Painted in 1991, Self-Portrait is an early picture by Jenny Saville that already shows the fascination with the depiction of flesh for which she would become renowned. This painting predates by a year her 'discovery' and sponsorhip by Charles Saatchi, which found her propelled onto the international art scene, not least in the notorious Sensation exhibition.
Saville's paintings show flesh made paint. The intense materiality of the surface, with impasto conjuring up the actual folds and creases of the body, is evident even in the head and shoulders on display in Self-Portrait. Discussing the hallmark thickness of the paint surface in her pictures, Saville has stated that,
'For me it's 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 mark-making to communicate the way a female body behaves. It is not just about the primacy of vision, it's about using paint, its materiality, in a way that can evoke tactility' (Saville, from M. Gayford, 'A Conversation with Jenny Saville', pp. 29-31, in Jenny Saville Territories, exh. cat., New York, 1999, p. 30).
There is a strange implication of illness or discomfort in the pose that Saville has adopted in Self-Portrait. Her head is rolling back, glancing to the side, and this makes the picture all the more engaging and troubling. Unlike conventional portraiture and self-portraiture, Saville is looking away from the viewer. While this may be a part of the painting process, turning from mirror to canvas, it also has a distinctly unsettling effect.
For both practical and theoretical reasons, self-portraiture has long been vital to Saville's works, to her expressions of flesh on canvas. The self-portraiture reinforces the bond between the materiality of the paint and the redolent sense of flesh in the painting, the sense that the painter has exposed and displayed herself on the canvas, has placed herself under the scrutiny both of herself and of others. As Saville has explained:
'I use me all the time because it's really reliable, you're there all the time. I like the idea of using yourself because it takes you into the work. I don't like the idea of just being the person looking. I want to be the person. Because women have been so involved in being the subject-object, it's quite important to take that on board and not be just the person looking and examining. You're the artist but you're also the model. I want it to be a constant exchange all the time' (Saville, quoted in interview with David Sylvester, The Independent on Sunday, 30 January 1994, p. 18).