Progression of Art
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.
Painting, Oil on canvas
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.
Painting, Oil on canvas
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."
Oil on canvas
In this vigorously painted and chaotic self-portrait, based on Renaissance nativity scenes, Saville depicts herself in the final stages of pregnancy, struggling to keep hold of two writhing infants over her swollen belly. She has drawn and erased the figures multiple times, overlapping and layering them in order to create a sense of movement and simultaneity, using both hurried line drawing and thick fleshy painting. The movement in the painting and the use of drawing makes Mothers stylistically different from her earlier work. In this regard, Saville has spoken of the influence of her children: "They've shown me my creativity again. I was in danger of becoming a sort of genre painter in the tradition of Freud, Bacon, and Auerbach. But when you're four, you don't know genres exist. So to follow their lead and take away the rules and paint any way you like has been very thrilling. It's opened up a lot of possibilities: ways to draw, ways to paint, and what kind of bodies I want to paint." This new freedom can be seen in her inclusion of multiple impressions on a single canvas, the use of slashing lines, and the slippage between painting and drawing that characterizes her later work.
Taken from the series Continuum, with Mothers Saville began (after the birth of her two children) to examine how pregnancy changes a woman's body. She also began to deal directly with the subject of motherhood and the feelings it evokes. As art critic Waldemar Januszczak noted, the "motherhood drawings turn quickly into an examination of the way mothers and babies have been presented in art." And indeed, Mothers is reminiscent of such Renaissance Madonna and Child images as Leonardo's The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John (c. 1504-06) which Saville recalls looking at as child in her parents' home. Mothers is an important example of such influence, but it is also entirely in keeping with her interests in representing the human form. This self-portrait, which shows the artist as a mother can also be related to artists such as Mary Kelly and Merle Ukeles Liederman, who make art about their own role as mothers. This painting manages to combine classical art historical influences with contemporary aims and interests, and complicates the roles of painter and model, by representing herself as the mother, who seems a lot more realistic than the virgin mothers painted by the Old Masters.
Oil on canvas
At eight feet long, Mirror is a monumental monochrome drawing in charcoal. Multiple reclining figures are intertwined against a backdrop that evokes both Renaissance painting and the decorative patterning of Matisse. Saville's use of charcoal allows her to pile forms one on top of another, building up the image through the masterful use of line and tone. Drawing allows for both the layering of images and the layering of time. In a dramatic break from the thick impasto of her earlier paintings, Saville has said that in order "[t]o layer bodies, I've needed to hold back on the surface." In so doing, Saville is able to suggest movement and memory (memory of experience, but also of art history), allowing the viewer to perceive many things at the same time. In Mirror, the obscured faces of famous female nudes from art history peer out at us. We see Manet's Olympia, Giorgione's Sleeping Venus, the angular limbs of Picasso's early nudes, but also the face of the artist, not once, but twice, at least. She is doubled, mirrored, as the title of the work suggests. By doubling her image, Saville presents herself as both subject and object, artist and model. Like Olympia, she gazes out at the viewer, implicating us in a complicated exchange surrounding the act of looking and the long history of representing the female nude in Western art. In this sense the mirror acts as a reflective surface, depicting art and experience in a dynamic and confusing way.
When Mirror was in process, it was provisionally titled History of the Reclining Nude. "In these pieces, I'm trying to get simultaneous realities to exist in the same image," she says. "The contradiction of a drawing on top of a drawing replicates the slippage we have between the real world and the screen world. But it's about the memory of pictures, too." The interest in the history of the reclining nude in art history makes sense given her preoccupation with the human body, particularly the female body. "I'm fascinated about the way perspective is a game of space and surface, and how artists have played that game, trying to find harmony and balance, through the figure of the reclining nude."
Saville's painting of two intertwined bodies, one black, one white, recalls the title of Manet's Olympia of 1863. Her heavier, thick painting style is mingled with feverish marks and slashes, reminiscent of a child's scribble, all set against the shadowy outline of a cityscape in the background. Art historian John Elderfield has noted Olympia masterfully combines drawn lines and painted values, bringing together painting and drawing in a single work. Both figurative and abstract, the overlapping bodies and forms are set off by a rectangular frame that appears to be resting on the picture plane producing the effect of a painting within a painting, with the two bodies trying to escape the edges of the picture frame. On closer examination, it is unclear if we are seeing multiple bodies or two bodies moving over time. Saville enjoys playing with the viewer's perception: "Bits of feet, stomach, and hands get buried in the cyclical process of working. I am searching for human mass that embodies time, and I enjoy the mystery involved in the viewer's search through the visual rubble."
Olympia is part of a series of paintings that Saville has titled Oxyrhynchus, after an Egyptian archaeological site, which represents for her "culture in pieces - fragments captured in layers of time." Olympia, and other works from the series, are about experience and memory, about experiencing culture in fragments and perceiving multiple realities simultaneously. "It feels similar to the way we experience information today. This idea of strata, of layers of images seen through time, of images within images, it's like the way we see the world through computers: not as a single reality, but many realities at the same time." In Olympia she refigures the relationship between the two figures in Manet's famous painting (the reclining white nude woman and the black servant girl) so that they are locked in a frantic embrace - the painting uses imagery, brushstrokes, and its title to question and challenge how this and similar relationships have been uncritically represented throughout painting's history.
Charcoal and oil on canvas