Having recently been recognised as the world’s most expensive living female artist, we look back at her oeuvre
Jenny Saville burst onto the British art scene in 1992 amongst a collective of young artists – including Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst – which came to be known as the YBAs (Young British Artists). While Saville and her contemporaries’ works may have shocked the British public and art press – they were criticised of making “shock art”, being “sloppy”, and “a con” – it delighted others, such as Charles Saatchi. The gallerist bought Saville’s postgraduate collection and offered her an 18-month contract to support her while she made new works for London’s Saatchi Gallery. The group show, Young British Artists III, opened in 1994.
Saville has long identified as a traditional figurative oil painter. Her early paintings – created from photographs rather than live models – are unequivocally striking. She took inspiration from observing plastic surgeons in New York and has also cited a visit to an American mall, where she saw “big white flesh in shorts and t-shirts”, as the reasons behind her paintings of obese women. Their bodies are posed in unflattering positions; their bellies bulge, their breasts hang. The way Saville paints skin is also distinctive; blotchy, bruised, and pink. Her figures were – especially at the time – worlds away from society's conventional ideas of beauty.
Art fans quickly warmed to Saville’s brazen subject matter. At a time when heroin chic was considered the epitome of desire, Saville’s works were an antidote. Her art was hailed as feminist, and many thought that her stark vision of the female body freed it from the oppressive male gaze. It was a label that Saville herself tended to agree with. In 1994, she told The Independent that she hoped her portraits of women would encourage people to “discuss (and) look at how women have been made by man”. She asked, “What is beauty? Beauty is usually the male image of the female body. My women are beautiful in their individuality.”
Last month, the Cambridge-born artist was announced as the most expensive, female living artist, thanks to her self-portrait, “Propped” (1992), which took £9.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction. In honour of this news, we take a look at some of her most compelling works.
More than two decades on, the painting that catapulted Saville into the inner workings of international art circles, “Propped” (1992), landed her in the headlines once more when it was sold at auction for £9.5 million. It also made her the most expensive living female artist. “Propped” had originally debuted in Saville’s degree show at the Glasgow School of Art in 1992. After seeing it on the cover of Times Saturday Review, it prompted Charles Saatchi to buy her oeuvre up to that point, and he also included her in the following year’s group show, Sensation. Her take on the female nude, the expansive self-portrait sees Saville sitting on a stool, her fingers digging into the flesh on her thighs, as she gazes impatiently at what is believed to have been her own reflection. While it would cease to be presented in this way, during her degree show, the painting was hung opposite a mirror, flipping the male gaze entirely by leading visitors to believe that Saville was instead being looked at by herself.
Saville’s “Branded” was made in her final year at The Glasgow School of Art. It is only one of two (the other was “Propped”) in which Saville employed the end of a paintbrush to write words that echo a femininity that often sits on a pedestal; “supportive”, “petite”, “decorative”, “precious”. Yet, the body that Saville has chosen to paint opposes these labels imposed upon it. Due to the angle of the composition, the subject is disproportionate. It has a small head, vast breasts, and monstrous hands. Her eyes are closed, and she looks contemplative with one hand nonchalantly clutching a fistful of skin.
“I'm not painting disgusting, big women. I'm painting women who’ve been made to think they’re big and disgusting”, explained Saville during the 1994 group show at the Saatchi gallery. By painting these women, Saville’s aim isn’t to necessarily transform our cultural representation of large women – that's too didactic. Instead, she forces us to confront our own damaging perceptions of different body types.
“Plan” is disconcerting. It may show a warm body, but it comes across as chilling because of the way it foregrounds our impulse to distort and change ourselves. The woman’s body towers over us, her skin pale and, on closer inspection, is marked by stark, black lines drawn on it from a surgeon's marker pen. The lines map out the rolls of flesh that will eventually be expelled.
Painted as a reaction to observing liposuction surgery at a New York plastic surgery clinic, two decades later, Saville told The Guardian that when she created “Plan”, she was constantly explaining what liposuction was to other people: “It seemed so violent then. These days, I doubt there's anyone in the western world who doesn't know what liposuction is. Surgery was a minority sport; now that notion of hybridity is everywhere. There’s almost a new race: the plastic surgery race.”
