Tracey Emin (‘Death Mask’) by Tracey Emin

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    Tracey Emin ('Death Mask'),    by Tracey Emin,    2002,    NPG 7034,    © Tracey Emin
Self-portrait by Tracey Emin, celebrated contemporary artist.
Tracey Emin ('Death Mask')
by Tracey Emin
distressed bronze cast with gold plating, 2002
7 5/8 in. x 6 7/8 in. (195 mm x 175 mm) overall
NPG 7034
© Tracey Emin
On display in Room 32 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery

Tracey Emin (born 1963) is a British artist. Her art explores her personal experiences and emotions, and often reveals some of the most intimate details of her life.

Emin’s work draws on shared human themes and experiences including love, desire, loss, grief, birth, sex and death. She is particularly interested in exploring ideas of womanhood and the Self A person’s personality or character that makes them different from other people. . She uses a variety of media and techniques including needlework, sketching, video, neon lights and sculpture. 

Emin emerged as part of the YBAs A contemporary art movement characterised by an openness towards the materials and processes that could be used to make art, and the form it could take. ( YBAs A contemporary art movement characterised by an openness towards the materials and processes that could be used to make art, and the form it could take. ) movement in the 1990s. She is one of the most significant contemporary artists in Britain.

This self-portrait was Cast An object made by pouring hot liquid metal, or other materials, into a mould. from Emin’s own head, so it is life-size.

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    Tracey Emin ('Death Mask'),    by Tracey Emin,    2002,    NPG 7034,    © Tracey Emin
Tracey Emin ('Death Mask'), by Tracey Emin, 2002

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a minute. What can you see?

    • It looks peaceful and serene. Tracey Emin’s eyes are closed, her head is slightly tilted back.
    • The head seems to float above the red cloth, adding a dreamlike quality to the self-portrait.
    • The self-portrait also looks fragile. This is perhaps because of the unfinished-looking edges and rough surface with its uneven patches of Gold leaf Gold that has been made into a very thin sheet and is used for decoration. . The clear, glass box looks like it is there to protect it.
    • Emin is known for using many different materials and techniques in her artworks.
    • For this self-portrait, she made a mould directly from her head and neck which was then Cast An object made by pouring hot liquid metal, or other materials, into a mould. in Bronze A dark red-brown metal made by mixing copper and tin. .
    • Bronze casting is a traditional technique that has been used for centuries by different peoples around the world – including ancient civilisations – to create objects and sculptures.
    • Bronze sculptures are often smooth, but Emin has chosen a distressed surface that is bumpy and rough. She has added patches of Gold leaf Gold that has been made into a very thin sheet and is used for decoration. unevenly across the surface.
    • She has chosen to present her self-portrait on dark red velvet.
    • The title of this self-portrait is Death Mask. A Death mask A model of the face of a person who has just died, often made by pressing a soft substance over their face and removing it when it becomes hard. is made after someone has died, to preserve their appearance. They have been made throughout history but were particularly popular in Britain in the 1800s.
    • Emin’s work is often based on images of herself. She once said about people looking at her work, ‘it is like they have seen my art by seeing me’. Here Emin has turned herself into a historical artefact, to be preserved and displayed in a museum for generations of people to look at.
    • The distressed surface of the sculpture makes it look like an ancient artefact that has eroded over time. She perhaps also intended the distressed surface to suggest human fragility and mortality.
    • By creating her own ‘death mask’ while she is still very much alive, she is perhaps taking control and deciding how she will be remembered after she dies.
    • Most Death mask A model of the face of a person who has just died, often made by pressing a soft substance over their face and removing it when it becomes hard. were made of famous men. By referencing a death mask in her self-portrait, she challenges the idea that only men are important enough to be remembered in this way.
I realised I was my work, I was the essence of my work – I always say after I’m dead my work isn’t going to be half as good. 
Tracey Emin, 2001 

Who is Tracey Emin?

  • Tracey Emin grew up in Margate. She studied at Medway College of Design and Maidstone College of Art (now the University for the Creative Arts) and later at the Royal College of Art, London. 
  • Her difficult and sometimes traumatic experiences as a child and young person continues to shape the artist she is today.
  • Following two abortions, Emin experienced a personal crisis, that led her to rethink her life and art. She decided that, for her, art had to be linked to her own experiences and sense of Self A person’s personality or character that makes them different from other people. . She has said: ‘I only survived thanks to art; it gave me faith in my own existence’.
  • In 1997, Emin’s work was included in the ground-breaking Sensation exhibition, at the Royal Academy, London.
  • Emin and many of the other artists featured in the exhibition, such as Marc Quinn and Damien Hirst, would go on to become internationally recognised and were collectively known as the YBAs A contemporary art movement characterised by an openness towards the materials and processes that could be used to make art, and the form it could take. – the YBAs A contemporary art movement characterised by an openness towards the materials and processes that could be used to make art, and the form it could take. . They marked a new era in British contemporary art.   
  • In 2007, Emin was made a Royal Academician An artist elected to be a member of the Royal Academy. at London's Royal Academy of the Arts (RA). This is a highly respected position held by world-leading artists and architects.
  • In 2011, she was made Professor of Drawing at the RA. With Fiona Rae, she is one of the first two female professors since the Academy was founded in 1768. 

Why is this portrait significant?

  • A Death mask A model of the face of a person who has just died, often made by pressing a soft substance over their face and removing it when it becomes hard. is made after someone has died, to preserve their appearance. They have been made throughout history but were particularly popular in Britain in the 1800s. They were usually made of famous men.
  • Traditionally, history and art has been dominated by men and stories about men. By creating a death mask of herself, a woman, and making it look like a historical artefact, she is perhaps challenging these traditional views.
  • The National Portrait Gallery has over 30 Death mask A model of the face of a person who has just died, often made by pressing a soft substance over their face and removing it when it becomes hard. in its collection. These are mostly of well-known artists and politicians. Only one is of a woman.
  • Emin is placing herself at the centre of her work. She has created her own ‘death mask’ while she is still very much alive. Perhaps she is taking control and deciding how she will be remembered after she dies.
  • It is one of four unique ‘ Life mask An impression or the mould of the face of a living person, usually made by taking a plaster cast of the features. ’ of the artist’s face made in 2002 – each with a different Patina A green, black or brown layer that forms on the surface of some metals, especially bronze. and finish. 
  • Death Mask marks an important turning point for Emin as it was the first sculptural work that she made in Bronze A dark red-brown metal made by mixing copper and tin. . This medium is now central to her artistic practice.  

Questions

  1. What messages do you think Tracey Emin is trying to show with this work? Why?
  1. Why do you think death masks are not as popular in Britain as they were in the 1800s?
  1. How would you like to be remembered in an artwork? Why?