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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Jenny Saville

Strategy (South Face, Front Face, North Face), 1993-94, Jenny Saville
The human body, when traditionally painted nude, regardless of gender, is often considered the basis of some of the most beautiful art ever created. Painting nudes dates back to figures of Adam and Eve, inasmuch as they were the first nudes and the fact that, being straight from the Bible, they were presumably married. Thus they were socially and morally acceptable to both church and state, the two most important influences as to what artists painted for nearly five hundred years. When private collectors of art began to make their likes known to painters, the erotic nude began to overtake the biblical (even erotic depictions of Adam and Eve). Still, beauty reigned supreme, as did mythology and eventually other "excuses" for nudity, from bathing to prostitution. Manet's Olympia (1865) may have been a whore, but still, she was a beautiful whore. It wasn't until Picasso and his ilk tackled the female nude that ugly nudes, such as seen in his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1909), appeared. Yet, even then, they were heavily abstracted nudes, inoffensive in that they appealed to the art-for-art's-sake crowd rather than those who had traditionally admired the naked female body.

Jenny Saville installation, Modern Art, Oxford
Then came along painters such as Lucien Freud, Philip Pearlstein, and a few others who saw the human figure more as a "thing," a shape to be manipulated and arranged much like a still-life, rather than any kind of "ultimate beauty" or erotic enticement. Even though they painted with extreme realism, their works have a rather cold, listless, lifeless quality, eschewing beauty in favor of honesty--most people are not particularly beautiful or even seductive when they're naked. Apart from Freud and Pearlstein, one of the "few others" mentioned above is the work of British painter, Jenny Saville. Saville takes nude painting one level beyond Freud and Pearlstein. While their nudes were not "particularly beautiful," hers fall into the realm of being particularly repulsive in their honesty, as in her Strategy (South Face, Front Face, North Face), (top).

Jenny Saville with her self-portrait.
Jenny Saville was born in 1970, near Cambridge (east-central) England. She obtained her degree at Glasgow School of Art in 1992, and was then awarded a six-month scholarship to the University of Cincinnati where she states that she saw "Lots of big women." It was the solid "physicality" of the women Saville saw while studying at the southwestern Ohio university which intrigued her and formed the basis of both her content and style since that time. Saville paints large women large as her Oxford installation (above) demonstrates (she has done very few male figures). Her work has been variously described as: “...embodying disgust,” constituting “strategic interventions [that] disturb dominant ideals of femininity,” and as “every woman's nightmare: vast mountains of obesity, flesh run riot, enormous repellent creatures who make even Rubens's chubby femmes fatales look positively gaunt.” I couldn't have said it better.

Hyphen, 1999, Jenny Saville
Red Stare Head IV, 2006-11, Jenny Saville
Around 2004-05 Saville transgressed to works depicting transsexuals and intersex subjects, one of which, Passage, from 2004-05, massively depicts a nude transsexual (too grossly disturbing to display here), a male-to-female transition. The model is shown with both a real penis and fake breasts. Saville's depiction of a lesbian couple Hyphen (above) from 1999, is barely usable under these circumstances. Her Red Stare Head IV (right), from 2006-11, underlines one of the most consisted elements in Saville's portrait images, the appearance that the figure has just been the victim of a violent encounter. The painting at right, by the way, is mild in that regard as compared to some. Saville's series of works depicting traumatized faces, can be seen in her Entry (not shown) from 2004-05, which vividly displays a scabbing wound, the vicious, red color evoking a feeling of heat and scorched skin. The glazed gaze piercing outwards from this canvas is another common feature in Saville’s work, repeated in the Stare series (above). The misty eyes, along with the painted surface, brings to life damaged skin suggesting a head injury.

The Mothers, 2010, Jenny Saville
More recently, Saville's work has had something of a change of direction. She gave birth, in quick succession, to a son and daughter. Motherhood seems to have imbued her with new confidence as she began to directly reference art history in her paintings. In addition, in an attempt to capture the movement of the wriggling and squirming infants she wanted to depict, and to speed up the process of completing a work, Saville turned to drawing rather than painting. And thus were born the works such as The Mothers (left), from 2010, which is all about movement and mark-making. The baby’s gripping fingers as he struggles to escape his pregnant mother’s grasp, set it apart from the placid portrayals of the miniature adult infant Christ throughout the early history of Madonna and Child imagery. These sketches are based on the work of Leonardo. By flouting the rules of traditional nude painting, the responses evoked by Saville’s oversized works do, indeed, engender disgust and repulsion. Yet, at the same time, there is a real sense of the myths of femininity. With them comes an inevitable and seductive allure. Her paintings will shock and appall, but they also intrigue, causing the viewer to want more. Humanness, through Saville’s eyes, might well be disturbing, but it could never become boring.

If this work has no name (it appears to be a study for
a later painting) we might call it "Ouch," as much
for what we see in it as from what we have all felt.


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