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Tracey Emin at the Royal Academy
Via Instagram (@wellerharry)

Tracey Emin says art kept her alive during her cancer battle

Ahead of her new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, the artist speaks about her recent cancer diagnosis and the loneliness of the pandemic

On Monday (December 7), London’s Royal Academy will open the doors to its Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch exhibition, The Loneliness of the Soul. Delayed due to lockdown, the exhibition will see Emin select masterpieces by the Expressionist icon to show alongside her most recent paintings.

Ahead of its opening, Emin sat down with BBC News to discuss the exhibition, as well as her recent cancer diagnosis and the COVID-19 pandemic. “To know that I could have possibly been dead by Christmas,” she says, “that could have, so easily, been the outcome. And then people would have been coming to this show and I would have been dead. It would have been so Tracey, right? I just didn’t want that.”

Emin was diagnosed with bladder cancer in June 2020 after being “really unwell for a long time”. She explained: “I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I kept going backwards and forwards to the doctors for different things; tests and everything. Because I had something wrong with my bladder, it was just always presumed that that’s what the problem was, that I had urinary tract infections, kidney infections – which I did – but the reason why I had them is because I had full blown cancer.”

By July, less than four weeks after her diagnosis, Emin revealed that she was “having major surgery and having everything removed”. As reported by Artnet in October, Emin is now in remission.

Speaking about the need to express herself through art, Emin said she “would have been dead a long time ago” without an artistic outlet. “I think my art, my love of everything, and my passion is what’s kept me alive in the last few months.” The artist says she’s currently building up the strength to return to her studio and start painting again.

Emin also reflects on loneliness and longing during the coronavirus pandemic. “I haven’t had a hug; I can’t remember the last time anyone hugged me,” she said. “Everyone’s rushing out to buy puppies and kittens because they need love and affection.”

The Loneliness of the Soul is an exploration of grief, loss, and longing – themes that are particularly pertinent during the current times. The exhibition will feature more than 25 of Emin’s works, which will be displayed alongside 19 of Munch’s oils and watercolours.

Speaking to the Royal Academy about the exhibition, Emin said: “I wanted to pinpoint, to express, what loneliness feels like.” The artist has long felt an affinity to Munch, once saying: “I’ve been in love with this man since I was 18.”

The upcoming show follows Emin’s recent online exhibition, which featured a series of intimate paintings made during the UK’s first national lockdown. Last week (November 26), Emin’s early works were published for the first time, as part of a new book about her oeuvre – you can see some of the photos here.

Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul runs from December 7, 2020 to February 28, 2021 at the Royal Academy in London. You can buy tickets here