Tracey Emin <em>This is exactly how I feel right now</em> 2016, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Andrew and Judy Rogers, and NGV Foundation, 2023<br/>
© Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2022.

This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2023, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Tracey Emin’s practice is a radical reclamation of women’s claim to melancholy. ‘Looking over the list of those one could consider “great melancholies”’, Juliana Schiesari writes in her 1992 book The Gendering of Melancholia, ‘one is struck by the notable absence of women’.1 This absence, Schiesari claims, ‘surely points less to some lack of unhappy women than to the lack of significance traditionally given women’s grief in patriarchal culture’.2 Melancholy is a complex emotional state described by psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva as one that is ‘irreducible to its verbal or semiological expressions’.3 Much more than mere sadness, melancholy is associated with deep concerns and questions about the human condition, feelings of nostalgia and longing, and a mourning not for the loss of an external other, but for an elusive, lost part of the self.

Since Classical times, melancholy has been associated with [male] creativity. Melancholia, according to Aristotle, afflicted all ‘great men’, from Ajax to Socrates. Caused by and named after an excess of black bile – one of the four humours, or bodily fluids, that were thought to regulate human health and personality in ancient Greek medicine – men with the melancholic condition were, Aristotle claimed, prone to pursuing intellectual and creative pursuits.

The revival of Classical philosophy during the Renaissance saw the positive associations between melancholy and men’s creativity deepen. Drawing on Aristotle’s theory of melancholia, Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino wrote in his De vita libri tres that melancholy was a harbinger of genius. While an excess of melancholy could lead to mental instability, for artists melancholy was a gift that enabled superior insight into complex questions of humanity.4 It was a fashionable, romantic and desirable condition worthy of being memorialised in poetry and portraits. Court painters such as Isaac Oliver and Nicholas Hilliard were famed for capturing the longing, mysterious gazes of Elizabethan ‘sad boys’. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was the epitome of the melancholic Renaissance man. Tortured by questions of morality and feelings of self-loathing, Hamlet was the central case study of Sigmund Freud’s 1917 essay ‘Mourning and melancholia’, the most influential text on understandings of melancholy throughout the twentieth century.

Tracey Emin <em>The execution</em> 2018, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Professor AGL Shaw AO Bequest, 2023<br/>
&copy; Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2022.

These writings on melancholia were deeply gendered. Men could experience melancholy, because they had the intellectual capacity for their sadness to be caused by, and provoke, deep, complex philosophical questions. Women’s sadness, in contrast, was caused by quotidian concerns. Perhaps because women were, according to the Bible, born into suffering, their unhappiness was considered an everyday plight, something natural – even corporeal – to be endured rather than explored or mined for creative purposes.

When women’s sadness was pathologised, it was diagnosed as instability, weakness or mental fragility. In the Renaissance period, these symptoms were treated by bloodletting, itself a gendered practice. In the Middle Ages, symptoms of melancholy in women were associated with possession by the devil or other evil spirits. The medical understanding of melancholy during this period also emphasised the role of the uterus in women’s mental health, leading to the concept of ‘hysteria’ (from the Greek word for uterus), which was seen as a uniquely female condition. This was despite the emergence of art and writing by women publicly exploring their feelings of melancholia. Writing in the twelfth century, Hildegard of Bingen claimed that women, not just men, experienced melancholia, the causes of which were different from those contributing to their male counterparts’ melancholia and just as worthy of consideration and analysis.5

During the seventeenth century, women’s experiences of melancholy were reflected in poetry by Anne Bradstreet and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz as well as in paintings by artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Judith Leyster. Women’s suffering, however, continued to be de-legitimised by male authority while simultaneously fetishised in art and literature. Depictions of female saints being tortured and killed, such as Lodovico Carracci’s The Martyrdom of St Margaret, 1616, (Cappella di Santa Margherita, San Maurizio, Mantua) allude to the physical pain of the women depicted while removing their agency to explore that pain or its causes. The erasure of women’s claim to melancholy ultimately reflected the prevailing unwillingness to recognise women as fully human.

