Emma Talbot: the Inner Espression

An interview with the artist who won the Max Mara Art Prize: Emma Talbot, who stands out with her personal experiences and widespread contemporary concerns.
Reading time 8 minutes

Thanks to the Max Mara's love for art and to the need to support women artists the Max Mara Art Prize was born in 2005. This prestigious award is organized for UK-based female artists who have never had a big solo exhibition. The winning female artist of this year is Emma Talbot, who makes paintings, sculptures and installations. Talbot's works will be exhibited first at Whitechapel Gallery, one of London's major contemporary art galleries in 2021, and then at Collezione Maramotti, which belongs to Max Mara in the Reggio Emilia region of Italy. We talked with Emma about her work, career and Max Mara Art Prize.

How did your art journey begin? Can you introduce yourself?

I've always liked to draw and do something artistic, so it was pretty obvious that I would go to art school after high school. I did a Master of Arts degree in Birmingham and then the Royal Collage of Art. While I was working on my art, I had a job as a private teacher in Fine Arts courses and I was taking care of my family. I almost gave up art after my husband died, but then I realized that I could reveal all my thoughts and complex feelings in it. It allowed me to take greater risks and be more experimental. My practice was born from this experience.


What was your first memory of art?

While other children were listening to the teacher's stories, I was allowed to paint the windows of my kindergarten class.

How did you create your style?  What's your signature?

The appearance and images of my work emerged by making a direct drawing, discovering what it is to be me rather than an outside view. Therefore, the figures do not have faces. I use combinations of shapes, patterns, and text to create nonlinear narratives. I do large-scale painting, drawing and 3D works that are perceived as 3D drawing. They all share the same visual language.

What kind of materials do you use in your works?

I draw on the paper and paper with watercolor and gouache. I paint with acrylic on silk, I do 3D works with dyed fabric and various materials, and use sound in installations.

You have different works such as drawing, painting, sculpture and installation. If you would choose one of these disciplines, which one would express yourself the most?

I think painting and drawing. Because it forms the roots of my work.

How is your process of creating?

I spend some time making drawings of pictures or texts. They help me create ideas and discover my thoughts. When I have several drawings, I can define a narrative subject more clearly. Then I start to decide how the work should come out physically,  whether it has a physically existing form (three-dimensional) or whether it will be a painted area, then what format / scale / significance it is. Sound tracks are digital and created to play in the installation to create the atmosphere.

What are the topics you discuss in your works, what are the things you want to explain?

My works come always from personal experiences and are in a broader context of common contemporary concerns. For example, our relationships with technology and devices or our relationships with nature, what it means to survive in the near future, thoughts on power structures.


You have lived in Italy for some time, what kind of contribution did this country gave to your art?

I spent 6 months in the 90s as a scholarship student at the British School in Rome. It was a great opportunity to be out of my master at the Royal Collage of Art. It was a long time ago. I was lucky enough to work in a studio before the internet. I remember that everything was visually stimulating.

There are female figures in your works without faces. What are the stories behind them?

The figures in my work are often perceived as myself, but there is an inside look rather than an outside look. We cannot see our own face (except in the mirror), because it actually looks like an open portal when we look at the Earth. That is why I have always used an unknown figure through this experience: they are my inner thoughts but also the ones the world. I also like the audience potentially reflecting themselves into shape, as if we can live in the 'personal space' of the storyteller.

How did your process to join Max Mara Art Prize develop?

I already had an interest in the idea of joining Max Mara Art Prize, but I had to go to Italy for research. As I was wondering how it would have turned out, it was a surprising coincidence that I was nominated for the award.

The Three Ages of Woman by Gustav Klimt was your inspiration for the project you submitted for the competition . Why did you choose this work? Is there something special about it?

My project is based on the painting of Three Ages of Woman by Gustav Klimt in Galleria Nazionale of Modern Art in Rome. There are three figures in this painting. One of them is an old woman who is in a state of shame with her head visible on her hand. The apparent embarrassment of this old figure represents the attitudes I wanted. Taking this figure as an example of Hercules' 12 attempts (and rethinking of how Hercules could have resolved his labours without using his aggressive and violent tactics), I thought of creating a narrative about a woman who went back to the old past to reconsider the myths of classical power and make this woman a protector in the narrative. . The woman goes to the future in the narrative and, as a future survivor, learns about new sustainable lifestyles in a volatile and deteriorating environment. The painting was bought by the National Gallery in Rome to celebrate the Unification of Italy, and therefore allows past and future attitudes to be more widely represented through the lens of the nation. I think this issue can be matched with contemporary political dynamics. Of course, with the current pandemic, the order and survival of the elderly has become an even sharper focus. But I would like to imgine the old figure as a wise survivor who can make use of broad depths of knowledge to inform what the future would be like. I think that aging should be understood as a force.


As a result of the award, your works will be exhibited first at Whitechapel Gallery, one of the most important art galleries in London, and then at Collezione Maramotti. Which effect do you think this will have on your career?

This will be a big change for my career at a very important point in it. It would be great to have a high profile exhibition that will be shown in my city and in Italy for the first time. It will make my work more visible to a wider audience and will be better known.

Max Mara Art Prize became an important point in your career. What are your next plans?

I'm working for individual exhibitions for institutions such as Eastside Projects in Birmingham, Dundee Contemporary arts in Germany and Kusthalle Giessen; and that will be my 2020. I will focus on my exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery next year.

Technology is developing very fast and we live in a digital world. What do you think about this renewed world ?

I am fascinated by our relationships with technology and our thoughts about the 'real' ones. I am doing a work titled “When Screens Break” on our closeness to devices and our future in virtual reality settings. In the study, the figures are left to decay, but still dream of returning to the concrete world, which is still magical. My work asks open questions about how we comply with the demands of technology, how we depend on networks, and explains our situation rather than being negative. Obviously, technology means that we are much more skilled in creative image, audio, video production, and we can also connect globally in really exciting ways. I am learning to transform my works into animations, which is a new exciting style for me. I am also interested in the ways in which digital encourages revival in physical production.

Photo of Thierry Bal



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