How Jenny Saville Changed the Way We View the Female Form in Painting How Jenny Saville Changed the Way We View the Female Form in Painting

British artist Jenny Saville became famous for paintings that render female flesh on a monumental scale. Her canvases, often larger than 6 by 6 feet, magnify the raw details of embodied experience: large, drooping breasts; pregnant bellies and flab; faces smashed against plexiglass, a figure sitting on the toilet. Painters throughout history—Peter Paul RubensPeter Paul Rubens, TitianTitian, Willem de KooningWillem de Kooning, Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso—have long objectified the body; the subject matter becomes newly shocking and potent under Saville’s brush. If her oeuvre doesn’t offer a pretty picture of humanity, she believes it’s an honest one. It’s been an interesting journey from her early days as part of the so-called Young British ArtistYoung British Artist cohort to the record-breaking news of 2018, when she was anointed the “most expensive living female artist” after her 1992 painting “Propped” sold at auction for $12.4 million.


Jenny Saville, Propped, 1992. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.


As the story goes, obese women in American shopping malls inspired Saville’s career-making body of work. The artist (born in Cambridge in 1970) spent a term at the University of Cincinnati in 1991, a brief stateside sojourn during her attendance at the Glasgow School of Art (from 1988 to 1992). That institution instilled in her an “amazing” work ethic, and set great store by life drawings; students had to produce 36 sketches a term, and dedicate the hours between 7pm and 9pm every day to working with a model, even if their interests lay with abstract art. Saville believes this gave her a kind of freedom. “Picasso wouldn’t be Picasso without his academic training. That’s why he nails it. The wildest distortions stand up, even if they’re crazy. The point is that destruction is fundamental to the process; without it, you never get anywhere interesting. But fundamental to that is knowing what you can excavate from the destruction.”


Also, it is a “massive” freedom, she says, to work in charcoal and pastel rather than oil paint. “Just because of the transparency of drawing, you’ve got the possibility of multiple bodies. It’s an attempt to make multiple realities exist together rather than one sealed image.” It means she can change direction quickly. “In two hours, you can put a leg in here, go right through a body, go right through genitals, one gender changes to another.”


Jenny Saville, Ebb and Flow, 2015. Photograph by Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.


Throughout university, Saville painted large-scale female nudes. Her graduate show included the aforementioned 7-by-6-foot painting “Propped”, a self-portrait in which the artist sits naked (albeit wearing pointy white flats on her feet) atop a phallic black post. Her nails dig into her legs, pushing her ample breasts together. Saville paraphrased and inscribed into the paint, in mirror image, text from Belgian-born feminist writer Luce Irigaray (“If we continue to speak in this sameness—speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other. Again, words will pass through our bodies, above our heads—disappear, make us disappear”). Scrawled across both the background and the figure’s skin, the message appears more intended for the subject than for the viewer, who is forced to read it backwards.


Popular acclaim came quickly. The Times Saturday Review published an image of “Propped” on its cover. British collector Charles Saatchi took note and bought the painting (and nearly her entire student output)—and commissioned more of Saville’s work, which he showed in a 1994 exhibition of Young British Artists. His 1997 blockbuster show “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Gallery” (which also traveled to the Brooklyn Museum) grouped her work with that of Damien HirstDamien Hirst, Sarah LucasSarah Lucas, Chris OfiliChris Ofili, Rachel WhitereadRachel Whiteread and other major British talents.


Jenny Saville, Red Stare Head IV, 2006-2011. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Mike Bruce.


Throughout the 1990s, Saville would continue exploring her fascinations with the unairbrushed female form. She painted a body marked in black, as though about to undergo major plastic surgery (Plan, 1993); a triptych featuring a large woman in her underwear, from three different angles (Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face),1993–94); women lying side by side, toe-to-head (Shift, 1996–97); and a patchwork body with breasts askew (Hybrid, 1997). Saville proclaimed herself “anti-beauty” and focused, instead, on exaggerating bodily elements that society generally deemed unsightly.


