Emin studied fashion at the now-defunct Medway College of Design in Rochester (but never completed her degree) and joined The Medway Poets, a punk-poetry performance group. After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Maidstone College of Art in 1986 and a Master’s in painting from the Royal College of Art in 1989, Emin began focusing on building a career as an artist.
In 1993, Emin teamed up with fellow artist
to open The Shop, a temporary gallery in London’s Bethnal Green neighborhood. They painted the walls magnolia to distinguish their space from traditional white cubes. The Shop didn’t display art; instead, it offered T-shirts and mugs customized by Emin and Lucas. They threw parties,
stopped by, and soon the pair had cemented their reputations as forerunners of the
(YBAs)—a group who began exhibiting together in the late 1980s and received patronage from collector and gallerist Charles Saatchi, who coined the name.
That same year, Emin presaged her later fame by titling her first solo exhibition, at London’s White Cube Gallery, “My Major Retrospective 1963–1993.” This early show evidenced the confessional mode that would become Emin’s hallmark. The artist mounted personal relics, from journals to a quilt to newspaper clippings memorializing her uncle’s untimely death. In her title and presentation, Emin suggested that, together, the writings and knicknacks offered a fractured but honest portrait of her past.
Emin was following an artistic lineage that some scholars trace to artist
once called her “Tracey Emin’s spiritual grandmother”). Bourgeois, like Emin, fixated on her early life and wrestled with sexuality and the female body throughout her oeuvre. In particular, the older artist repeatedly exorcised the demon of her father’s 10-year affair with her childhood nanny. The title of a 1974 artwork, The Destruction of the Father
, suggests her deeply personal, psychologically fraught connection to her artwork. The Telegraph
has also called artist
—who makes art out of personal break-up notes and sexless relationships—“France’s answer to Tracey Emin.”
If Emin is part of a larger narrative about confessional work, particularly work made by women, art historian Laura Lake Smith also sees her as a product of her time. Emin, she said, creates an “authentic, inauthentic persona.” In the 1990s and noughts, Smith explained, “there was the rise of reality TV, of social platforms, of crafting personas in a very personal way,” suggesting that Emin’s work is not just autobiographical, but performative. At that time, Emin was creating a persona for an audience in the way that MTV was generating characters for The Real World.