‘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’ (J. Saville, quoted in M. Gayford, ‘A Conversation with Jenny Saville’, in Jenny Saville: Territories, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1999, p. 31).
Confronting the viewer through its vastly magnified scale, Jenny Saville’s Shadow Study is monumental yet intimate portrait, rendered with the raw visceral immediacy for which the artist is renowned. Enveloped by the work’s direct physicality, we are drawn into a deeply human encounter, meeting the subject’s poignant gaze with our own, suddenly conscious of our own presence. With its legacy in the seminal masterpiece Plan (1993) that first brought Saville to public acclaim in the Royal Academy’s landmark 1997 exhibition Sensation, the work is rendered with the same rare and unflinching honesty that characterised the groundbreaking aesthetic of the Young British Artist generation. Executed between 2006 and 2007, Shadow Study is a sophisticated and self-assured work that continues the artist’s exploration of hard-hitting realism. Rendering her subject through dramatic tonal contrast and a near-violent application of paint, Saville challenges the viewer to confront questions of beauty and fragility in a work that is both provocative and arresting.
The present work is distinguished through its heightened study of tonality. Saville expertly infuses a warm blushed palette of peach and cream with complex shades of blue, mauve and burgundy, dramatically conveying the sweep of light and shadow across the subject’s visage. Layering these colours upon the paper, Saville creates a rich sense of depth redolent of Old Master painting, capturing the living, corporeal radiance of the flesh. Her direct, energetic brush strokes imbue the work with a compelling tactility that heightens the work’s intense realism. Over the course of her remarkable career, Saville has become a universally celebrated exponent of figural painting, likened to the great contemporary master Francis Bacon. Sharing Bacon’s belief in painting as a kind of violent sensory transfer – from the flesh of the artist to that of the subject – Saville’s raw painterly gesture finds expression in the creases, contours and singular bruised eye of her muse. ‘It’s so simple’, Saville has said of painting. ‘It’s just pigment and oil, a human being and a mark making tool. It hasn’t really changed since people were marking caves. I know it’s often said about painting, but I like the process of images and information filtering through your body – which stimulates a reaction to create marks, which collectively make some kind of sense’ (J. Saville, quoted in M. Gayford, ‘A Conversation with Jenny Saville’, in Jenny Saville: Territories, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1999, p. 29).
A striking exercise in light and shade, Shadow Study creates a compelling dialogue between careful realist observation and uninhibited, almost abstract painterly gesture. ‘When you stand back from the painting there’s an intellectual encounter. Close it becomes abstract, sensual’, Saville has said (J. Saville, quoted in B. Schwabsky, ‘Jenny Saville: “Unapologetic”’, in Jenny Saville, exh. cat., Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, Rome, 2005, pp. 108-109). This effect is pronounced in the present work due to its heightened contrasts in colour and mesmerizing chromatic blending. Indeed, standing close to the work, we are subsumed by the vibrant intricacy of Saville’s palette, delicately spiked with pale blues, yellows and greens that glimmer amongst vast swathes of thick impasto. This tonal dynamism allows Saville to create works that are both expansive in scale yet intimately detailed, leaving no blemish unexposed. ‘It’s the effect of intimacy through scale that I want’, the artist has explained. ‘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’ (J. Saville, quoted in M. Gayford, ‘A Conversation with Jenny Saville’, in Jenny Saville: Territories, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1999, p. 31). Though Saville deliberately chooses her subjects for their bodily imperfections and idiosyncrasies, they are rendered with the same sense of sublimity found in the masterpieces of Abstract Expressionism.
Extending the visual language of Plan, Shadow Study confronts the question of human vulnerability face-on. Having spent time observing plastic surgery – an experience that has informed much of her work – Saville is fascinated by the malleability of flesh, and delights in the perspectival distortions created by extreme up-close views of the human form. Saville constructs her paintings using a wide-ranging visual compass, working from photographs as well as direct observation, often combining elements from different subjects and frequently looking at her paintings through the mirror. In the present work, the artist captures her subject from an intriguing angle, as if photographed from below or leaning back from the onlooker. The resulting effect of foreshortening explicitly recalls Plan and is a common feature in many of Saville’s works; indeed, it is through such deliberately exposed vantage points that the artist creates intimate dialogue with the viewer, inviting them into her subjects’ most private moments. Seeking beauty in the imperfections of its subject, the present work revels in the strains of darkness that veil the neck, mouth, nose and eye of her subject, rendering shadows and bruising from a continuous chromatic spectrum that ultimately unites with eyebrows and hair. Like the plastic surgeon’s pen markings that appear in several of Saville’s works, these shadows rupture, demarcate and yet ultimately breathe a sense of living reality into the skin upon which they fall.
Throughout her career, Saville has been drawn to artists who work with the human form, citing Diego Velázquez, Peter Paul Rubens and Chaïm Soutine as influences alongside Francis Bacon and Willem de Kooning. Her painterly technique has evolved from this lineage. ‘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 Velázquez nude; he gets this incredible transparency of flesh with zinc white. You feel the body, the porcelain flesh’ (J. Saville, quoted in S. Schama, ‘Interview with Jenny Saville’, Jenny Saville, New York 2005, p. 124). Situated within the rich art-historical trajectory of portraiture, Shadow Study is a profound homage to the subtleties of human flesh, combining dramatic execution with emotive poignancy.