For some, Tracey Emin will always be synonymous with the boldness of her piece My Bed, and the conceptual art movement it came to embody in the 1990s. The Turner Prize-nominated installation, with its detritus of dirty linen, used condoms and blood-stained underwear, was one of the most visited in the history of the Tate – and transformed its creator into an "art star". Yet, while many remember the shock value of My Bed, or the confessional quilts and tents with the embroidered names of Everyone I Ever Slept With, Emin's oeuvre has always engaged with traditional crafts – print-making, appliqué, drawing, etching and embroidery. And this summer, the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) will present the first retrospective dedicated to Emin's immense body of monoprints, focusing on works dating from 1994 to now.
Emin herself says there is no distinction to be made between these and the bolder conceptual works that made her part of the "Sensation" generation: "The prints start off with an idea," she explains. "It's not like I'm hurling myself on to the paper. I start off with a concept or a dialogue. Most of the work has been done by hand – the sculptures, embroidery, prints are all hand-made, not machine-made. Even My Bed is very intimate. What's flashy is the attention given to it."
Printmaking, says Emin, was her first love – she completed a Fine Art and Print-making degree at Maidstone Art College which she describes as "one of the best experiences of [her] life". The prints, etchings and lithographs in the forth-coming RA show, trace the recurringly introspective, self-questioning and often dark subject-matter with which she has grappled over her career: "In my prints now, I'm still asking the same questions that I was asking in 1994, but I may be getting different answers. Things recur. I might have thought something at 20 but [later] I'll think about it differently... my conclusion [may be] different," she says.
The artist believes there is an extraordinarily evocative, even quaint, element to the medium: "I've always had a love of printmaking because of the magic and alchemy of it all. You never really know how it's going to be until you turn the paper over. I find printmaking a very intimate practice. When I was younger, I'd print my own prints, but I get technicians to do it now. When I do wood cuts, I print them off by hand, using a spoon," she explains. "Lots of art schools have lost their print presses; they do digital prints only now. When you go to old workshops, it's like going back in history: the cogs, the smell of the wheels, it's really evocative. I say: bring back traditional printmaking." Employing this old-fashioned craft to delve into the unconscious is a deliberate juxtaposition of the medium and the message, she adds.
Like the late Louise Bourgeois – with whom she worked to create 16 prints that will be shown in New York this September – Emin employs the lightness of traditional "women's crafts", like sewing, to explore what Bourgeois classed as the "volcanic unconscious" which we only ever encounter in parts: "That's why I use a lot of embroidery," Emin explains. "I take this craft but I don't treat it like a craft, but like high art. I didn't know who Louise Bourgeois was until 1996. I had started on my own trajectory and I was so amazed when I came across her."
The print Mother Brother, one of four available as part of The Independent Magazine's exclusive reader offer, was first conceived by Emin as a form of wordplay: "When I was doing the etching for this, I wrote the 'r' backwards deliberately. It was a play on words... It might sound corny but there's a part of you that you don't know is within you. The 'r' triggered that for me."
Sleep Again, another print available through the offer, features a small figure curled up in bed and was adapted from an old idea: "I did a smaller image in 1994, which was actually a child lying on a bed with a penis emerging," Emin recalls. "Now, it's a woman on the bed with a penis image, but this time it's funny – the penis appears almost to be looking at her..."
No Time, the third print in the series, grapples with that "deep, immense sleeplessness that comes when you lie in bed, and your thoughts just go around and around," Emin says. The image was to have been part of her abortion drawings series but she later changed her mind. "The trolley looks like an operating trolley or a morgue table. It's a dark image; in fact, a lot of these images are dark."
Finally, At Night – showing a woman lying in bed, with what appears to be a foetus inside her – returns to the subject of abortion and is intensely psychological. "That's one of the things that is different now from 15 years ago. Then the work would have been much more to do with my mind than my heart," Emin reveals.
Far from being a "lost art", Emin believes printmaking is seeing a revival in edgy, metropolitan galleries and among younger artists: "The Tate recently asked me what I thought about their prints and drawings rooms, and the White Cube Gallery is about to have an exhibition of prints. People used to undervalue works on paper, but that's changing. What is wonderful about prints is that they are really accessible; they're the same price as a really expensive pair of shoes."
Walking With Tears, the first retrospective of Tracey Emin's prints, opens at the RA, London W1, on TuesdayReuse content