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Reading: Work in Progress: Tracey Emin: Ideas of melancholy and maternity


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Visual Essay and Work in Progress

Work in Progress: Tracey Emin: Ideas of melancholy and maternity


Rebecca Baillie

About Rebecca
Rebecca Baillie is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History and Theory at Essex University under the supervision of Margaret Iversen. Her research takes a new look at the old story of melancholy, focused through the lens of feminist theory and women artists; the thesis is called A Nest of Empty Boxes: Women and Melancholy made Visible. She has recently become a member of the MaMSIE steering committee with the role of increasing discussion around the maternal and visual art, and also with the view to building up a trans-historical image library of work related to the maternal. She works closely with many contemporary women artists and has co-curated a forthcoming exhibition called Braided Together: Hair in the work of Contemporary Women Artists. Along with an essay on the photographer Elina Brotherus to be published in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, the work published in Studies in the Maternal will be her first to date. Rebecca is also a mother and a practicing artist. She lives and works in London, UK.
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This text introduces a small part of larger project that explores not only the work of the artist Tracey Emin, but also that of other women artists whose work is considered in relation to ideas of melancholy and maternity. The project as a whole endeavors to understand the idea of melancholy, suggested by psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva as one that is 'irreducible to its verbal or semiological expressions'. I argue that it is necessary to discuss the term not only alongside feminism, psychoanalysis and ideas of maternity, but also to scrutinize its visual depiction. Very generally put, the melancholic female artist is fixated on a lost ideal – on the umbilical connection she once had with her mother, and subsequently, on other intimate but unsustainable relationships. Refusing to sever attachments to the lost object, the melancholic artist instead becomes haunted by it. Robert Burton, the seventeenth century English scholar, crucial to any discussion of melancholy, endeavored to present the condition 'philosophically, medicinally and historically opened and cut up'. However, in his refusal to acknowledge the melancholy female, and also in only looking briefly at images, he failed to fully dissect the melancholy state. Often posing as a maternal subject, Tracey Emin reveals that feelings of loss remain bound neither to an unconscious psychological concept nor woven only in the past and only to our mothers. I argue that a woman's experience or fantasy of maternity is important to consider as a surrogate relationship created to alleviate the pain of melancholy in response to the original separation experienced between mother and child.
How to Cite: Baillie, R., 2011. Work in Progress: Tracey Emin: Ideas of melancholy and maternity. Studies in the Maternal, 3(1), pp.1–12. DOI:
Published on 01 Jan 2011.


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