Just like Lucien Freud and Frank Aurbach, Saville manages to penetrate her subject by bringing out their most grotesque features. As much psychological examination as portrait, the paintings reduce the human aspects of the subject to its very atomic essence.
Rising to prominence alongside the other notorious Young British Artists of the 1990s (Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin) her figurative work was initially heralded as feminist genius. Thinking of women in art, we often think of tender poses and beauty that conforms to a certain notion. Instead of that, Saville's paintings are splodgy and dark, both in palette and emotional density.
Unflattering postures dominate the entire canvas. The woman look battered and broken with blueing eyes and swollen lips - their faces contorted by the narrative of their own personal lives. As with the other YBA's, Saville came to the attention of the public through Charles Saatchi's patronage. He was an instrumental figure in composing the early 90s artistic language and she was one of his favourite words.
His influence and wealth offered her many opportunities - the ability to not only create work that would be shown, but to be able to dedicate the time and materials required to realise her desired output. She is eternally grateful, "Charles was like, ‘Whatever you want, whatever is your dream, do it.’ Things I’d wanted to do for ages, I could do. And it made me a bigger artist.” This vote of confidence saw her blossom from a Glasgow School of Art graduate student to one of the UK's biggest names.
Besides the aforementioned Auerbach and Freud - there were really no contemporaries of her work. Upon being granted a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati she saw "Lots of big women. Big white flesh in shorts and t-shirts." Their physicality interested her - they had a permanence. Just their presence, their metaphysical and physical weight made them seem like a living object not just a living person - albeit sinuous jumbles of flesh in her work.
Figure painting is as old as the ability to mark a surface, yet it took until the early 00s for Jenny Saville to bring her firebrand portraiture to the masses. The scale of her artwork adds to the weight of the subject - it's an aggressive mass. Her thick application of oil gives the surface a highly textured feeling. The canvas often looks so violated and repulsive that all you can do is stare - gravitating towards the siren call of the morbidly obese and facially reconstructed.
Plastic surgery has been a huge inspiration on her work. The paintings often feature the marks left behind by the surgeon's hand. To Saville, flesh "is all things. Ugly, beautiful, repulsive, compelling, anxious, neurotic, dead, alive,” It is natural - something that we are born with and die with. The introduction of the plastic surgeon is human's way of tampering with our nature. If we are God's children - the surgeon becomes God. We are nature - the surgeon is nurture.
Saville focussed her work on the female body, including her own, but she has also diverted from that. Her interest in the natural physicality of the human body and the contemporary possibilities of surgery came together in her 2004 work Passage. She depicts a transvestite from a low-angle, a common perspective she utilises to make the subject appear more foreboding. The figure in the painting has a natural penis and false silicone breasts. That someone like this can exist amazes Saville - "Thirty or forty years ago this body couldn’t have existed and I was looking for a kind of contemporary architecture of the body. I wanted to paint a visual passage through gender – a sort of gender landscape."
If you only looked at one half, either bottom or top, of this painting - you would only acquire half of the story - the other half wouldn't meet your expectations. Together, we realise that what we are seeing is entirely more complex. It goes well beyond the physical and into the social and psychological. There are stigmas, taboos and natural limitations that are crushing this naked body. Yet still, we feel crushed under its weight.
Her artwork gained a new audience by appearing on two Manic Street Preacher's albums. First her piece Strategy (South Face/ front Face/North Face) appeared on their Holy Bible album (both 1994) and then her 2005 piece Stare appeared on the cover of their 2009 album Journal For Plague Lovers.
The first of these album was a nihilistic insight into the human condition, complimented perfectly by the psychological triptych of portraits on the cover. It was also the last album recorded by their lyricist Richey James Edwards before his disappearance not long after it was released. His posthumous lyrics appeared again exclusively on the second album, again illustrated by Saville. The aggresively mysterious nature of the two seem inextricably linked.
In a rare diversion from the human form, Saville's 2005 masterpiece Torso II depicts a hung-up carcass of an unnamed animal that's missing all of its identifiable features (the 'feet' and head). The butchered mass of flesh and guts lies lifeless - not too dissimilar to her other paintings of people. It has the subtlety of a plane-crash and a similar magnitude of violence.
Over time, Saville has come to accept that creating works of beauty is alright. In her youth she was vehemently 'anti-beauty' - a reflection perhaps of how she sees the world, or maybe of how she thought others saw the people in it. Beauty was introduced to her life through her children. Watching them gave her such contentment that to paint the ugliness she had previously would be a seeming disservice to their innocuous existence.
During her peak of success and fame, Saville painted some of the harshest portraits that have ever hung up in galleries. Her exploration of flesh and the definition of beauty challenged perspectives and changed the artistic landscape for anyone that would follow her. No longer will people say her work is like Lucien Freud, rather she will be the comparison for future artists. If they tackle the human form in a similar way - we will surely call them Saville-esque..
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