|Jenny Saville is a painter whose work is a dark reflection of contemporary fashion, depicting bodies that live outside the standard boundaries of attractiveness. Her feminist view of the female body shapes offers a valuable contrast to the mass media’s presentation of the perfectibility of the human form. She was born in Cambridge in 1970 and studied at the Glasgow School of Art from 1988 to 1992, where she won the Craig award and the Newberry medal. Saville was also awarded a scholarship to attend Cincinnati University for six months, where her fascination with the workings of the human body started to influence her work and Saville became ‘interested in the malls, where you saw lots of big women. Big white flesh in shorts and T-shirts. It was good to see because they had the physicality that I was interested in.’
All her work was sold at her college degree show and Charles Saatchi, upon viewing one of her paintings in the 1992 show ‘Critic’s Choice’ at London’s Cooling Gallery, commissioned 15 new works, which took Saville from August 1992 to January 1994 to paint and were exhibited at the Young British Artists III show in 1994. This show widened Saville’s audience and subsequently led to the inclusion of her work in shows at the Pace McGill Gallery in New York and the Museum of Kalmar in Stockholm.
Saville moved to New York in 1994, where she was able to sit in and observe the work of the plastic surgeon Dr. Barry Martin Weintraub. Saville was allowed to take photographs of the cosmetic surgery and liposuctions Dr Weintraub performed in the theatre and gained a better understanding of the human body and the various manipulations that can be made through modern medicine. Dr Weintraub’s interventional techniques also influenced her anatomical understanding of excessive human fat and the extremes of bodily shape and she was soon describing the paint she used on canvases as 'pots of liquid flesh'.
The paintings that came out of her New York experience were exhibited in the ‘Sensation’ exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in 1997 alongside work from many of Saville’s fellow Young British Artists. The controversial show furthered Saville’s own notoriety, in part due to the fact that the massive size of her canvases dominated the physical space of the exhibition.
Saville is most often compared to Lucian Freud, with whom she shares a clear-eyed and unromantic view of the average female form. Her paintings often depict faceless women whose vast bodies resemble mottled pink relief maps or hugely rendered versions of ancient fertility charms. Although she acknowledges the comparison with Freud, her greatest influences are Francis Bacon and Willem de Kooning, and she has said the ‘marriage of Bacon’s figurative skills and de Kooning’s painting skills would make the best painter who ever lived’. Saville’s more recent exhibitions include a solo show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York, which featured six new paintings that continue Saville’s series of large-scale nudes, but using a lighter, looser and more melodramatic style of brushwork. One painting, Hybrid, is a double portrait of Saville and her sister based on a childhood photograph. The image is a close-up of the two heads, which appear to be attached like the heads of Siamese twins.
Saville’s method of working from images rather than models lends her work a candidness usually associated with photographs. She has a feeling for the scale of public images in contemporary life and often seems less an easel painter than a maker of baroque billboards. Traditional realism is challenged when she occasionally employs varying points of view in the same picture (and the figures themselves are often composites of several bodies) or calls heightened attention to purely formal concerns. Jenny Saville lives and works in London, where she is a tutor of figure painting at the Slade School of Art in London.