complemented by the informal nature of its tour, and the exhibition takes on a cheerfully eclectic character. The gallery is lined with paintings, collages and sculptures presenting lockdown views, people’s homes, their animals and British scenes.

It feels patriotic, like a time capsule representing what it meant to live in Britain in a time like no other in history. One of the pieces Home is where the he(art) is (2020), is a collage of jumbled images, perhaps cut out of magazines during a lockdown evening. The collage is clearly centred around family and the home, but explores an element of fantasy as the artists create a new version of what their home looks like.

Art like this was more than creative boredom. Over lockdown, our homes became our epicentres, so naturally we wanted to reinvent our surroundings.

Simran & Mandish Khebbal, Home is where the he(art) is, 2020

Although these two exhibitions, borne out of the first lockdown, confront loneliness and isolation from strikingly different angles, both use collaboration to heal it. Perry reached out to the British people as Emin reached out to Munch, feeding her lifelong passion for the Norwegian artist.

Both found solidarity in the work of others. The only difference is, Perry found solidarity in the millions who were newly isolated while Emin found it in an artist whose loneliness, like hers, has spanned longer than the duration of a lockdown. 

Edvard Munch, although he didn’t realise it at the time, has summarised how the subjects of art in both exhibitions differ; ‘No longer shall I paint interiors with men reading and women knitting. I will paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love’.

As the first lockdown has shown, all kinds of ‘living people’, at all ends of the spectrum of suffering, use art to deal with it. As reading and knitting became something of a norm for many, mundane interiors were suddenly quite fashionable.

You can see virtual tours of both exhibitions online (neither yet have reopening dates):

Grayson’s Art Club

Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul