Feature · arts
When Tracey Emin became Frida Kahlo: Mary McCartney's take on two groundbreaking artists
Two years after Emin unveiled her groundbreaking work, "My Bed," she was back in the bedroom, when photographer Mary McCartney captured her dressed as Frida Kahlo.
By Lianne Kolirin, CNN
Updated 3rd March 2023
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In 1998, Tracey Emin rocked the contemporary art world with her brutally honest installation, "My Bed." The unkempt bed, which was shortlisted for the Turner Prize and later sold for more than $4 million, was a window into Emin's private life, strewn with used condoms, soiled underwear and a full ashtray.
Two years later, Emin was back in the bedroom for art's sake, but through a very different lens — that of photographer Mary McCartney.
Now the focus was on Emin herself, or rather Emin channeling Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, complete with flowers in her hair, chunky silver jewelery and a well-defined monobrow.
In an interview with CNN, McCartney said she had initially planned for a series of similarly themed shoots. Ultimately, the project consisted of this and an image of 1960s model Twiggy dressed as Greta Garbo.
"The idea was going to be a portrait of somebody, and then a photograph of them as someone they really admire or have an affinity with," she said.
"It all sort of came together in this daydream that I had of taking this portrait of Tracey Emin dressed as Frida Kahlo."
McCartney photographed Emin in a studio set up as "Frida's space."
McCartney photographed Emin in a studio set up as "Frida's space." Credit: Sotheby's
McCartney, the daughter of Beatle Paul McCartney and photographer Linda McCartney, said she felt emotionally connected with the late Mexican artist, known for her vibrant self-portraits.
"She's such an incredible artist and there's so much of her own emotion and her own personality in her work, and a lot of honesty," adding, "I've always felt quite emotional looking at her work and I had felt emotion looking at Tracey's work.
"We didn't know each other and I had no idea how she'd feel about this, whether she even had an affinity with Frida Kahlo."
Kahlo was seriously injured in a bus accident in 1925 and it was during her gradual recovery that she taught herself to paint. Some of her paintings feature bedroom scenes and she was repeatedly photographed in bed.
"I love the intimacy of bedrooms," said McCartney. "It's where you feel your safest, it's where you're at your most vulnerable. It's a very private space where you switch your brain off.
"I've always loved Tracey Emin's work for that because it also brings in this whole discussion about beds and your connection to your bed."
In 2000, Emin was a leading light in the Young British Artists (YBA) movement, known for her frank, confessional pieces, including a tent appliquéd with the names of everyone she'd ever slept with.
McCartney reached out to Emin to float her idea. A reply quickly followed, with Emin saying, according to McCartney's recollection: "I have a real affinity with Frida and I really like this idea."
Earlier on the same day, McCartney photographed Emin in her own bed with her beloved cat Docket.
Earlier on the same day, McCartney photographed Emin in her own bed with her beloved cat Docket. Credit: Mary McCartney
The women, then both in their 30s, set a date in October 2000 to meet at Emin's home in London. McCartney photographed Emin in bed with her cat on the R7 Leica given to her by her mother, who had died two years earlier.
The pair then ventured to a nearby "daylight studio," which McCartney hired for the morning to transform into "Frida's space." There, a bed was adorned with black and white snapshots of Kahlo's family to convey "a lot more narrative" about her life, said McCartney.
A makeup artist and a stylist prepped both the scene and Emin herself, dressing her in an embroidered blouse, flowery headpiece, chunky rings and bright red lipstick.
"She (Emin) got into bed and we were talking like Mary and Tracey together, then I picked the camera up and she stopped talking and just really started channeling Frida.
"Her expression changed, the way she sort of put her chin down and looked at me ... Frida was much more in the forefront of her mind.
"I think that's why it's, to me, such a strong image, because she's not just dressed up, she's really got a whole process going on within her."
McCartney said "the chemistry between us really worked" and "we became friends that day."
Emin "loved" the results, she said.
In an email to CNN this week, Emin spoke of her recollections of the shoot, saying: "At the time I really thought I looked like Frida Kahlo, and now I really think I look like me. It's a great portrait by Mary."
"Being Frida, 2000" goes on view at Sotheby's in London on March 9 as part of McCartney's exhibition "Can we have a moment?" It features 27 of McCartney's "favorite moments" taken over the past 25 years in Britain.