Jenny Saville is the latest in a line of painters, from Schiele to Bacon to de Kooning, with a visceral vision of the human body. Alastair Smart explores how the British artist’s work has evolved ahead of the auction of two seminal early works in London
‘I don’t give my figures a setting. They’re never in a room. There is no narrative. It’s just flesh.’ So said a young Jenny Saville after breaking onto the British art scene in the early Nineties. Even now, more than two decades — and many successes — later, ‘flesh’ is perhaps the single word most closely associated with her work.
In her unflinching paintings, Saville revels in the mottled skin of naked women. Her subjects could never be mistaken for catwalk models, but for Saville they’re no less attractive for that. ‘What is beauty?’ she asks. ‘Beauty is usually the male image of the female body. My women are beautiful in their individuality.’
‘I am always struck by how extraordinary the surfaces of Jenny Saville’s paintings are,’ comments Katharine Arnold, Senior Specialist in the Post-War and Contemporary Art department at Christie’s London. ‘She has a special ability with oil paint, somehow conjuring it up into something human.’
Born in Cambridge in 1970, Saville knew she wanted to become an artist from the age of seven. She went on to attend Glasgow School of Art, an institution that set great store by life drawing: students were required to spend two hours every evening working with a model.
Part of her degree included a six-month scholarship at Cincinnati University, often considered the seminal period of her career. In the shopping malls of Ohio, Saville became fascinated by overweight women. They inspired the subjects of her 1992 graduate show, which in turn caught the eye of art collector Charles Saatchi. So impressed was Saatchi by the overpowering physicality of her subjects that he paid Saville an 18-month stipend to produce work exclusively for him. ‘He had the money,’ Saville recalls, ‘and said, ‘‘Make whatever you want’’. I was only 22; it was a dream come true.’
It was at this time — the early to mid-Nineties — that Saville produced many of her most significant works, including The Bride and Cindy, both of which come to auction at Christie’s this autumn.
In The Bride, a large woman is shown from the waist up, clothed in a white bridal slip and veil. The canvas barely contains her form, so close-up is our view. Her hands clutch tightly at a bunch of wilted lilies; the shadow of her veil falls across the bride’s face like a bloody scar.
‘Her interest in the manoeuvrability and positional alteration of flesh and human tissue is very evident' — Barry Martin Weintraub, New York plastic surgeon
'I’m interested,’ Saville has said, 'in the physical power a large female body has — [someone] who occupies a lot of space, but who’s also acutely aware that contemporary culture encourages her to disguise her bulk and look as small as possible.'
The subject of Cindy, meanwhile, stares directly at us, bruised skin glistening blue, yellow and pink. Her nose and forehead is covered with a bandage of the type typically worn after plastic surgery.
‘In this painting, Saville appears influenced by Cindy Sherman, particularly her film stills in which she challenges the dominant cultural stereotypes surrounding womanhood,’ says Katharine Arnold. ‘She employs a similar strategy in her portraits, painting corpulent flesh in The Bride and showcasing the face and body from angles that distort the physiognomy.’
In preparation for Cindy — and many others inspired by cosmetic surgery — Saville watched New York doctor Barry Martin Weintraub at work. ‘Her interest in the manoeuvrability and positional alteration of flesh and human tissue is very evident,’ Weintraub observed afterwards. ‘The painted surface seems to retain a vitality comparable with live flesh.’
A much commented-upon aspect of Saville's paintings over the years has been her application of paint: how she uses its thickness, viscosity, texture and translucency to compellingly reimagine human skin. She often cites Willem de Kooning’s famous claim that 'flesh was the reason oil paint was invented'.
Yet there’s an undeniable ambiguity in what she paints: whether her subjects are heroines, victims or both at the same time. In the case of Cindy, is our subject being forced to conform to imposed standards of beauty? Or is she making an empowered choice, taking control of her own skin?
Alongside Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, Saville formed part of the group we know as the YBAs — Young British Artists — who came of age under Saatchi’s patronage with work that was frank and in-your-face. Yet unlike so many of her peers, Saville stayed true to the traditional medium of oil paint. ‘Each to their own, but my language is painting,’ she says. ‘There's something primal about it. It's innate, the need to make marks.’
For the Royal Academy's landmark 1997 YBA group exhibition, Sensation, Saville contributed a 1993 piece called Plan. In the nine-foot-high painting, the body of a naked woman is inked with preparatory marks from a plastic surgeon’s pen. Plan sold at Christie’s London in 2014 for a then-record £2.1 million.
In the two decades since Sensation, Saville’s art has evolved, if not quite transformed. Some canvases now include multiple rather than solitary figures; she has also taken to painting pregnant women, or women with babies.
High-profile exhibitions have come her way, too, including a retrospective at Modern Art Oxford in 2012 and a double-header showing alongside Egon Schiele at Kunsthaus Zürich in 2014.
Saville has also developed a broad, international base of collectors, including a particularly fervent market in China. Long after having broken out of the YBA frame, she now tends to be described as the latest in a long line of painters (after Schiele, Bacon, de Kooning and others) who have a visceral vision of the human body.
‘Jenny Saville is the champion of the unconventional,’ Arnold says. ‘Through her masterful use of paint she showcases the ‘‘surprising’’ aspects of beauty. I think this is very compelling and reveals a deep humanity to her practice.’
It's hard to say where Saville’s work will take her next, though as she has jokingly said, it's ‘unlikely to be six months’ painting landscapes’. Twenty-five years on from her big breakthrough, the spirit is willing and the flesh is far from weak.