National Portrait Gallery buys Tracey Emin's Death Mask

Artist and White Cube gallery offer discount for the striking work, which will be shown in death-themed display

Tracey Emin’s Death Mask has been purchased by the National Portrait Gallery.

The gallery announced on Thursday that it had bought the artwork, a 3D self-portrait cast by Emin in 2002 as an ironic reference to the autobiographical nature of her work.

The mask, which is joining the permanent collection, will initially be part of a small, death-themed temporary display. This includes historic works, such as a 17th-century posthumous portrait of the noblewoman Lady Digby by Van Dyck, and more contemporary pieces, such as the final portrait of the film-maker Derek Jarman, made by Michael Clark in 1993, a year before Jarman’s death.

Emin said she created the mask to offer herself in perpetuity as an enclosed specimen or museum display.

Nicholas Cullinan, the gallery’s director, said Death Mask was “one of the most striking and singular portraits to join the gallery’s collection in recent years”.

“Drawing on the history of this very particular form of portraiture, Tracey Emin has taken the idea of the death mask to create an innovative work that challenges our perceptions of self-portraiture,” he added.

The work cost £67,500, with Emin and the White Cube gallery offering a discount of £37,500 and the Art Fund providing £30,000.

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, called the purchase an “excellent and imaginative acquisition” for the gallery that “offers many possibilities for interpretation” and admiration.

Death Mask was Emin’s first sculptural work in bronze. It plays on the fact that so much is already known about the artist, through works such as Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 and My Bed, her 1998 installation of a stained and unmade bed, along with empty vodka bottles, a full ashtray and used condoms.

The National Portrait Gallery has a large collection of death masks of men, including historical figures such as Oliver Cromwell and Sir Isaac Newton, and artists and writers such as Turner, Constable, Rossetti and Thackeray.

The Life, Death and Memory display, in which Emin’s mask will be shown, is to run for almost a year. Other exhibits include 17th-century memento mori portraits and a poignant photograph of the Labour party strategist Philip Gould. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Gould posed for Adrian Steirn on his burial plot in Highgate cemetery, north London, nine days before he died in 2011.

Rab MacGibbon, curator of the display, said Emin’s Death Mask “blurs the distinctions between life and death, art and identity”.

• Life, Death and Memory will be shown in room 16 of the National Portrait Gallery, from 17 April 2017 to 16 March 2018

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Mark Brown Arts correspondent

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