Who is Jenny Saville?

March 9, 2022

Jenny Saville is a contemporary artist known for her large scale depictions of fleshy, sumptuous human bodies. Currently, Saville lives and works in Oxford, England with her partner and two children. Her new work has been influenced by her children and the uninhibited way Saville has seen them create. She has also been testing out new mediums such as charcoal and pastel, which allow her to layer her works in a way that oil paint does not allow for. Her works have been exhibited in many major museums across the globe such as The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, The Broad Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, The Museo Nove Cento in Florence, Italy and at the Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy.

Jenny Saville Biography

Saville was born in Cambridge, England, but moved around quite often as a child, due to her father’s career as a school administrator. She completed her secondary education at The Newark Academy in Newark, Nottinghamshire before continuing on to receive her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Glasgow School of Art from 1988-1992. During her time at University, Saville was given the opportunity to study in Cincinnati, Ohio, under a travel scholarship. This period of her life proved to be quite central to the formation of her painting practice— Saville said that it was here that she saw bodies of all different shapes and sizes, all of which piqued her artistic interest an resulted in her iconic painting style. 

Saville received her BFA from the Glasgow School of Art in 1992, which also proved to be a pivotal year for her career. That summer, she was selected twice by the National Portrait Gallery, and had one of the paintings from her degree exhibition featured on the cover of the Times Saturday Review. The same year, her degree exhibition was purchased almost in its entirely by art collector and advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. Saatchi was so enamored with Saville’s work that he offered her an 18 month contract to make artwork to be exhibited in his gallery, the Saatchi Gallery in London. About this experience, Saville told the Guardian “Who else was going to give a 23-year-old a huge gallery and say: ‘Yes, you can make a 21-foot triptych?’” I was lucky I was part of that generation and given a platform to try things out.” Saville was revolutionizing painting at a time when contemporary art declared painting dead. In 1994, Saatchi exhibited Saville’s works in the exhibit “Young British Artists III” along side artists like Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, and Sarah Lucas. 

It is around this time that Saville began exhibiting more widely with the Young British Artists, or YBAs for short. She was included in the 1997 exhibition “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” at the Royal Academy of Art in London, which featured many of the Young British Artists such as Mona Hatoum, Chris Ofili and Rachel Whiteread. This exhibition proved quite controversial to many art critics , and garnered a lot of press. 

Jenny Saville’s Artistic Style

In the early 2000s, Saville began experimenting more with her work. She began a photography collaboration with artist Glen Luchford, where the pair created disquieting self portraits of Saville’s body pressed up against glass. The portraiture was presented under the title “Closed Contact” at Gagosian Gallery in 2002. The following year, she moved to Palermo, Italy. This move affected Saville’s work, bringing in a new element of time and history into many of her paintings. 

What is The Inspiration Behind Jenny Saville’s Art? 

Jenny Saville is mainly inspired by the human body, and more specifically the female form. Her artworks subvert the typical male gaze that has been present for most of art history and turns it on its head. Gone are the idealized male depictions of renaissance women; Saville’s figures embrace their blemishes, fat, and imperfections. She makes wholly unidealized depictions of human bodies, hearkening back to a fleshy, chubby Peter Paul Rubens-esque style. She aims to create bodies that are imperfect— a stark contrast to the oversaturated, over photoshopped bodies seen in the media today. These are also the bodies that Saville grew up with; she has said she “grew up as a teenager in the 80s, when body regulation became huge… we had a cultural obsession with the body.” Saville is not afraid of depicting the ugly, flawed, unrefined and real aspects of the female body, in fact, she want to completely normalize them. Saville has cited artists such as Titian, Tintoretto, Rembrandt and Picasso as some of her top artistic inspirations. 

Saville also cited the opportunity to study a plastic surgeon in New York City as a huge inspiration for many of her paintings, especially the ones of female bodies. She was able to observe liposuction, deformity correction and transgender patients, all of which informed her paintings. The physicality of watching flesh be torn apart and reconstructed later became artistic fodder for her depictions of nude women. 

What Techniques Does Jenny Saville use?

Primarily working with oil paint, Saville uses many small brush strokes and thick globs of paint to build up the painting, creating a layering within the paint. She also uses many different shades of similar colors to increase contrast and shadow in her portraits. Saville’s work has a gestural quality about it; her brush strokes are not invisible; they are express dynamism and movement. Saville takes inspiration from the Willem DeKooning quote “Flesh was the reason oil paint was created.” Her works often blur the line between abstraction and figure painting, but ultimately, in all her works, the form of a body is discernible. Art historian and art critic Linda Nochlin has called Saville’s pieces “post ‘post-painterly,” referring to the gestural and obviosus nature of the brushstrokes present in her work. In a conversation with Simon Schama of Saatchi Gallery about her painting technique, Saville has said “I have to really work at the tension between getting the paint to have the sensory quality that I want and be constructive in terms of building the form of a stomach, for example, or creating the inner crevice of a thigh. The more I do it, the more the space between abstraction and figuration becomes interesting. I want a painting realism.” Saville also create work on a scale that is often larger than life. Her paintings are large scale, sometimes reaching as big as six feet by six feet. This makes her already hulking bodies loom ever larger. 

“Strategy” by Jenny Saville in The Broad Museum / Hayk Shalunts / Alamy Stock Photo 

Why Did Jenny Saville make “Propped”?

Jenny Saville made “Propped” in 1992 as a self portrait. It was initially made to be part of Saville’s degree exhibition at the Glasgow School of Art in Edinburgh, where it was subsequently acquired by the collector Charles Saatchi. The piece was also featured on the cover of the Times Saturday Review. Sotheby’s auction house called the work “One of the most important paintings by a British artist of the last thirty years.” “Propped,” depicts the artist herself, in the nude, quite literally propped atop a stool, gazing wistfully into a mirror. Saville’s body is fleshy and large; her hands grip opposite knees, drawing her breasts close together; her feet are crossed and tucked behind the stool. Her head is tilted upwards, partially out of the frame, where it looks almost miniscule next to her thighs, which are nearly double its size. Scrawled across the mirror is a quote by the feminist writer Lucy Irigaray which reads “if we continue to speak in this sameness — speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other.” For Saville, incorporating text into her artwork is rare— there are only two paintings in which she does so, this being one of them. 

The painting “Propped” made history when it went up for auction at Sotheby’s auction house in the fall of 2018. The piece was valued between £3 million and £4 million, but sold for a whopping £9.5 million ($12.4 million USD), making it the most expensive work ever sold at auction by a living female artist. The work had an exceptional provenance, as it was acquired from the artist by Charles Saatchi in 1992, sold to Gagosian Gallery in London, and them subsequently purchased by collector David Teiger in 2004, who consigned the painting at Sotheby’s in 2018. Though she was already quite well known at the time, this record sale made history, surpassing both Saville’s own previous auction record of £6.8 million ($9 million USD) and the previous record for a living female artist, which was Cady Noland’s “Bluewald” (1989), which sold for $9.8 million in 2015.

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