What an unmade bed can tell us

What is it about the subject of an unmade bed that attracts a viewer’s attention? Tracy Emin, Valeska Soares, and Imogen Cunningham are three artists that have taken on this topic in their art and explored it in different ways. Taking on the subject of the unmade bed can allow the reader to be a voyeur of a space that strangers do not share. It is the equivalent of going over to a dinner party at a new friend’s house and peeking in her medicine cabinet. Even my closest friends haven’t been to my home when my bed is unmade. Having a chance to see how someone inhabits their bed can reveal something about a person and where they may be in their life.

Curiosity and storytelling are part of it, but beds also bring forward a feeling of crashing waves. The same curved lines that one would find in a painting of a wave crashing on the shore is present in a rumpled sheet. Being in a bed next to a lover can bring forward feelings that crash like waves and leave impressions on the pillows, bed sheets, and mattress. It can also feel peaceful like the person laying on the mattress is floating out at sea. Beds are a place of refuge, to escape the storms of emotions that life can bring forward, to curl up under waves of sheets until a person can feel safe to emerge again. I know when I am not feeling well, emotionally or physically, there is no place I would rather be than in my bed with sheets and duvets wrapped around me.


The Wave, 1869, Gustave Courbet. Städel Museum.


Imogen Cunningham likely started the trend of photographer’s capturing an unmade bed with her image The Unmade Bed. When we look at a photograph, we are often looking for the story. Whose bed is this? Does she sleep alone? Why are their hairpins on the sheet? Are they resting there as their owner gets ready for the day or have they been taken out after a long workday? Is their owner coming to or going from the bed? While looking at the image, I also wonder about the bed itself. Is it comfortable? The curvey lines of the sheets, which are accentuated by the shadows make the bed appear inviting. As I look at it, I want to climb in and wrap the bedsheet around me and curl under the blankets which are cozy and inviting. Of course, I can’t jump in because the hairpins are blocking my entrance. They interrupt the welcoming nature of the bed. There is also the feeling that I should look away. That I can view a scene that I should not know because I have never met the photographer. Only people who spend the night together are supposed to see an unmade bed.

The Unmade Bed, 1958, Imogen Cunningham. MoMA.

With Valeska Soares’ sculptures, Duet I (From After) and Mattress II, she approaches the unmade bed subject in parts. The pillows and mattress rest in different spots, and they rest on the gallery floor. Upon first entering the gallery the viewer needs to be mindful not to step on them accidentally. It is their placement that first gives the viewer pause. Why are they on the gallery’s floor? A mattress and pillows should not be on the ground. I think I know what they are made of, maybe feathers or soft foam, but upon closer inspection, I discover I am wrong. They are white marble sculptures that are hand carved to look like a mattress and pillow. If I laid on them, they would feel cold and hard. Neither appears inviting.

Duet I (From After), 2007, Valeska Soares, MCASB.

I initially thought this sculpture was about pillows and the juxtaposition of soft and hard. Then I noticed that the sculpture is memorializing the heads that rested upon it. The subject is a couple that we are not seeing. Who are they? They have been together for a long time because of the deep impressions left on the pillows. A one-night stand doesn’t leave those grooves. The couple who own these pillows sleep next to each other, every night, long enough that they have left the impressions of their heads. The result is the viewer reflects on their experience intimacy and the impact that type of experience can have on one’s life. For me, I couldn’t help but mourn someone who no longer rests next to me.

The mattress, at first, feels less personal. It is a twin size mattress, also made of white marble, and looks cheap and barely used. The indentations of its owner are missing. This mattress could belong to anyone. Maybe it rests in a spare room, or it could be for someone who lives alone, or rents a room. When I look at the mattress, I remember that for a majority of my life I slept on a cheap, twin size mattress. It wasn’t until I moved in with a boyfriend that I shared my first queen size mattress. Before that, it was a series of twin size mattresses, and for about a five-year span my mattress also rested on the floor. My mattress also didn’t look lived in because their owner didn’t spend enough time with it. I also wonder why we call this bed a twin when it is on its own, unlike the pillows, who have each other.

An unmade bed can be a window into someone’s private world. Have you ever peeked into someone’s room to check it out? It is liking peaking into a host’s medicine cabinet. We are looking for clues to understand better who a person is behind the veneer. Maybe you want to discover more about her. Is the bed made? How is it made? What is next to her bed? What do the answers tell us about our host? Can the way we keep our bed expose our inner life? Tracey Emin’s work is personal and public. Before we had social media where so many put their lives out there online, she was breaking the privacy wall. The artist, who she is, the story she is telling about herself is the art as the work is the art. Her artworks are reflections of where she is in her life and in the piece My Bed it is a time capsule of a time in her life. When I first saw My Bed, I wasn’t sure how to approach it. It rests in the gallery, like any other piece of sculpture, surrounded by a couple of paintings, but it was very different. I immediately wanted to look away because I felt like I was intruding on the artist’s privacy. We don’t often talk about the stories the bed is telling in public.


My Bed_2
My Bed, 1998, Tracey Emin. Tate.


When I first saw My Bed, I felt fear and relief. I worried about the woman who had this bed because there were many trophies to self-harm that were part of it. The feeling of comfort came from a sense I had that the woman who owned this bed also got out of this bed. It is a bed that someone spent many days in and it wasn’t an easy bedrest judging by what it left behind. It is a visual reflection of how one feels when she emerges from a state of depression. That feeling, when you can look down at something like this bed, and then turn and walk away. That’s a feeling of joy because the emotions that created this bed and pulled its keeper in have passed. Its owner had escaped the undercurrent of self-destruction.


My Bed_side
Side view of My Bed, 1998, Tracey Emin. Tate.



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