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Contemporary Artist Jenny Saville and the Importance of Her Work in Today’s Society

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Arts
Wordcount: 3582 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Contemporary Artist Jenny Saville and the importance of her work in today’s society in relation to her painting Branded (Figure 1).

In this essay I will explore the authorship debate and how it has played its part in Jenny Saville’s artwork whilst considering her role in today’s feminist society. I will consider the issues associated with her challenging works of art as well as how the viewer plays a part in the completion of Jenny Saville’s artwork. It is highly important to recognise what Jenny Saville has done for feminism in art and society today so I will also look into the role she has played and her contribution to that through Saville’s use of fat as a feminist issue.

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Jenny Saville is a contemporary artist with traditional methods. Although the phrase Contemporary means something different to each individual, in this context we are talking about Jenny Saville’s work being one of that which is produced in the current climate. Jenny Saville is associated with Young British Artists, an era of time in the late 80’s where British art was abruptly on the rise, art that tended to be completely open and experimental, materials and processes alike. In her earlier career, just after her postgraduate education, Saville was scouted by Charles Saatchi- a well-known art collector- after which, he purchased her entire senior show. Saatchi went on to support Saville whilst she created new works to go on display at the Saatchi Gallery in London and in 1994 the collection Young British Artists III exhibited Saville’s self-portrait Plan which starred as the exhibition’s central piece.

I would argue that where Saville’s art is displayed is that of importance because museums and galleries are ideological spaces that drive a particular idea of art. For Saville’s enormous art pieces, in particular, it is essential to be in a suitable environment, one that does not take away or distract from the impact of her paintings, such as The White Cube (like that of the layout of Saatchi Gallery) which is specifically made for an autonomous experience of art. I adhere to the theory that to achieve the full impact of these pieces Saville purposely makes the viewer seem small to make them conscious of their role in culture, history and contemporary life. It could be disputed that the massive scale of Saville’s pieces makes the viewer challenge their passive status because they become so aware of their smallness. The feeling of uncomfortableness makes viewers aware of the part they play in an exhibition like this and enables them to contribute varied meanings towards the pieces. Using this momentous scale has, I would argue, successfully accomplished Saville’s aim to crowd her subject into their space on the canvas to show their desperate need to tell their stories. I believe by making the canvases of this scale, Saville’s subjects are saying ‘I am here. This is my hugeness. Confront me and deal with it.’. This could be potentially overwhelming, sensually and mentally intense, however, Saville utilises her area and gives the painting’s space for them to impact their viewers in a way so they tackle their own thoughts and feelings and therefore contribute to the completion of piece themselves. Roberta Smith writing for the New York Times in 1999 puts it perfectly when saying ‘to extremes of imposing wall-like massiveness, where the body’s and the painting’s surface become one.’ (Smith, R 1999).

Partially through Saatchi’s patronage but mostly through her prominent use of the classical standard of figure painting and obvious immense skill, Saville predictably thrived and quickly became recognised by the public. Saville has reintroduced and regained figure painting methods in the context of art history through painterly techniques of expressive and intense pieces portraying difficult themes that are essential to tackle in today’s society. Saville is predominantly known for her momentous portraits of large nude women and transgender people, some depicting scars of undergone surgeries with provocative inscribing’s on their skin’s surfaces.

For example, Saville’s painting Branded (Figure 1.) created in 1992, here we see an enlarged woman’s body with a self-portrait of Jenny Saville’s head still not fully in frame. The body shows every conventional definition of women’s imperfections, some critics have gone far as to say ‘repulsion, brutalised femininity and abject self-image’ (Schwabsky, 2007). The letters on her skin read words such as: delicate, irrational, petite, supportive and decorative. It could be said that these words are an internal dialogue of Saville’s, a kind of epitomic of the ‘conventional woman’. The woman depicted is seen grasping her folds of skin, in a lovingly gentle manner. However, the woman’s posture is obtrusive making the viewer confront her face on. She is not passive like history has told us women were before her, she does not conform to her predecessors of Ruben’s femme fatal or classical marble structures, instead, she is one in her own to be individually interpreted by the viewer. ‘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’ (Meskimmon p.125).

