'Working from drawings and photographs of up to five models, she creates larger-than-life amalgams, powerful presences that are utterly convincing. Branded, 1992 is a vast nude whose small head peers down imperiously from its perch atop a mountainous form, the discrepancy implies a discordance between mind and body; a light spirit trapped within a heavy frame. 'Imprisoned in every fat man', wrote Cyril Connolly, 'a thin one is wildly signaling to be let out'.
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.
Has she undressed in a bid to alter perceptions; is she mocking our adherence to norms broadcast by fashion plates and beauty magazines? Or does she personify the distorted body image that plagues anorectics who perceive unwanted flesh in grotesque enlargement? Like Rubens's devils tearing at their victim's flesh, she pinches a fold of stomach fat. Is this an act of defiance or of self-loathing; does she provoke rejection or seek sympathy?
The painting is deliberately ambiguous. Saville neither invites scorn nor begs forbearance; we cannot take refuge in pity, disdain or ridicule. She portrays the huge body with loving concern for detail. The density, texture, heaviness and elasticity of flesh are brilliantly evoked. Every nuance of skin tone is faithfully rendered. White highlights shade into pink mid-tones against mottled blue shadows. But Saville is not conducting a love affair; her position is different from that of the male artist celebrating a female body. Velzquez caressed into unblemished perfection the creamy skin of the Rokeby Venus, but Saville examines this mottled flesh with dispassion. She is addressing another issue: what it is like to occupy a body that deviates from the norm.
The model's bulk is matched by destiny of pigment. One skin stands in for another; paint becomes a metaphor for flesh. Various words are etched into the paint. 'Supportive' is incised across the right breast, 'irrational' across the left; 'decorative' is scored into the upper chest, 'precious' is strung around the neck like a scar. Description become prescription and the figure, branded with the words that emphasize the unorthodoxy of her form, reads as an embodiment of failure.
Women persecute themselves with a desire to retain adolescent figures. 'Nearly everyone I know', says Saville, 'is obsessed with dieting-from anorectics who end up in hospital to friends who take hundreds of laxatives a day. It's like an epidemic. Some companies write the provision of body management into employee's contracts; you can have liposuction so as to conform to company image. Plastic surgeons use computers to create the perfect face, but it will achieve such blandness. What would beauty be, if everyone were the same?'
(S. Kent, quoted in Shark Infested Waters, The Saatchi Collection of British Art in the 90s, London 1994, pp. 83-84).
Looming over the viewer like a gargantuan fertility goddess, Jenny Saville's Branded offers a startling confrontation with flesh. Painted in 1992, this notable early work is both seductive and disturbing in its depiction of the female form. It belongs to a group of paintings that convinced Charles Saatchi to launch Saville's career in the international art world and within the space of two years she had already established her reputation as one of Britain's leading young artists. The intense media attention that followed was won by her brutally real take on one of art history's most idealised subjects - the female nude. In this work, Saville deliberately shatters conventional artistic protocols to make visible a new version of femininity and physical identity. Her interest in oversized beings forces the viewer to confront and question the way women are represented within western culture and their own responses to this corporeal display.
At over two metres tall, Branded provides a daunting encounter with a peculiarly foreshortened, corpulent torso. The picture frame is filled with blotchy blue-veined flesh that thrusts outwards towards the spectator. This compositional device is a deliberate decision on Saville's part, as she seeks to provoke an intense one-to-one all-exclusive relationship between painting and viewer. The larger-than-life scale creates a certain tension between the robust physicality of Saville's sensuous, painterly practice and the subject depicted. The virtuoso brushmarks and unexpected juxtaposition of hues compel the viewer to get up close to the painting. The massive size of the canvas, however, requires the one to step back from the canvas. Stepping back means to be faced with large expanses of puckered and folded skin. Of this push and pull effect on the viewer, Saville has stated: 'It's the effect of intimacy through scale that I want. Although large paintings are so often associated with grandeur, I want to make large paintings that are very intimate. I want the painting to almost surround your body when you stand very close to it. Rothko creates an intimacy through scale. When you stand very close to his paintings the colour hums and vibrates through you it - almost wraps around you. It's a childlike feeling... I want the feeling that you don't only command the piece of work, the piece of work also commands you (Saville, from M. Gayford, 'A Conversation with Jenny Saville', in Jenny Saville Territories, exh. cat., New York, 1999, p. 31).
Conceptually driven, and based on the worlds of photography and feminist art, this massive painting of a massive body reclaims the female figure from the male-orientated artistic tradition, transforming an unflinching representation of the blotched and blemished body of a real woman into something enigmatically beautiful and sumptuous. This apparently obese figure is in fact Saville herself, whose proportions
have been exaggerated with a voluptuous superfluity of flesh. The low perspective visually distorts her frame, shrinking the head so that she appears to gaze down from a great height as her body assumes the dimensions of some vast landscape that the viewer is invited and dared to survey. One hand grips a roll of belly fat in a manner that seems to invite narrative or judgment. This is reinforced by the words that are scratched, or branded, across her body: "supportive" is scratched across one pendulous breast, "irrational" across the other; "decorative" across her chest; "delicate" and "petite" across her midriff. These are all adjectives that arouse commonplace ideals of femininity that women may not feel able, nor indeed wish to maintain. The ingrained words point to the way artists have historically used the female nude to convey ideas about femininity as well as highlighting the gap between the reality of being a woman and the burden of expectation placed upon them.
Saville's visual body dysmorphia is also indicative of the mind/body disconnect that renders many women cripplingly self-conscious about their body image. By painting herself bulging excessively beyond actual scale, Saville speaks to the disparity between the way women may feel about their bodies and how others perceive them. Where the human body is typically a site onto which people project their fantasies and obsessions, Saville has reclaimed it in the interest of truth, reinstating it to the position of mere flesh and bone in order to encourage others to recognize and interrogate their assumptions about beauty.
'The art I like concentrates on the body. I don't have a feel for Poussin, but for Courbet, Velzquez - artists who get to the flesh. Visceral artists - Bacon, Freud. And de Kooning, of course. He's really my man. He doesn't depict anything, yet it's more than representation, it's about the meaning of existence and pushing the medium of paint.' (Saville, quoted in S. Mackenzie, 'Under the Skin', in the Guardian, 22 October 2005, on www.guardian.co.uk).