Wednesday, October 12, 2016

JENNY SAVILLE's WORK - By Francesca Davie 

“Good art is not what it looks like, but what it does to us” – Roy Adzak

Adzak’s quote embodies my perspective on Jenny Saville’s raw and intentionally uncomfortable nudes. Her work challenges the very notion that art should conform to the unsaid yet prominent expectation that art should be aesthetically pleasing and act as a spectacle for viewers to enjoy. Rather, Saville’s obese painted female bodies stand in their dominant pose and towering stature indicative of female capacity for self-autonomy yet simultaneously disturb and conflict this perceived confidence by the depersonalization of the titles of her work. These multi-faceted and conflicting messages render tension - the very device that Saville capitalizes on to provoke and make viewers realize that indeed, art is not about appealing paintings or appearance but much more about “what it does to us”.

The contemporary British painter, Jenny Saville, (1970 Cambridge, UK) is notorious for her enormous and imposing female nudes.  She studied at the Glasgow School of Art (1988-1992) but it was whilst in America, on a six-month scholarship at the University of Cincinnanati, that she became fascinated by the large women in the shopping malls: "big white flesh in shorts and T-shirt. It was good to see because they had the physicality that I was interested in". It was this shameless "physicality" that influenced her later work.  After graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art (1992-1993), Charles Saatchi purchased her whole collection, bringing her powerful and provocative paintings to media attention. In 1994, Saville returned to the US, where she spent many hours observing the plastic surgeon, Dr Barry Weintraub, performing cosmetic surgery in his clinic in New York.  This increased her understanding of human anatomy and both the physical and psychological effects of operations such as liposuction.  Her intrigue pertaining to volumes of flesh became the impetus for some of her gargantuan canvases.


Saville’s morbid paintings radically protest society’s accepted notions of beauty and female identity.  As a teenager in the 1980’s Saville recalls: “everyone was obsessed with the body – it was all about dieting, gym and the body beautiful.”  Nowadays, this attitude is even more ubiquitous. Saville delves into the topic of the “body beautiful”, with her huge canvases overflowing with obese, fleshy bodies. Saville injects self-autonomy into her paintings in the way in which she assumes role as both model and artist – an objectively empowering move: "I don't like to be the one just looking or just looked at. I want both roles". However, the choice of the painting title: “Branded”, creates a total contradiction to the personalization she had just imposed. Branded both in meaning and past tense verb form, imply depersonalization and the power of society over the body in which she has painted. It highlights a relatable tension that women feel – the desire to be independent, autonomous and free in their lives and their appearance, yet the awareness that they are subconsciously primed and branded to fit society’s perception of how they should look and behave. Furthermore, the past tense of the word “Branded” creates a sense of finality - trapped certainty - as though the compulsory societal branding is already done – helplessness since seemingly no female has the capacity to override it. Saville herself is petite, but she intentionally distorts and misrepresents her body in the paintings for maximum impact on the viewer. 

In “Branded”, (1992, 7’x6’), not only does she use an enormous scale of canvas, but she exaggerates the size of the subject by her use of upward perspective, making the stomach and breasts seem huge in comparison to the miniature head. The flesh is blotchy and her use of discolored and expressive strokes are tantamount to the appearance of butchered meat. Saville is particularly clever in her use of titles to convey her message. The obese body is “branded” with words such as: "delicate", "supportive", "decorative", "petite", ‘’irrational".  These contradictory adjectives accentuate the disparity between society's definition of female identity and the reality of the body in the painting.  As highlighted previously, the title, "Branded" denotes ownership and identity and suggests that women are stamped with society’s mark and judged accordingly. The woman here is gripping a layer of fat, almost flaunting her imperfections thus creating a new standard for empowerment.  Saville presents a body far cry from the idealized images of the females seen in the media and yet she implies that it is possible to be comfortable with this reality.  “I’m not painting disgusting big women, I’m painting women who’ve been made to think they’re big and disgusting.” Psychological, powerful and provocative, Saville questions our whole re-assumptions on society’s limited mindset in regards to how women are perceived and “branded” as well as the purpose of art.

Mother and Children

“I'm trying to see if it's possible to hold that tipping moment of perception or have several moments co-exist...Like looking at a memory.”
—Jenny Saville

·      Saville’s “Mother and Child” (3/4x7/8), charcoal drawing presents a completely different facet to Saville – one characterized by intimacy, curiosity and an embraced perspective on beauty – specifically, the beauty of motherhood and childhood. Although still large in scale, this charcoal drawing is powerful in highlighting the progressive and ever evolving bonds between mother and child. This is powerfully translated through Saville’s choice of the medium of charcoal which enables her to smudge and create overlapping drawings on top of drawing - giving the effect of movement, energy and an uncanny lifelike quality to mother and child. This draws on Saville’s own emotion following the birth of her first child (a son) in 2007 which acted as the catalyst to her expression of the power of creation. This dynamic life form inspired (artistically) by Leonardo Da Vinci’s the virgin and child with Saint Anne, goes beyond the confines of a static image by Saville’s determination to infuse the drawing with multiple layers - representative of the multifaceted and ever evolving mother – child bond. The fact that the sketch is unfinished is also ripe in symbolism – this is an unfinished drawing in the same way that the bond between mother and child is not static or finalized. Rather Saville challenges static stagnancy of all past artist’s work with their fixed lines and decides to transcend time and space by creating enduring “memory” indeed, “several moments that co-exist”. Interestingly, in both “Branded” and “Mother and Children” -  there is a common theme – the power of woman. In “Branded” the subject can be interpreted to be conflicted in her desire to be a woman but also imprinted by society’s version of a woman, whilst in “Mother and Children” the raw power of woman as a creator is emphasized with the reference to birth and children. Saville displays herself here as irrevocably changed – glorifying the power of the female body to create – a genuine appreciation for its power rather than merely a body - a branded tool for male seduction. Her varied line strength and quick superimposed lines, reflect the movement, evolution and process of having a child – subverting the expectation of a static image and making room for the realization that we share emerging and unfolding relationships between us as beings and beings that we create.

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