‘I want there to be an awareness of wearing this paint body ... the artifice of it – a mixture of reality and fiction. I admire the way that Cindy Sherman in the film stills wears these myths of femininity. You believe them but also know that it is a fictional world that she’s created … Over history, conventionally women have been looked at, rather than being the people who look. As an artist, your role is to look. So I was combining those two things, in the same way, I suppose, as Cindy Sherman does’
‘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. My women are beautiful in their individuality’
Jenny Saville’s Cindy (1993) meets our eyes with a forthright stare. Every inch of the canvas is taken up by a woman’s face, frontal and direct. Her expression is impassive, perhaps half-smiling; her bruised skin is made glisteningly alive with myriad nuanced tones of blue, yellow, green, purple and pink. She wears a bandage over her nose and forehead of the type worn after plastic surgery, its gauzy texture brought forth in luminous impasto. Likely titled as a nod to the shape-shifting artist Cindy Sherman, Cindy is a striking example of the unique power and beauty of Saville’s technique. She esteems Sherman both for her incisive exploration of the constructed façades of personal image, and, as a female artist, for her exploiting of the dual position of gazer and gazed upon. ‘I want there to be an awareness of wearing this paint body,’ Saville has said; ‘the artifice of it – a mixture of reality and fiction. I admire the way that Cindy Sherman in the film stills wears these myths of femininity. You believe them but also know that it is a fictional world that she’s created … Over history, conventionally women have been looked at, rather than being the people who look. As an artist, your role is to look. So I was combining those two things, in the same way, I suppose, as Cindy Sherman does’ (J. Saville, quoted M. Gayford, ‘A Conversation with Jenny Saville’, in Jenny Saville: Territories, exh. cat. Gagosian, New York 1999, p. 30). With her compelling, inscrutable countenance and richly realised skin, Cindy displays the union of confrontational gaze and vulnerable self-presentation found in both artists’ practices. The woman faces us with sibylline mystery, her keen-eyed countenance blooming, blushed and bruised with the complexities of looking and being looked at.
Saville’s astonishing painterly technique, which is indebted to the carnal abstraction of de Kooning and Pollock as much as to the figuration of Rembrandt and Velázquez, brings forth a vision of vivid sensory impact and enthralling psychological subtlety. The woman’s face is a composite, derived from images of real women; she is a fictitious construct, brought to life by Saville. Yet she is endowed with a presence and self-possession that seem all her own. With facelift or rhinoplasty she has participated in the manipulation of her own flesh. We are made aware not only of the artifice of representation in paint, but also, with skin-prickling intensity, of the artifice that lies behind the performance of real lives and real bodies in the world. Like Francis Bacon, whose visceral practice has much in common with her own, Saville paints from photographs rather than from life. Much of her source material is taken from medical textbooks, including images of burns, wounds, sex changes and reconstructive surgery. She has even spent time in operating theatres watching plastic surgeons at work. In her painting, she comes close to such live manipulation of the flesh. ‘To see a surgeon’s hand inside a body moving flesh around,’ she says, ‘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). Conjured from this ‘liquid flesh and light’, the arresting, enigmatic face of Cindy emblematises the ambiguity of Saville’s work, and the probing of appearances that she shares with Sherman. Is the subject a victim, forced to conform painfully to imposed standards of beauty? Or is she the one in power, in control of her own skin?