Throughout the next decade, her work became downright morbid. Saville made paintings of crime scenes and the morgue. None of her artworks are necessarily grotesque, argues Ealan Wingate, the New York director of Gagosian. “It’s the fascination of flesh, of the body and how it moves,” he said. Saville, he claimed, doesn’t intend to upset her viewer, but merely to convey her awe at how the body performs and reacts. Norton Museum of Art curator Cheryl Brutvan, who organized a 2012 solo presentation of Saville’s work, describes the painter’s major interest as the “vulnerability of the body and the invention of the figure in a contemporary manner.” Watching plastic surgeons cut up a body—and then dealing with the subject matter artistically—offered her a very modern way to think about anatomy.


People have presumed her work is anti-plastic surgery, or a comment about the tyranny of thin, but she says she isn’t interested in passing judgment. It was the idea of how bodies can be changed, and the stories of why they had changed, that fascinated her. But her work is undoubtedly “female”her women do not look like the idealised women, painted by men, who have dominated the nude for almost all of art history. When I ask if she thinks she would be more celebrated if she were a man, she simply says: “I wouldn’t make this work if I was a guy”. It’s “a bit annoying” to be described as a “female artist”, she says. “Only when that goes away will women truly be part of the culture. But I can’t really complain. I’ve had a lot of exposure, I’ve been able to make exactly the work I’ve wanted to make, and haven’t had to make any compromises.”


Jenny Saville, Reproduction drawing II (after the Leonardo cartoon), 2009-2010. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.


In 2007 and 2008, Saville’s practice took a turn after she gave birth to her two children. “I find watching them so beautiful that I have accepted that sort of beauty into my life”. The experiences altered her relationship to her favorite subject matter. “I realized I spent my life painting flesh, and I could produce flesh in my body,” she recently toldtold New York magazine. Paintings of mothers and children ensued. Staying true to form, Saville portrayed her figures not as idealized Madonnas and Christs, but as harried contemporary humans; in The Mothers (2011), a wailing infant nearly slips from his mother’s arms.


Throughout Saville’s practice, she’s maintained a certain fraught fealty to her artistic forebears. Her images of mothers and children reference works by Leonardo da VinciLeonardo da Vinci and MichelangeloMichelangelo—albeit from the perspective of a person who’s actually experienced childbirth. She often garners comparisons to fellow Brits Francis BaconFrancis Bacon and Lucian FreudLucian Freud for her unglorified depictions of flesh. Like Bacon, she’s also delved into painting carcasses.


Jenny Saville, Reproduction drawing IV (after the Leonardo cartoon), 2010. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.


In her most recent body of work, Saville makes her art history references more prominent. Entitled “Ancestors,” her summer exhibition at Gagosian New York included canvases depicting humans and creatures atop plinths—suggesting a metanarrative in which Saville was painting a series of sculptural artworks that already existed. A series of “Fates” paintings featured mash-ups of human and non-Western sculptural body parts, calling to mind Picasso’s fractured picture planes. Still, a certain violence continues to tinge Saville’s canvases. Bodies appear spliced and hacked; angry red brushstrokes slash across their surfaces. These gestures discomfort the viewer as they enhance the work’s vitality: It’s hard to look at a Saville canvas without feeling something.


If Saville’s work can be difficult to look at, it’s proven eminently sellable. The status of being “the most expensive living female artist” seems both an honor and a complex burden. Saville never set out to achieve this distinction, noted Wingate, but rather to explore “an exultation in paint.”


Jenny Saville, Odalisque, 2012-2014. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.


“It’s still a shame that we say ‘the living female painter,’” said the Norton Museum’s Brutvan, critiquing the way the media has characterized the sale. “It’s so appalling today. She’s a great painter. She’s really in her own path.”


Jenny Saville, Vis and Ramin I, 2018. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Mike Bruce.



Alina Cohen |
Emine Saner |


This article has been edited by The Art Dose.