Cambridge, United Kingdom
Summary of Jenny Saville
Jenny Saville is often credited with reinventing figure painting for contemporary art, as well as originating a new and challenging way of painting the female nude. Saville is part of the generation of concept-driven British artists that came of age in the 1990s, the YBAs, but unlike her contemporaries, Saville's primary interests are painting and figuration. Whether in her oil paintings of fleshy bodies, or charcoal drawings of layered and overlapping figures, Saville combines figuration and abstraction to create direct and unidealized images of the human form. Drawing on precedents from the history of art, she presents bodies (often damaged, dimpled, or altered) that speak to our contemporary moment. A prolific artist, she is one of the most important painters working today.
- From the beginning of her career, Saville has engaged in an intense exploration of the body and its representation. Saville borrows conventions from a long tradition in figure painting, whether in poses borrowed from Madonna and Child paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, the use of a color palette reminiscent of Peter Paul Rubens, or the gestural painting of Willem de Kooning in his Woman series. Saville appropriates these techniques associated with male masters to show her own point of view as a woman.
- A painter of flesh with all its marks, blemishes and folds, Saville is best known for her large-scale paintings of towering fleshy female nudes set against a blank background. These figures represent the artist's desire to tackle taboo issues around motherhood, plastic surgery, dieting, exercise, and the representation of women in art and popular culture, themes that had mostly been missing from the history of paintings, including paintings of women.
- Saville uses the prolific art historical theme of the female nude and turns it upside down. Where paintings of the female nude tend to be small in size, centered in the picture frame, reclining in a docile manner and with extremely smooth, flat skin and beautiful unblemished features; her paintings are huge with layers of thick paint, bruised surfaces, hair, and figures that seem to be trying to escape the picture plane.
- The female nude is traditionally painted by men for other men to look at. Saville challenges this dynamic by often painting herself, often naked - becoming artist and artist's model, and thus claiming agency as the subject and author of her work. Saville's paintings of her own naked body towering over a viewer. They threaten the status quo of the clothed, male artist and naked woman model so central to art historical paintings of nudes.
- In her later work, Saville pays less attention to the built up layers of paint that characterize her early paintings in favor of the drawn lines (in charcoal) that allow for the overlapping of multiple figures in order to evoke movement, memory, and time.
Biography of Jenny Saville
Jenny Saville was born on May 7, 1970, in Cambridge. Her parents, both educators, moved Jenny and her brothers and sister frequently from school to school as her father pursued a career as a school administrator. After attending several schools, she finished secondary school at Newark, Nottinghamshire. As a child, Saville's parents encouraged her to think and work independently. She was first attracted to painting at the age of eight. Her mother recognized her talents early and cleared out a broom closet for Saville to use as her first studio. She cites her uncle, Paul Saville, an artist, art historian, and former head of Liberal Arts at Clare College, as an early influence. He took her to museums, but also to Holland and Italy, in order to expose her to Old Masters as well as modern artists. It was her uncle that encouraged her to pursue an art degree at the Glasgow School of Art.
Important Art by Jenny Saville
In this monumental nude self-portrait ample breasts and dimpled folds of flesh loom large on the canvas. Viewed from below, the weighty figure dominates the frame. On the fleshy torso, Saville has inscribed the words of French feminist theorist Luce Irigaray: "delicate," "supportive," "irrational," "decorative," and "petite," all written backwards. Using this as a means of countering preconceived notions about the representation of women, Saville has literally branded these words on the painted flesh. Characteristic of the artist's early work with the female nude, Branded presents a direct and unidealized image of the female body.
Regarding this early work, Saville has said: "I'm not painting disgusting, big women. I'm painting women who've been made to think they're big and disgusting." In this and other early paintings, Saville subverts traditional notions of female beauty and femininity that have long dominated Western art. In the case of Branded this challenging of convention takes place through the artist's use of her own body. Art Historian Marsha Meskimmon has argued that "Saville's work interrogates our perception of the female body in challenging ways. To use the self in this way is to come full circle in the questioning of fixed identity and the body." An important early work, Branded was included in Saville's acclaimed 1992 Glasgow School of Art graduation exhibition, which propelled her to fame as one of the Young British Artists. Branded is often cited as a painting which made figurative painting popular in contemporary art. The work challenges the typical female nude (which is small, delicate, and 'beautiful') by making a huge painting with thick paint, which looks down on the viewer and flows out of the edges of the picture plane.
The painting was originally exhibited with a mirror, so viewers had to look at the picture in the mirror to read the inscribed Irigaray text more easily, while also seeing their own reflection. However, when Saatchi bought the work, he refused to exhibit with the mirror, and so it has only been shown without it since.
