Jenny Saville's works often negotiate the complex territory of the female body and the female gaze, and this subject has recently been explored in a new way in her Reproduction Drawings. In Reproduction Drawing (after the Leonardo Cartoon), Saville has created an intriguing and intimate vision of maternity, showing a woman holding a wriggling infant. The child's movements are made all the more vivid by the process of drawing, erasing and over-drawing that fills the picture surface with such a vivid sense of motion. Indeed, the two images of a male infant convey the passage of time and the writhing child while also echoing the famous Leonardo Cartoon in the National Gallery, London, which shows the Madonna with both the young Christ and John the Baptist. In Saville's hands, the subject appears observed with an incredible freshness, a continuing scrutiny that results in a shifting palimpsest, a multi-layered work which captures the spontaneity of the infant's activity and also the more personal quality of drawing as a medium which allows the thought process of the artist to be more openly conceived. This is a characteristic that was demonstrated in the studies of women and children by Leonardo and Raphael shown recently in the British Museum's acclaimed exhibition of Renaissance Drawings: all these artists appear to have breathed realism and life into their paintings of the Madonna with the Christ-child by closely observing real characters in motion.
Leonardo provides an intriguing springboard for Saville, in part because of their shared interest in seeing the world with a fresh scrutiny. Indeed, where Leonardo's famous pictures include his highly-observed studies of dissected bodies, Saville spent a great deal of time watching plastic surgery being performed on patients in New York, gaining a new understanding both of how the human body is put together and the lengths to which people will go to 'improve' themselves. Saville herself has clearly based Reproduction Drawing (after the Leonardo Cartoon) not on the Leonardo itself, but rather on observation, perhaps using photographs in order to capture the different positions, filling the work with an absorbing humanity as the child is shown twisting and threshing on the woman's lap. However, Leonardo is himself part of the male-dominated canon of art against which Saville has railed in her works, and is therefore also part of the problem. While there is a clear chasm between this expansive work on paper and Saville's earlier works, the large oils filled with overspilling bodies with the flesh captured in an intensively painterly manner reminiscent of Chaïm Soutine and Lucian Freud, both aspects of her work are nonetheless clearly part of a related campaign to prise the representation of womanhood from men. And in the process of reclamation, both in her paintings and this drawing, she appears to have used herself as a part of her own arsenal. Discussing the similarity of her figures to her own features, Saville has explained, 'I don't like to be the one just looking or just looked at. I want both roles' (Saville, quoted in S. MacKenzie, 'Under the Skin', Guardian, 22 Oct 2005, reproduced at www.guardian.co.uk); looking at Reproduction Drawing (after the Leonardo Cartoon), it appears that her own features are echoed in the woman's face.
By taking that position of protagonist, Saville has again and again brought new light to bear on the imbalance in the cultural canon. And by making such an overt reference to the Madonna and child motif, she manages to place age-old societal institutions and assumptions about women in her target. After all, the 'reproduction' in the title refers both to copying Leonardo's cartoon and to motherhood. In short, the body, which is of course the arena of our own experiences of the world, is a subject that allows Saville to explore these wider ramifications of the role of women. 'The body, I think stands for a bounded system that has larger social echoes,' she has explained. 'We talk about the body of the church, institutional bodies. It seems to permeate everywhere, the system of the body' (Saville, from M. Gayford, 'A Conversation with Jenny Saville', pp. 29-31, in Jenny Saville Territories, exh.cat., New York, 1999, p. 31).