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Portraying the grotesque in Jenny Saville's painting

U-GREATS | OUR CELEBRATION OF THE MASTERS OF VISUAL ART

Painting the female body with merciless and grotesque exaggeration.

Following the success of our LookingforU series on Instagram, Unit London are proud to present U-Greats, our celebration of modern masters of visual art, from across the globe, who have preceded and inspired the next generation of emerging creative talent. U-Greats will cast a weekly spotlight on iconic creators who, over time, have informed and inspired both our represented artists and the team here at Unit London. 

This week we present to you Jenny Saville.

Captivated by the endless aesthetic peculiarities of the malleable human form, Jenny Saville paints the female body with merciless and grotesque exaggeration. Despite her work frequently hailed a political statement against stereotypical idealised images of women in portraiture throughout history, Saville is, in essence, a ‘painter of modern life, and modern bodies’. Saville’s female subjects bear gruesome semblance to her portraits of carcasses in a butcher’s shop – their limbs drawn out and hung, and their flesh mutilated and disfigured. Saville’s obsession with the extremities of anatomy in combination with her stunning instinct for handling paint has led to her rise as one of the UK’s most successful living artists.

Famous for painting obese bodies and capturing the visceral ‘pain and violence’ of the bodies of those about to undergo plastic surgery; Saville gains inspiration from everyday people. She is infinitely fascinated by the changeability of the body and stories of those who opt to modify theirs. Nudes, she says, are ‘the art that I’ve liked - Rembrandt, Velázquez, 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.’ Vigilantly writing self-improvement reports whilst at work in her studio, Saville’s work is an intensely iterative and reflective process. ‘What was good about the stencil, what could I have done better, how could I have changed that? To say, this element worked well, but why did I not push it as far as I could? What was it in my character that stopped me doing that? Every time you start a new piece it’s like starting that whole journey all over.’

‘The art that I’ve liked - Rembrandt, Velázquez, 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.’ - Jenny Saville

Saville’s figurative works possess an elusive dimensionality- her linework often swerves away from her subjects forming an external sculptural element which acts like an extension of the already distorted body. The vulnerability of her early works is particularly apparent in her enormous oil painting Shift  (1996) which depicts several outstretched bodies, so cramped and mangled they appear like a jigsaw puzzle which does not fit together. ‘It's the effect of intimacy through scale that I want. Although large paintings are so often associated with grandeur, I want to make large paintings that are very intimate.’ The way in which the bodies fold out and envelop the canvas nods to de Kooning’s Women. As de Kooning famously stated that flesh is the reason why oil painting was invented, nowhere does this seem truer than in Shift. Saville’s more recent works represent an ongoing internal debate between memory and time, and the possibility of representing one body and coevally seeing another body through it – a pivot in perception aptly expressed through pencil and charcoal in her 2010 Gagosian exhibition, Erota. Saville’s focus on the flesh has led to comparisons to both Lucien Freud and Peter Paul Rubens, yet the raw emotional quality of her works nod more to the paintings of British German painter Frank Auerbach.

Jenny Saville was born in 1970 in Cambridge, England. She received her B.A. Honours in Fine Art from Glasgow School of Art. Her degree show collection was bought by Charles Saatchi, who later commissioned her to make work for the following two years. ‘‘Who else was going to give a 23-year-old a huge gallery and say: ‘Yes, you can make a 21 - foot triptych?’’ she said in a 2016 interview with the Guardian. Alongside Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst, Saville became poster child of the Young British Artists (YBAs). Saville’s first major show Territories (1999) for the Gagosian Gallery in New York was met with great critical acclaim. Her paintings have since featured in several public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Broad in Los Angeles, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. Some of her early works are also currently on show as part of the Tate Britain’s 2018 All Too Human Exhibition.

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