“CLOSED CONTACT” (1995-1996)
Two years after the exhibition at the Saatchi gallery, Saville was still exploring reconstructive surgery in her art. Yet, this time she decided to put herself on the operation table with a collaboration called “Closed Contact” – a collection of striking photographs which depicted “the painful lengths humans would go to achieve socially constructed ideals of perfection”.
Made alongside the renowned photographer, Glen Luchford, the images show Saville's body pressed to a plane of perspex glass, causing it to become flattened, distorted, and disfigured into unimaginable shapes. For the viewer, Saville’s body no longer looks human, but otherworldly. Reacting to these visceral images, we as viewers are pushed to examine our own bodies and perceptions of beauty.
Saville’s unorthodox depiction of the female form went to new, progressive heights with her depiction of a trans woman in her oil painting, “Passage”. Her aim was to explore the idea of an unfixed gender: “The transvestite I worked with has a natural penis and false silicone breasts. 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.” The naked figure defies the dualistic, backwards definition of “male” or “female”. Their stare is intense – as if they dare the viewer to define them. Similar to when you look at landscapes, the viewer’s eyes move from one side of the painting to the other. Naturally, your eyes move up the legs, past the penis towards the breasts and face. Saville uses the body as a symbol of the vast possibilities of identity. In this uncompromising image, we see contemporary skin in all its unabashed authenticity.
“ROSETTA II” (2006)
Featuring one of the most uncomfortable gazes in modern art, “Rosetta II” freezes its viewer. It shows a woman, head tipped uncomfortably to the left, with eyes that are cloudy. Masterfully, Saville adds hints of electric blue to her gaze, which suggest that a vitality is seeping through them. Is it our own? Is our consciousness giving a life to those eyes? Here, Saville’s brushstrokes are broader, less stipple, and more urgent. They give you the impression that she became overwhelmed while painting this face. “Rosetta” is from Naples, where Saville found her and photographed her in her studio in Palermo. Like many of her paintings, “Rosetta II” embodies a contradiction: Rosetta may be unseeing, but as you stare at her, you begin to feel that she’s not only seeing you but seeing inside of you.
“THE MOTHERS” (2011)
In 2011, Saville exhibited new work in a show called Continuum. Whereas her early work was made entirely through paint, these combined pencil drawings with oil paintings. Moreover, the exhibited pieces did not just feature figures of women, but also children. Saville explained this shift came from carrying her own children inside of her: “I think there’s an enormous shift in my work, and that came from actually growing a child inside my body.”
Part of the exhibition included the above image, “The Mothers”, which displays a mother holding her two children. The figures are all painted through that un-idealising gaze that we all know as Saville’s. Yet, what’s considerably different from the other paintings that have gone before it, is how Saville’s visual language combines figurative elements with abstract elements. The figures are surrounded by swirls of grey paint that give the impression that space and time are moving. We are far away from the stationary figure in “Branded”. This painting recalls the work of Leonardo da Vinci, as it depicts three figures in flux (hence the plural title). The mother-child dynamic that is shown here is quite possibly a postmodern nod to the artist relationship to their work: forever changing and forever becoming something more.
“ONE OUT OF TWO (SYMPOSIUM)” (2016)
Even after “Continuum”, Saville still remained interested in art's ability to represent simultaneity. The recent piece, “One Out of Two (symposium)”, is an example of how Saville’s art has paradoxically evolved into something more fragmentary. Saville used charcoal and pastels to draw the bodies illustrated here. Her technique is obviously more reactive and immediate. Lines are erased and drawn over. The wine-coloured pastel lines obscure any real sense of order. Through the sea of scribbles, you see that limbs are growing out of limbs. It's all chaos. Sharp figures are almost lost because of the shifting direction of the lines. There’s a tension. It’s exciting but most of all, modern in the way it puts a mirror up to our own unstoppable will to move.