Saville's striking self-portrait, Plan, makes use of extreme foreshortening to present an uncompromising image of the female nude. Working from photographs rather than life, she presents a snapshot, a fleeting glimpse of a figure that struggles to be contained within the frame. The brushwork is both delicate and aggressive, often building up thick impasto on the painting's surface. She is nonetheless able to capture every vein, every dimple, every splotchy bit of flesh, and every strand of hair. Looking directly at the viewer over the marked terrain of her body, Saville calls our attention to complicated issues surrounding women's bodies, plastic surgery, and the "cult of exercise." The lines drawn on the flesh resemble the lines on a topographical map. They also reference the lines drawn by plastic surgeons on the skin of their patients in preparation for body altering surgeries. Saville has said: "The lines on her body are the marks they make before you have liposuction done to you. They draw these things that look like targets. I like this idea of mapping the body, not necessarily areas to be cut away, but like geographical contours on a map. I didn't draw on to the body. I wanted the idea of cutting into the paint. Like you would cut into the body. It evokes the idea of surgery. It has lots of connotations." Regarding these inscribed lines, some scholars have suggested: "In this mapping of the body as an area of problematic terrain a relationship is set up between perceptions of the natural and the planned. The question of who is exercising control over this 'plan' remains troubling and implicates the viewer of the image."
Plan was painted in 1993 and later exhibited by Charles Saatchi in Young British Artists III at the Saatchi Gallery in 1994. It was also included several years later in Sensation, the groundbreaking and controversial 1997 exhibition of Young British Artists at the Royal Academy of Art. An important early work by Saville, Plan is emblematic of her concern for depicting women as subjects rather than objects and is another painting in which the artist is both the subject and the painter, something that had previously been almost unheard of, especially in paintings of nudes. In her attempt to draw on the history of the female nude, while also showing women as they see themselves, Saville has given her figures a weighty presence that combines empathy, apprehension, vulnerability, and awe.
In Passage, a striking, confident nude woman is shown in a near recumbent position with outstretched legs that extend out beyond the picture frame. Thickly painted, though seemingly unfinished, Passage continues Saville's interest in sensuously painted, fleshy bodies that defy traditional representations of the reclining nude. The flesh is depicted with powerful and aggressive, though sumptuously handled brushwork that reveals the influence of a painter like Willem de Kooning, who was similarly drawn to representations of the body and flesh. The figure, a transgender woman with a 'natural' penis and surgically enhanced breasts, reclines provocatively, looking seductively at the viewer. In Passage, the position of the figure and the handling of the brushwork direct our gaze from the legs over the torso and breasts, to the head, creating a landscape of the body, a sort of "gender landscape," to use Saville's terminology.
Passage was painted when Saville was living and working in Palermo, Sicily. During this time, she began photographing transvestites and transgender people in Rome, which she then used as source material. Saville was interested in these bodies as hybrids that are both natural and artificial. Although Passage was painted from photographs, it is not a portrait in the traditional sense. She has said that she tried "to find bodies that manifest in their flesh something of our contemporary age. I'm drawn to bodies that emanate a sort of state of in-betweeness: a hermaphrodite, a transvestite, a carcass, a half-alive/half-dead head." At a time when LGBTQIA issues are coming to the fore, Passage reveals the body as a social construct and sympathetically represents an untypical, transgender woman's body. The figure floats, according to Linda Nochlin, in "that postmodern realm of gender nirvana, brilliantly theorized by Judith Butler as a zone of shifting sexual identities and the rejection of essential difference between male and female."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Jenny Saville
- Jenny Saville: OxyrhynchusOur PickBy John Elderfield
- Jenny SavilleBy Richard Calvocoressi
- Jenny SavilleBy Cheryl Brutvan
- Jenny SavilleBy John Richardson
- She Ain't Heavy, She's My SisterBy Andrew Graham-Dixon / Independent / February 8, 1994
- Interview: Jenny SavilleBy Hunter Davies / Independent / March 1, 1994
- Under the SkinBy Susie Mackenzie / The Guardian / October 22, 2005
- Jenny Saville: 'I Like the Down and Dirty Side of Things'Our PickBy Mark Hudson / The Telegraph / June 24, 2014
- A Contemporary Twist on Rubens's LegacyBy Farah Nayeri / The New York Times / January 28, 2015
- Jenny Saville: 'I used to be anti-beauty'By Emine Saner / The Guardian / April 25, 2016
- Interview with Jenny SavilleBy Elena Cué / Huffpost / June 8, 2016