Wednesday Art Idol

Jenny Saville: the British painter challenging body norms with studies in human flesh
By Finn Blythe | Art | 6 October 2021
Above:

Jenny Saville
Closed Contact, 1994-5

This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Wednesday Art Idol

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Years before body positivity became an enshrined edict of the liberal agenda, British painter Jenny Saville was creating her now signature large-scale canvases of plus-size sitters. Since emerging in the early 90s after Charles Saatchi acquired several of Saville’s nudes at her Glasgow School of Art grad show, the Cambridge-born artist has developed into one of this country’s most celebrated painters while maintaining an acute interest in human flesh. 

Only two years after completing her studies, Saville was included by Saatchi in his landmark exhibition Young British Artists III, a show that represented the collector’s early support of Saville’s career and one that sealed her lifelong association with the famed cohort. Painting on a scale reminiscent of the Old Masters, with portraits that dwarf the viewer, Saville’s figurative style is characterised by flashes of abstraction that give her studies on the human form a powerful resonance. 

Jenny Saville
Prop, 1993

This approach is seen in the distorted proportions of Saville’s female sitters, who are almost always painted in oils or charcoal. With her customary full-frontal perspective, Saville deliberately transgresses against all conventional notions of beauty. Limbs appear swollen, stomachs enlarged and the thickly applied layers of oil paint form a kind of flesh of its own, which the artist scrapes and manipulates to recreate all manner of human imperfections.  

Saville’s visceral depictions of human anatomy derive from first-hand experience. After being awarded a fellowship in the US during the mid-90s, Saville was allowed to sit in on a plastic surgeon in New York City, gaining real insight into how skin and tissue could be moulded and reconstructed. This knowledge only deepened with time spent in morgues, examining animals and studying both classical and Renaissance sculpture. Historical representations of the body provide a hugely important source of inspiration for Saville, who draws from a diverse range of sources that includes the canonised work of Titian and Rubens to the back-pages of gossip magazines and tabloid newspapers. 

More recently, Saville has diversified from her signature female subjects and softened the carnal dimension of her portraits. This change the artist attributes to motherhood, and indeed her more recent work has often included mothers with their children (many are loosely based on nativity sketches from Michalengelo and da Vinci), in addition to couples and close friends. 

Jenny Saville
Fulcrum, 1999

Closed Contact, 1994-5

In the mid-90s two emerging stars of the UK’s revitalised fashion and art scenes convened for an iconic series of photographs. At the time, photographer Glen Luchford was the self-taught prodigy who’d left school at fifteen and become the youngest-ever photographer for The Face just five years later. Saville meanwhile, had emerged from Saatchi’s 1994 exhibition as the embodiment of a defiant new generation of female artists. 

Both art and fashion have plenty to say when it comes to women’s bodies, so it felt natural that leading representatives of both should help put the record straight. Using Saville as the model, the series of portraits saw the artist press her nude body against an invisible sheet of glass, spreading, merging and distorting parts of her body. Completed shortly after Saville had returned from observing plastic surgeons in New York, the series carries a distinct sense of pain and violence that evokes the extreme procedures undertaken to reconstruct our own physical image.

GALLERYClosed Contact, 1994-5

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