A case of heartbreak? I prescribe Tracey Emin’s neons and Paula Rego’s dancers

<span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Last Thursday night I gave a talk at the Hirshhorn in Washington DC. I always stick around afterwards so I can chat to people about their work, their favourite artists or their routes into art. On this occasion, one woman – her eyes glassy – looked at me and said: which artist can I look at to soften heartbreak?

I immediately directed her to Tracey Emin’s neons, where I’ve often gone to find answers. Text is powerful when used in art. Emin’s neons, lit up in fluorescent colours and at times loosely framed in a heart-shaped line, have read: “Meet me in heaven and I will wait for you”; “It’s a crime to live with the person you don’t love”; “The soul will always do what it needs to do’’; “I could have really loved you”; “Be brave”. Although not limited to heartbreak, these lines address experiences most people can relate to.

The places we go, or the people we look to in times of any need were on my mind that day. I had started reading A Life of One’s Own, a new book by Joanna Biggs, which explores nine female writers – from Mary Wollstonecraft to Toni Morrison – who have had to “begin again”. In the first chapter, Biggs tells us about her heartbreak after she and her husband separated and the way that she looked to writers to guide her in her new life. She recalls tender childhood moments when her mother would direct her to books: “The Mill on the Floss when I was ill; Ballet Shoes when I demanded dance lessons; A Little Princess when I felt overlooked.” With her mother now diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and “fading from my life”, Biggs goes on to ask: “How could I find the books I needed now?”

I like to find solace in art – and the power of great art is its ability to speak to any of us at any time. Like Biggs, we have all had to renew ourselves, whether after losing loved ones; recovering from illnesses; moving jobs, cities, countries; or sacrificing or shedding something else in order to start something new.

When I was going through a time of transition, someone advised me to curate a mini exhibition of works to help me understand how I felt. Opening up an empty Google Doc, I started with Paula Rego’s The Dance, a 1988 painting set under a moonlit sky that shows the different stages of a woman’s life. We see her dancing as a child, holding hands with her middle- and old-aged self; pregnant with her partner; with her back turned towards us as her lover’s gaze suspiciously meets ours – as if he is telling us something she doesn’t know; and alone – bigger and stronger than the rest.

Stages of life … Paula Rego’s The Dance.
Stages of life … Paula Rego’s The Dance. Photograph: Malcolm Park/Alamy

There was Gluck’s Medallion (YouWe), from 1936, one of the first Sapphic portraits in western art history that captures the union between two female lovers. Gluck, nearest to us, appears tense, whereas Nesta – basking in an auric glow – seems unattainable as she looks elsewhere. It’s as if Gluck is trying to immortalise their relationship, holding on to something that perhaps has now been lost. For me, this artwork symbolises heartbreak.

In Mother and Child (2016) by Njideka Akunyili Crosby, we see a woman in a state of reflection. Facing the same way as the viewer – with her back turned towards us – she could be looking downwards or at the picture in front of her, which depicts a mother and child. Is she remembering the love of her own mother, is she pregnant herself or is the painting about something that lives inside all of us?

And then there were the spiders by Louise Bourgeois, which appear in her sculptures, prints, drawings and paintings. Bourgeois, whose parents refurbished tapestries, admired the spider for its ability to weave a web from its body, which it could endlessly rebuild: “I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer; if you bash into the web of a spider she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it.”

Whatever you might be feeling, make a bookshelf of the writers who speak to you most, compile your favourite poems, go to your local gallery to experience art in the flesh or curate your own mini exhibition that will help you get through. Look to art for the answers because across the years, decades, or centuries, in work by someone who lived a completely different existence to you, you’ll find something you instantly recognise. And when you do, you can pass it on to someone else who might need it too.