‘Her stare is defiant, confrontational. But the nature of the challenge is unclear. Manet’s Olympia, 1863, had to be protected by armed guards when it was first shown in the Salon of 1865. The crowd was outraged at the brazen immodesty of the model who returned the viewer’s gaze with a cool appraisal. Her stare was an unwelcome challenge to their prudence. Branded offers similar discomfort. The body is occupied by an intelligence that makes us ashamed of our responses, and dismayed at our shame’ (S. Kent, quoted in Shark Infested Waters, The Saatchi Collection of British Art in the 90s, London 1994, pp. 83-84).
‘For me it is about the flesh and trying to make paint behave in a way that flesh behaves. Using its material quality, which ranges from a stain to something thick and juicy, to something quite dry. Trying to use the mark-making to communicate the way a female body behaves… It’s not about the primacy of vision; it’s about using paint, its materiality, in a way that can evoke tactility’ (J. Saville, quoted in M. Gayford, ‘A Conversation with Jenny Saville’, in Jenny Saville: Territories, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1999, p. 30).
Up close and personal, leaning away from the viewer but her deep blue eyes directly confronting us, Branded is an uncompromising self-portrait by Jenny Saville in which thickly-impastoed paint becomes flesh spread across the canvas for us all to see. Executed in 1991-92, this work displays of the hallmarks of Saville’s practice and is the study for the larger painting Branded from 1992 which would come to define Saville’s career as the first work of many to enter the Saatchi collection, and the work which broke her world record price twice, first in 2001, and again in 2011. As if poised before a mirror, the subject’s face is bisected by a necklace chain threaded through her open mouth, creating a physical distortion that marks her visage. With its visceral surface and raw corporeal detail, it is situated at the birth of the artist’s enduring fascination with human flesh as a site of self-identity. Created during her time at the Glasgow School of Art, the work was exhibited at the highly successful degree show that launched Saville to widespread critical acclaim in the early 1990s. A focused facial study, it introduces many of Saville’s most distinctive stylistic elements: the sense of intimacy created by the foreshortened angle of the subject’s head, the thick swathes of impasto that conjure living, breathing flesh, and the hard-hitting realism of her deliberately exposed visage. Branded stages a deeply personal encounter, positioning the viewer as voyeur upon a private moment of uninhibited self-examination. It is this sense of rare immediacy and unflinching honesty that has continued to define Saville’s practice.
The word ‘branded’ invokes many of the associations that have come to form the parameters of Saville’s artistic outlook, particularly in relation to her interest in female body-image. Like the large Branded, which features words inscribed upon the subject’s skin, the present work can be seen to prefigure Saville’s engagement with bodily manipulation and modification, propelled by her extensive observation of plastic surgery in 1994. Like the surgeon’s pen that delineates the body in her later work, the necklace chain divides and ruptures the topography of the face, reminiscent of target marks and scarring. Saville’s fascination with the female form began in earnest during a six-month scholarship visit to the Cincinnati College in Ohio during her studies at Glasgow, where she immersed herself in feminist art and literature. Frequently using herself as a model, Saville set about stripping away the boundaries between subject and viewer, positioning the onlooker within the deeply personal, flesh-filled space of her figures. The foreshortened angle of the head in the present work was to become typical of Saville’s idiom, showcased in seminal paintings such as Plan, 1993, as well as the full-length Branded of 1992. Through this deliberately unflattering vantage point, Saville delights in every blemish and imperfection of her subjects, forcing us to confront traditional notions of feminine beauty. Her fearless close-ups of bare and unadorned skin dispense with physical ideals, celebrating instead the sensual tactility of the real, living flesh. ‘There can be a beauty in individualism’, claims Saville. ‘If there is a wart or a scar, this can be beautiful, in a sense when you paint it. It’s part of your identity’ (J. Saville, quoted in D. Sylvester, ‘Areas of Flesh’, in The Independent, 30 January 1994).
The 1992 degree show at Glasgow was an extraordinary success for the twenty-two year old artist, who sold all of her exhibited works, including the present painting. Granted a two-year commission by Saatchi, Saville rose to prominence as part of the notorious Young British Art scene that defined the 1990s. Though united with her contemporaries through her candid engagement with human reality, Saville distinguished herself through her commitment to the medium of paint. Drawing inspiration from traditions spanning the Renaissance to Abstract Expressionism, Saville’s practice is driven by her belief in painting’s ability to connect with the physical substance of human existence. Advancing de Kooning’s belief that ‘flesh was the reason oil painting was invented’, Saville works with a raw, instinctive impasto, layering texture and colour with rich gestural intensity. ‘I want you to feel the heat of the bodies, the interchange of paint marks instinctively’, Saville has said (J. Saville, quoted in M. Gayford, ‘A Conversation with Jenny Saville’, in Jenny Saville: Territories, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1999, p. 31). Conceiving her works as a kind of sensory transfer between the hand of the artist and the flesh of the subject, Saville imbues her figures with a tactile, palpable life force that finds early expression in the present work.