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Jenny Saville

British Painter

Jenny Saville Photo

Born: May 7, 1970 - Cambridge, United Kingdom

"I paint flesh because I'm human....If you work in oil, as I do, it comes naturally. Flesh is just the most beautiful thing to paint."

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.

Key Ideas

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.
Jenny Saville Photo

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.

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