‘I’d wanted to do a large carcass for so many years after seeing Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox and the Soutine carcasses. I saw two of them at the Royal Academy in London a couple of years ago. There was light emanating from the paint – the colour jumped right out at you’
‘I like looking at very old figurative painting, at the old masters. But when it comes to the art of our time, I prefer to look at abstract painting. It’s taught me a lot about the physical act of painting, about pace and tempo, using drips and marks in ways that aren’t just decorative’
‘I want to use paint in a sculptural way – I want it on the surface. I like that famous de Kooning quote, “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented.” Look at a Velasquez nude; he gets this incredible transparency of flesh with zinc white. You feel the body, the porcelain flesh’
A sow’s body sweeps across the vast canvas of Host, filling the space with earth-shaking grandeur. Shown at the landmark Saatchi exhibition Ant Noises in 2000 and at the artist’s 2005 retrospective at MACRO, Rome, this work displays Jenny Saville’s visionary command of paint as flesh, the fifteen-foot form quivering with presence. Swathes of skin and topographies of fat and muscle are bodied forth in visceral impasto. Rich, pale passages of pinks, greys, blues and yellows create astounding facets of light and volume. Amid all this painterly heft, a sharp realism holds sway in Saville’s crisp treatment of shadow – particularly her Caravaggesque handling of the sow’s nipples, which confront the viewer with stark prominence, and the sharp, ink-lush blue that falls beneath the cocked left foreleg. Just as dramatic is the deep darkness into which the lower edge of the canvas descends, the other foreleg looming weightily beyond the frame. The body, in contrast, is bathed in a bright, cold, clinical light, and through Saville’s deft framing it is unclear whether we are made witness to a carcass or a living being. In her gigantic anatomy of painting, Saville interrogates the place of the body in the contemporary era, colliding the grand traditions of the nude and the nature morte in a stunning corporeal landscape as unsettling as it is powerful.
There is a vivid tension at the heart of Saville’s work, born from an interplay between her love for the medium of paint and the visceral responses that her subject matter can evoke. The voluptuous attraction of colour and texture is offset by a disorderly body that literally overflows the frame of art history. ‘I’m interested in the pathology of painting,’ she has said, ‘in that you put something down that’s ugly and make it desirable’ (J. Saville, quoted in B. Schwabsky, ‘Unapologetic,’ in Jenny Saville, exh. cat. MACRO, Rome 2005, p. 108). Through her consummate painterly skill the canvas is made an interface upon which she can explore the dynamics of exposure, surface, awe and intimacy. Her breakthrough early works such as Branded (1992), Prop (1992) and Plan (1993) – which won her the patronage of Charles Saatchi – held an unflinching gaze upon overweight female bodies, painted with Saville’s own face. The woman in Branded is scarred with the words of misogyny that embody ‘typical’ female attributes: ‘delicate,’ ‘petite,’ ‘decorative,’ ‘irrational,’ ‘supportive.’ In Prop, the ‘supportive’ woman is herself barely supported on an undersized stool. Plan inscribes her body with the plastic surgery markings for a liposuction procedure. These are the abject subjects of the male gaze of art history and contemporary media; in painting them, Saville both embraces traditional conventions and transforms the ordinary. ‘I don’t like things to be too polished. We’ve got fashion magazines for that’ (J. Saville, quoted in M. Hudson, ‘Jenny Saville: “I like the down and dirty side of things,”’ The Telegraph, 24 June 2014).
In Host, the uncanny proximity of sow to human treads a fine line between abhorrence and eroticism: does Saville humanise alien flesh or enact our modern alienation from our own bodies? The title hints at the body as a vehicle for projected ideals, underscored by the uneasy swell of motherhood and sexuality in the sow’s exposed belly. The clinic-blue lighting makes manifest the links between butchery and cosmetic surgery that pervade Saville’s work. She collapses art-historical sources, working from photographs of war scenes, medical textbooks and the Internet as much as Rembrandt, de Kooning, Pollock, and the Lascaux cave paintings: here, the image is based on a pig from her brother’s farm, with clear Old Masterly overtones. ‘I’d wanted to do a large carcass for so many years after seeing Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox and the Soutine carcasses. I saw two of them at the Royal Academy in London a couple of years ago. There was light emanating from the paint – the colour jumped right out at you’ (J. Saville, quoted in S. Schama, ‘Interview with Jenny Saville,’ in Jenny Saville, New York 2005, p. 124).
Although she has frequently been compared to Lucian Freud, Saville discounts his influence. ‘If you do figurative painting today you are bound to have been influenced by Freud, but he hasn’t been as influential as some people make out. I don’t give my figures a setting. They are never in a room. There is no narrative. It’s flesh, and the paint itself is the body, but the theory behind each one is essential, as important as the painting. I’m not trying to teach, just make people discuss, look at how women have been made by man. What is beauty? Beauty is usually the male image of the female body’ (J. Saville, quoted in H. Davies, ‘This is Jenny, and this is her Plan,’ The Independent, 1 March 1994). Saville’s is a conceptualism of paint as flesh that is tightly bound up with contemporary existence. She has spent hours watching plastic surgeons at work. ‘To see a surgeon’s hand inside a body moving flesh around, you see a lot of damage and adjustment to the boundary of the body. It helped me think about paint as matter … I try and think in terms of liquid flesh and light’ (J. Saville, quoted in S. Schama, ‘Interview with Jenny Saville,’ in Jenny Saville, New York 2005, p. 124). The gorgeous abstractions of de Kooning, Twombly and Pollock are Saville’s key inspirations in this sense: in Host, the balletic power of paint itself is just as visceral a presence as the awesome figurative spectacle it bodies forth. Virtuosic and monumental, this is a work that impacts our ways of seeing with massive emotional and physical force. ‘When you stand back from the painting there’s an intellectual encounter. Close it becomes abstract, sensual’ (J. Saville, quoted in B. Schwabsky, ‘Unapologetic,’ in Jenny Saville, exh. cat. MACRO, Rome 2005, pp. 108-9).