Friday, 5 November 2010


© Mary McCartney

Three women are present in this picture: the subject Tracey Emin; the woman she’s ‘impersonating’ the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo; and Mary McCartney the photographer. It’s part of the display of photographs by Mary McCartney called FROM WHERE I STAND’ which is at the National Portrait Gallery until 13.2.11. 
 McCartney’s interest in photography began when assisting her mother, Linda McCartney. She became a professional photographer in 1995. FROM WHERE I STAND is a collection from her archive of informal portraits of old friends, family and famous people.

You could be forgiven for thinking that we have enough portraits of celebrities to be going on with...and yet what a multi-faceted gem this is.

Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist who lived in the first half of the last century, was once described as ‘a ribbon around a bomb’, which I think is a pretty good summing up of this portrait of Tracey Emin. Here she is, like Kahlo all flowers and frills, bejewelled, in virginal white, lying in bed. Yet we know both of them as artists of exceptional anger, honesty and vitality, untouched by self pity or humility.
Freda Kahlo
In both cases their art displayed their life history. Emin became famous overnight with her unmade bed at Tate Britain; her tent entitled Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 ; and her moving video ‘Why I never became a Dancer’ . She uses text, paintings, embroidery, video and installations to re create her past. Sometimes her work is funny, often tragic. Kahlo’s paintings include terrible depictions of the pain endured from her teens onward after a traffic accident which broke her body. The medical help of the time tortured her further with surgical interventions, corsets and mechanical "stretching" systems.  Living in a deeply macho world with her philandering husband, Diego Rivera, a man of great fame and ferocious artistic energy, didn’t help either.
McCartney’s portrait magically conjures up these two women’s  uncompromising depiction of what they experience as women. A former Bishop of Bristol used to talk of ‘telling it slant’ when it came to important things, because straightforward words and pictures fall short. Emin’s face is wary, like a mask. Her neck seems tense. She gives nothing away. So we look to the setting, the artefacts for clues.  Kahlo used teardrops, thorns, nails and arterial red ribbons with psychological intent.This sort of work made more sense to me when I heard a Tate lecturer suggest that Emin’s unmade bed was the latest (visual) contribution to a long European tradition of confessional writing by young women. Some people have suggested that such self-portraits could be compared to religious icons.

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