Important Art by Jenny Saville
In this monumental nude self-portrait ample breasts and dimpled folds of flesh loom large on the canvas. Viewed from below, the weighty figure dominates the frame. On the fleshy torso, Saville has inscribed the words of French feminist theorist Luce Irigaray: "delicate," "supportive," "irrational," "decorative," and "petite," all written backwards. Using this as a means of countering preconceived notions about the representation of women, Saville has literally branded these words on the painted flesh. Characteristic of the artist's early work with the female nude, Branded presents a direct and unidealized image of the female body.
Regarding this early work, Saville has said: "I'm not painting disgusting, big women. I'm painting women who've been made to think they're big and disgusting." In this and other early paintings, Saville subverts traditional notions of female beauty and femininity that have long dominated Western art. In the case of Branded this challenging of convention takes place through the artist's use of her own body. Art Historian Marsha Meskimmon has argued that "Saville's work interrogates our perception of the female body in challenging ways. To use the self in this way is to come full circle in the questioning of fixed identity and the body." An important early work, Branded was included in Saville's acclaimed 1992 Glasgow School of Art graduation exhibition, which propelled her to fame as one of the Young British Artists. Branded is often cited as a painting which made figurative painting popular in contemporary art. The work challenges the typical female nude (which is small, delicate, and 'beautiful') by making a huge painting with thick paint, which looks down on the viewer and flows out of the edges of the picture plane.
The painting was originally exhibited with a mirror, so viewers had to look at the picture in the mirror to read the inscribed Irigaray text more easily, while also seeing their own reflection. However, when Saatchi bought the work, he refused to exhibit with the mirror, and so it has only been shown without it since.
Saville's striking self-portrait, Plan, makes use of extreme foreshortening to present an uncompromising image of the female nude. Working from photographs rather than life, she presents a snapshot, a fleeting glimpse of a figure that struggles to be contained within the frame. The brushwork is both delicate and aggressive, often building up thick impasto on the painting's surface. She is nonetheless able to capture every vein, every dimple, every splotchy bit of flesh, and every strand of hair. Looking directly at the viewer over the marked terrain of her body, Saville calls our attention to complicated issues surrounding women's bodies, plastic surgery, and the "cult of exercise." The lines drawn on the flesh resemble the lines on a topographical map. They also reference the lines drawn by plastic surgeons on the skin of their patients in preparation for body altering surgeries. Saville has said: "The lines on her body are the marks they make before you have liposuction done to you. They draw these things that look like targets. I like this idea of mapping the body, not necessarily areas to be cut away, but like geographical contours on a map. I didn't draw on to the body. I wanted the idea of cutting into the paint. Like you would cut into the body. It evokes the idea of surgery. It has lots of connotations." Regarding these inscribed lines, some scholars have suggested: "In this mapping of the body as an area of problematic terrain a relationship is set up between perceptions of the natural and the planned. The question of who is exercising control over this 'plan' remains troubling and implicates the viewer of the image."
Plan was painted in 1993 and later exhibited by Charles Saatchi in Young British Artists III at the Saatchi Gallery in 1994. It was also included several years later in Sensation, the groundbreaking and controversial 1997 exhibition of Young British Artists at the Royal Academy of Art. An important early work by Saville, Plan is emblematic of her concern for depicting women as subjects rather than objects and is another painting in which the artist is both the subject and the painter, something that had previously been almost unheard of, especially in paintings of nudes. In her attempt to draw on the history of the female nude, while also showing women as they see themselves, Saville has given her figures a weighty presence that combines empathy, apprehension, vulnerability, and awe.
In Passage, a striking, confident nude woman is shown in a near recumbent position with outstretched legs that extend out beyond the picture frame. Thickly painted, though seemingly unfinished, Passage continues Saville's interest in sensuously painted, fleshy bodies that defy traditional representations of the reclining nude. The flesh is depicted with powerful and aggressive, though sumptuously handled brushwork that reveals the influence of a painter like Willem de Kooning, who was similarly drawn to representations of the body and flesh. The figure, a transgender woman with a 'natural' penis and surgically enhanced breasts, reclines provocatively, looking seductively at the viewer. In Passage, the position of the figure and the handling of the brushwork direct our gaze from the legs over the torso and breasts, to the head, creating a landscape of the body, a sort of "gender landscape," to use Saville's terminology.
Passage was painted when Saville was living and working in Palermo, Sicily. During this time, she began photographing transvestites and transgender people in Rome, which she then used as source material. Saville was interested in these bodies as hybrids that are both natural and artificial. Although Passage was painted from photographs, it is not a portrait in the traditional sense. She has said that she tried "to find bodies that manifest in their flesh something of our contemporary age. I'm drawn to bodies that emanate a sort of state of in-betweeness: a hermaphrodite, a transvestite, a carcass, a half-alive/half-dead head." At a time when LGBTQIA issues are coming to the fore, Passage reveals the body as a social construct and sympathetically represents an untypical, transgender woman's body. The figure floats, according to Linda Nochlin, in "that postmodern realm of gender nirvana, brilliantly theorized by Judith Butler as a zone of shifting sexual identities and the rejection of essential difference between male and female."