Tracey Emin’s This is exactly how I feel right now, 2016, embodies the transcendent sadness and nostalgia that characterises melancholia. The sculpture, a headless, armless body rendered in bronze, bears clear marks of its maker, the tactility of the artist’s hand visible on every surface. The figure is almost a relic, a synecdoche for a flesh-and-blood human. The figure’s fractured form is not the result of torture or beheading, like that inflicted on a Renaissance saint, but the quotidian events of a contemporary woman’s life: ageing, heartbreak, loneliness, grief. It is these ‘everyday’ feelings wrought by such events that are rendered in bronze, to exist as an enduring artefact of one woman’s sadness. The tactile corporeality of Emin’s bronzes harks back to and reinterprets the bodily manifestations of women’s sadness, which were used throughout history to marginalise and diminish female suffering. In Emin’s work, the physical causes and effects of melancholy are not only legitimated, but valorised. Emin started working in bronze after a 2010 collaboration with Louise Bourgeois, whose own philosophical exploration of melancholy and abjection – and how they could be explored and rendered via the female body – both examined and challenged the prevailing Freudian understanding of the condition.

In early modern Europe, women experiencing melancholia were haunted objects, subjected to exorcisms to free their souls from evil spirits. In Emin’s work, melancholy is not exorcised but embraced, elegised and made monumental.

Shown as part of Emin’s landmark Borrowed Light exhibition at the Venice Biennale’s British Pavilion in 2007, Love poem for CF, 2007, references earlier works from the late 1990s. The text reads:

You put your hand
Across my mouth
Still the noise continues
Every part of my body is
Screaming I’m lost
About to be smashed
Into a thousand million
Pieces each part for
Ever belonging to you

Tracey Emin <em>Love poem for CF</em> 2007, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Jo Horgan AM and Peter Wetenhall, 2023<br/>
&copy; Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2022.

In this sculpture, Emin’s intimate, fragmentary reflections on love, sex and trauma are rendered radiant in bright pink neon. This work allows Emin’s melancholy – the pain of vulnerability, the longing for connection and the fear of abandonment – to take up space; it is a visible, public, lit-up declaration of suffering that demands attention, as articulated by the artist earlier in her career:

I want society to hear what I am saying … For me, being an artist isn’t just about making nice things or people patting you on the back; it’s some kind of communication, a message … about very, very simple things that can be really hard … People do get really lonely, people do get really frightened, people do fall in love, people do die, people do fuck. These things happen and everyone knows it but not much of it is expressed.6

Emin referred to Borrowed Light as her most feminine body of work, both ‘pretty and hardcore’. The tough fragility that characterises Emin’s neons, gouaches and bronzes recall seventeenth-century writer Samuel Butler’s sketch of a beautiful, melancholy character who ‘fancies himself to be glass’, with a soul that lives in the body and an imagination that turns and winds like a screw.7 The beauty of Emin’s abstracted portraits of melancholia comes, too, from its inherent brokenness, a radical and intimate statement on the monumentality of women’s sadness.

Tracey Emin’s All me, 2014; Legs raised, 2014; Looking over, 2014; Moving fast, 2014; On my side, 2014; Thought of you, 2014; and Wanting, 2014, have been acquired with the support of the Professor AGL Shaw AO Bequest. Tracey Emin’s Mother, 2014, has been acquired with the support of The Nigel Peck AM and Patricia Peck Fund. Tracey Emin’s Being without you, 2015, has been acquired with the support of the M. G. Chapman Bequest. Tracey Emin’s Crying for you, 2015, has been acquired with the support of the Suzanne Dawbarn Bequest.

DR MARIA QUIRK is a Curator, Collections and Research, National Gallery of Victoria.



Juliana Schiesari, The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1992, p. 3.




Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Columbia University Press, New York, 1989, p. 21.


Jennifer Radden, ‘Learned people and melancholy: Ficino’, in Jennifer Radden (ed.), The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002, pp. 88–94.


Joan Cadden, ‘It takes all kinds: sexuality and gender differences in Hildehard of Bingen’s Book of Compound Medicine’, Traditio, vol. 40, 1984, pp. 165–6.


Tracey Emin in conversation with Stuart Morgan, ‘The story of I’, Frieze, no. 34, May 1997, p. 6.


Samuel Butler, The Genuine Remains in Verse and Prose of Mr Samuel Butler, J and R Tonson, London, 1759, p. 134.