Jenny Saville Paints at Night

Jenny Saville
Jenny Saville

Saville paints at night. You may not consider this an important fact but, to me, it’s the reason she can paint with such graphic vigour. In her portrayal of the human form, Jenny Saville shows us her deep understanding of the classic depiction combined with an abstract interpretation that is fascinating and disturbing at the same time. The use of oil paint in thick pink tones remind me of sophisticated beauty but mostly of a slain beast; images disappearing into each other, appearing again asking for us to pay attention to the detail.

According to Saville’s biography, she was born in 1970 in Cambridge, England. Saville attended the Glasgow School of Art from 1988 to 1992, spending six months at the University of Cincinnati in 1991 on a scholarship. While in the US her studies focused her interest in the abstract portrayal of beauty combined with feminist ideology; heavily influenced by imperfections of the flesh – an alternative visual narrative. Saville credits her family for indulging her fascination for all things creative. From a very early age, she was captivated by contingents that go unnoticed by most people; observing the way that her piano teacher’s breasts squeezed together in her shirt becoming a large fleshy mass.

While on a fellowship in Connecticut in 1994, it is reported that Saville was able to observe a well known plastic surgeon at work. Studying the reconstruction of human flesh informed her view of the body in both its strength and weakness, but mainly its weakness. Saville says her time with the surgeon fueled her examination into the seemingly infinite ways that flesh can be transformed and disfigured. During that time she explored medical pathologies; viewed cadavers in the morgue. It’s easy to see that she examined animals and meat; with hanging pig carcasses in a slaughterhouse coming to mind when you look at her painting from the first time.  

Saville’s family influenced her early formative years and fuelled her interest in Mannerism. Such work is often figurative and includes idealisation of the human form, to a great extent derived from the works of Michelangelo and later Titian, whose philosophy Saville admired and, in doing so, taking on a much freer use of the brush and paints and less obvious representation of her reality.

She was a founding member of the Young British Artists (YBAs), the loose group of painters and sculptors who came to prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Famously including Damien Hirst, Cornelia Parker, Christine Borland and Tracey Emin, all have sold their artwork for huge sums, and Saville is no exception. It is no secret that leading British art collector Charles Saatchi purchased her senior show and offered Saville an 18-month contract, supporting her while she created new works to be exhibited in the Saatchi Gallery in London. 

The Young British Artists III, exhibited in the 1994 collection hosted by the Saatchi Gallery includes Saville’s self-portrait, Plan (1993), as the signature piece. Described as depicting a nude female figure with contour lines marked on her body, much like that of the surgical site marks. Saville said of this work: “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 of 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”. This is an idea she references back to Rembrandt, her inspiration for this technique.

To date, Saville’s focus has remained on the female body. Although criticized for being politically incorrect, she has stated, “I’m drawn to bodies that emanate a sort of state of in-betweenness: hermaphrodite, a transvestite, a carcass, a half-alive/half-dead head.” 

Listening to Saville talk about her work she is open about her technique and motivations; unusually starting from abstract and working backwards to renaissance, with a nod to Lucian Freud and the Flemish Baroque tradition of Rubens, zigzagging back to Willem de Kooning and her starting point, Leonardo da Vinci. Saville describes herself as “A painter of flesh with all its marks, blemishes and folds”. Saville is best known for her oversized paintings of pink fleshy female nudes set against a nondescript background. Since the very early days of her career these figures represent the artist’s desire to comment on issues around motherhood, plastic surgery, dieting, exercise, or the lack of it, and the representation of women in art over time and within popular culture. 

I think you will agree Saville is a powerful commentator on a subject that has been missing from the regular interpretation of womanhood reflected by her need to be alone at night with her paints and easel. 

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