Jenny Saville’s flesh

Jenny Saville is one of those who have been called « Young British Artists » (YBAs), following an eponymous exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, in 1992. Except for their youth, the common ground, for many, ended there. For Saville, however, it was the beginning. She was successful in her final year at the Glasgow School of Art, was selected twice by the National Portrait Gallery, and had her final graduation exhibition in the summer of 1992. She sold the majority of her paintings and appeared on the cover of the Times Saturday Review (September 1992). At that time, she was spotted by gallery owner Charles Saatchi, who offered her an 18-month contract. The deal, as Saville reports, was “I have money, I’ll buy all your production, you do what you want.” Saville is famous for her depictions of female bodies, mostly obese, and self-portraits. She did not hesitate, for example, to depict herself, naked:   

Jenny Saville, “Reflective flesh”, 2002-03, oil on canvas, 120 x 96 inches, © Jenny Saville

Nudes, in the history of art, often are a matter for men. It had had to be that, one day, a woman artist had to be concerned about it. Ecce Saville. You want flesh, here it is! More than ostensibly, Saville, in addition to showing her naked body, shows her vulva, spread, as if she were performing something with it, like the mythical Baubô. The fact that Saville depicts herself in a sort of mirrored box multiplies the performance and its effects. The eye bounces from the “real” image to the reflection, another image of the image, etc. Mise en abyme; with obsessive return to the center of attention; the vulva. It has nothing exciting, in fact. It is not Saville’s purpose. His point is the flesh, the body, such as it is, and, in this case, such as hers. During an interview (here) with the artist, Elena Cué asks this question: “The figures in your drawings overlap as a plurality of identities. Your face is present in most of your portraits. Is identity an important subject for you? — Answer from Saville: It’s not really my identity… I lend my body to myself, that’s the way I’ve always looked at it. […] If my body can offer me the ability to get to something interesting, then I use my own body. If I can’t, then I work with somebody else.” Note the very surprising phrase “I lend my body to myself” Why is this surprising? It is surprising because it implies that identity is not matter of body, but, logically enough, of psyche. And the psyche is not legible on the body. In a way, Saville depicts herself outside of herself, it’s an externalist point of view (like “I am not my body, it could be anyone’s”). As for our illustration, “Reflective flesh”, I am not very sure that I find emotion there. So there is something else. What is it? Obviously, monstration, exhibition: “This is my body and I exhibit its most flagrant intimacy.” This is surely the way Saville paints: there is often a “meat-effect” in these corporealities. (Corporeality: For phenomenologists, the fact of being in the world, of being looked at by others as a person, a human being.) And this meat-effect, here, without question, is due to the depiction of the vulva. It is certainly the most salient aspect of this “meat effect”; while there is also a “pile-effect”. Saville has painted many obese bodies, from severely obese to morbidly to massively obese. Body size is one of the taboos in our societies; and it is obvious that fat or obese bodies are much more discriminated against than “normal” bodies. What is a “normal” body?

Let us say that a “normal” body is a body from which nothing protrudes, nothing overflows. Of course, a “normal” body will find other discriminating parameters: Is it well proportioned? Is it muscular? If it is a female body, is there an appreciable size/shape ratio? Is it too flat? And, once the verifications are done, how is the face? Is it pleasant? Is it beautiful? Is it desirable? Does it “breathe” intelligence? One could push far the parameters. But, by posing thus, by showing her body, Saville knows well that this one does not correspond to the standard criteria of seduction. Substitute Saville’s body to Sharon Stone’s in Basic Instinct (1992). That does not match anymore. And we remember that one of the arguments for going to see the film, was precisely that we could see Stone’s naked crotch in a scene that has become cult. More widely, it is the perfect and abundantly naked body of the actress that justified the trip. Once again, an “obese” Sharon Stone did not pass the casting of Verhoeven. It is quite obvious that these criteria are anthropological, and that it would be quite difficult, today, to universalize the body of the Venus of Lespugue as a paradigm of female beauty, although, perhaps, such was the case in the Gravettian (- 26 000 / – 24 000 years AP). Yet maybe some people find this body depicted in “Reflective flesh” as absolutely beautiful. That’s possible.

Saville says it several times in various interviews: If she had been a man, she would not have painted these subjects nor in this way. And probably no one would have painted like that. So a woman artist had to come along. But in addition, Saville is not content with depicting strong bodies; she knows how to paint, and she has an undeniable touch. There is matter in matter, gesture, sensitivity. The more one looks at “Reflective flesh” the more one finds it incredible. And notice the dimensions, more than 120 inches high and 96 long! It is very impressive. Also impressive is the price, acquired for 2,780,000 USD. But all considerations aside, this painting, I bet, will have made history. As it were, this is the revenge of women. As we know, and as Prehistory has already shown us, humanity is obsessed with the sexes, and especially the feminine. Once again, and for thousands of years, it is the men who represented woman and sexuality. Now and, as we say, with patience and length of time, here is that a woman addresses us her sex, hypnotic. In terms of antecedents, one can think of course of the paintings of Lucian Freud, who was certainly the first to paint nudes that did not correspond to the standard aesthetic canons. What is the difference with Saville? Take for example “Naked Portrait” (1972-3), by Freud. A young woman lying strangely on a bed, with spreading legs. But when it comes to paint obese women, for which Freud is also known, they stand with their legs closed, and, from this point of view, it seems that Freud had less difficulty in depicting male nudes, with their legs open, revealing penises and bursa, than vulvas. Moreover, the treatment of flesh is quite different in Saville, who, in certain paintings, is not content, so to speak, to depict the bodies, but adds to them a dramaturgy, sometimes very rough, painful to contemplate, made of violence and or death (these bodies tied against each other, as in “Fulcrum”, 1999, are very disturbing). In a way, whether the subject is alive or dead, in Saville’s work, the gain is an extra life of the matter itself; it “speaks” much more than in Freud’s. As she tells journalist Emine Saner (The Guardian, April 2016): “Nudes, are the art that I’ve liked — Rembrandt, Velàsquez, Titian. I’ve never not found it an interesting thing to do. How can I depict a nipple, how can I get the twist of a thumb to go round with one mark? I still get a kick out of doing it.”


 Léon Mychkine




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