Personal Mythologies

The works in this section, rather than illustrating existing or familiar texts, have new tales to tell. Contemporary video-works and drawings are juxtaposed with early twentieth-century prints to explore personal storytelling as the source of artists’ inspiration. The audience has no way of knowing whether any of the personal narratives are real or artifice or set out simply to mythologise the storyteller.

In their striking print series, Oskar Kokoschka and Paul Gauguin both mythologise episodes from their personal lives. Kokoschka was commissioned to illustrate a children’s picture book, but instead produced an autobiographical ‘picture-poem’ recording his adolescent fantasies. Gauguin embellished his experiences of Tahiti by inserting himself into the mythology he developed for the French colony.

This compulsion of artists to share their own stories or the confessions of others is echoed in the contemporary work on display. Olivia Plender satirises artists’ obsessions with personal mythologies in her complex comic-book fiction. Through first-person spoken narrative, the videos of Tracey Emin and Gillian Wearing conform to the traditions of oral storytelling. Using explicit language and candid themes, they address the complexities of contemporary life through storytelling.

Selected works from this section

Paul Gauguin Noa Noa Series – Te Po
(detail) 1893-94
Wood engraving, 1921 print
© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Paul Gauguin

Noa Noa Series – Te Po 1893-94

Disillusioned with the West, Paul Gauguin left Paris for Tahiti in 1891. The colony was not the unspoiled native society he had imagined, so he quickly set about reinventing its mythology. Upon returning to France, Gauguin found that the Parisian public did not grasp the personal symbolism and fantasy of his Tahitian paintings. To explain, he co-wrote a romanticised account of his journey, Noa Noa, for which he also created ten coloured illustrations. The text and images were never published together. In 1921, his son printed eight of the illustrations as black-and-white engravings. In the first print, Te Po (to the left), Gauguin actually inserts himself into his Tahitian mythology: he is in the background at the left, presiding over a covered figure terrorized by the Spirit of the Dead or tupapau. The tupapau appears in many of Gauguin’s works and symbolises the Tahitian terror of the night.

Oskar Kokoschka, The Dreaming Youths – Sleeping Girl 1907, coloured lithograph (printed 1917)
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London © The Artist

Oskar Kokoschka
The Dreaming Youths – Sleeping Girl

The Dreaming Youths began as a commission to illustrate a children’s picture book, but Kokoschka abandoned his brief after the first page (to the left) to evolve a new form of visual storytelling. The resulting series of eight colour lithographs form a complex ‘picture-poem’, combining striking imagery with fragmented verse written by the artist. Kokoschka referred to this work as a love letter, dedicated to a girl called Lilith Lang, who also attended The School of Applied Arts in Vienna and who appears in the story as Li. The Dreaming Youths was considered highly controversial when it was published in 1908 by the Vienna Workshop, not only because of its radical design and innovative typography, but because it explored themes of adolescent sexuality.

Gillian Wearing Confess all on video. Don't worry you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian... (still) 1994. Courtesy Maureen Paley © The Artist

Gillian Wearing
Confess all on video. Don't worry you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian...

Contemporary artist Gillian Wearing works primarily with photography and video to explore the fears, anxieties, hopes and moral viewpoints of her subjects and in turn, those of the spectator. She often adopts methods similar to television documentary for her ‘fly-on-the-wall’ view of people’s lives. The artist placed an advertisement in Time Out magazine, which read Confess all on video. Don't worry you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian... The resulting video documents strangers’ confessions. Disguised in grotesque masks, her participants are free to tell the truth about things they would never admit in daily life. At the same time, they can invent flamboyant lies without being caught. By bringing together these confessions, Wearing becomes a kind of storyteller, but by constructing the piece as a whole, she inevitably adds her own bias and becomes part of it


Tracey Emin Why I Never Became a Dancer (still)1995
Betacam SP videotape
Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © The Artist

Tracey Emin
Why I Never Became a Dancer

Tracey Emin achieves notoriety in the art world and the popular press for her starkly confessional work, based on an unorthodox upbringing and turbulent private life. In this moving video, Why I Never Became a Dancer, Emin documents her vivid adolescent memories of growing up in Margate. She asks the viewer to look beyond the superficial and peripheral into what can be deeply felt, even if we find it painful. Whilst explicitly addressing the intimacies and complexities of contemporary life, the work is delivered in a traditional oral first-person narrative. This is a story about humiliation, abuse, hope, and ultimately survival and triumph – a modern fairy tale perhaps?

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