Jenny Saville : a painter of modern life

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, October 2012)

“… She is a divinity, a star, which presides at all the conceptions of the brain of man; a glittering conglomeration of all the graces of Nature, condensed into a single being; the object of the keenest admiration and curiosity that the picture of life can offer its contemplator. She is not, I must admit, an animal whose component parts, correctly assembled, provide a perfect example of harmony; she is not even that type of pure beauty which the sculptor can mentally evoke in the course of his sternest meditations; no, this would still not be sufficient to explain her mysterious and complex spell.”[1]

This is Baudelaire’s description of women in his essay, The painter of modern life, which in turn is how Jenny Saville, “a painter of modern life“, defines herself.

But on the contrary, her women are not sensual, they do not embody the classical contemporary western beauty, they are not like plastic dolls that society wants to inculcate as a symbol of perfection; her women are fat, the subjects are represented as crude, they are true, they are dismissed, you can feel the flesh, you are not dispensed by their impudence. Saville broke with the traditional aesthetic norms of legibility and corporality.Jenny Saville (b. in Cambridge in 1970) is a contemporary British painter, associated with the Young British Artist.

Her paintings are often compared with the work of Lucian Freud (1922-2011), most probably for the same crude way of depicting the average female form. Although she admits the comparison with Freud, her greatest impacts are Francis Bacon and Willem de Kooning, and she has said the ‘marriage of Bacon’s figurative skills and de Kooning’s painting skills would make the best painter who ever lived’[2]

She is one of the few contemporary artists using the classic technique of making art: painting. Although some contemporary critics may define her démodé, that, indeed, makes her a special artist.

Her passion for art and desire of being a painter have fluttered inside her since she was born.Saville won a six-month scholarship at the University of Cincinnati,  where she states she became ‘interested in the malls, where you saw lots of big women. Big white flesh in shorts and T-shirts. It was good to see, because they had the physicality that I was interested in.’[3] She became very well know when Charles Saatchi “discovered” and supported her, proposing she paint 18 canvases that would be subsequently exhibited in his gallery.

Her large scale paintings are so impacting, the bodies so big that sometimes they seem that even the canvas isn’t enough to contain them. Saville plays with the role of women, with their bodies, with their femininity. Despite the fatness, her women are attractive, one can almost smell the fragrance of their flesh, one can be totally immersed in this world in which beauty is not a matter of weight.

Saville moved to New York in 1994, where she was able to sit in and observe the work of the plastic surgeon Dr. Barry Martin Weintraub. Looking at these cosmetic surgery and liposuctions allowed her to gain a better understanding of the human body and the various manipulations that can be made through modern medicine. As a result of this observation-study, Saville creates a painting such as “plan”, in which she draws the sign of liposuction (from ancient Greek, lipos = fat) on the body of yet another obese woman portrayed in her paintings.

With time, Saville became interested in gender and transvestites, in her work “passage” the depiction of a nude is represented with both sexes in it. Half man (the penis is natural), half woman (the breast is silicone), exactly as a passage, a visual passage, between no fixed genders.But why is Saville so interested in fatness? What does she want to demonstrate transfiguring and exaggerating the female body? Can her work be considered a provocation to the canon of western beauty?

In Saville’s works, one can glimpse the same raw depiction that we can find in the brothels’ monotype that Degas (1834-1917) depicted in the nineteenth century, just in the time in which “the painter of modern life” was born.

The same women, the same flesh, the same bodies opened to the viewer and ready to be judged. The same crudity and beauty, loneliness and melancholy. Graceful impudence of all things that are hidden in the depths of every woman, regardless of their weight and age. Saville is defined as a feminist.

She certainly, gave to all these women she represents a strong character, such an evident presence that could make an empty room even too populated. Saville’s world is unique, large, predominant and spud-orate, she defends and carries the flag of fatness, representing it in the most real and delicate way.

[1] Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, (Phaidon Press, 1964)

[2], Jenny Saville Biography. Retrieved on February 5, 2008.

[3] Ibid







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