This makes us think about the actual medium of the piece: if this piece were a photograph, how would it differ? The medium in which this piece is conveyed (painting) is important then, giving us something that cannot be given to us by photographs. Saville’s thick painterly technique is used to portray thick flesh and gives her an advantageous edge over current artists using flat surfaces that mirror screens or photographs. The female form is the focus and its essence and texture are successfully captured by Saville’s use of oil paints and mixed media, something a photograph cannot provide. In fact, I would argue that it is also interesting to note that however expressive Saville’s work is, it has been compared to forensic photography before, ‘she’s painted woman who seems bruised or bloody; one thinks of forensic photography’ (Shwabsky, 2007.) so she may have, inadvertently, made close connections to paintings and photography herself. In this way, I would argue that Saville has captured and combined essentials of both media to create ultimate unity.

It is of utmost importance to give Saville her well deserved credit for relatability in terms of feminist issues of today. Evidence suggests that over a third of Brit’s are unhappy with their body image. As part of a global study conducted by YouGov, the survey results showed that in Britain 37% of the participants were unhappy with their body image and weight. There also showed a gender split. Women were more likely to not like the way they look with over 4 in 10 (44%) being not happy compared to 53% who are. ‘Men seem to be a little bit more comfortable in their own skin – 66% are happy compared to 31% that are not.’ (Tobin, B 2015). This is, however, an improvement on previous years. That is not to say that we should stop there when striving for positive body image and promotion of self-love. The hunger cult of advertisement, celebrity influence and major fashion industries are just a few examples of negative impressions that hold us back.

Taking this into consideration, women, in general feel extreme guilt towards their fatness because it can be said that being thin is not an aesthetic, but rather a pressure from communities suggested that their bodies are owned by society. I think Naomi Wolf put it perfectly in her book The Beauty Myth especially in the chapter Hunger where she writes: ‘A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about the female beauty but an obsession about female obedience’ (Wolf, 1991). It is my opinion that she means womankind’s outdated and sexist role of their existence was to please a man and perhaps more relevantly, society in general. I think the proof that the female thinness obsession is political stems from one thing: guilt. How can female fat be a moral issue and be described by words like good and bad? I would argue that fat is more of a feeling rather than an adjective of physical form. If society’s fixation on women’s body types were about sex it would be privately combatted between her and her lovers; if it were about health, between a woman and herself. Instead, I would dispute that the concept of female fatness is no more than a marketing strategy. To relate this theory to Jenny Saville and her artworks like Branded, I believe her almost utilitarian artistic response recognises this theory and has reached out to spectators by saying she understands them through the medium of painting. She has given us as viewers these unusual, unconventional female figures, a body to relate to, to tackle their responses and to deal with the problems raised with.

I also believe that this theory of societal guilt imposed on women opens an opportunity to individually discuss a Marxists reading on Saville’s artworks in the way that, Saville’s response to this is to create subjects that tackle criticism based on socialist and dialectic theories with the idea that there is a mixed representation of the truth fed to the spectator by people of power. I think Jenny Saville’s response gives the power back to the spectators by challenging these theories and allowing spectators to become part of the artwork by way of completion. Considering this, it can be suggested that her art is no longer reflective of society, but rather an offering of an alternative way of dealing with these problematic themes.

As previously mentioned, Jenny Saville’s woman in Branded– and in a range of her paintings- are large in a corporeal sense, in that a large female body occupies a big physical space, as well as being large in their production also (in the sense of height and scales as well as their bodies exceeding their frames). This could be seen as problematic or bothersome when considering a motive of possible promotion of unhealthy lifestyles and giving potential to ‘skinny shame’. In this way, it is easy to dismiss these paintings as the public tend to not want to be confronted with their insecurities. I believe this is an ideological conflict of values of art, lifestyles and social matrixes- the artist and audience relationship can be seen as the testing of the social order by radical propositions.

The fact that these women are large traditionally suggests that they are less desirable to look upon and don’t satisfy the male gaze or male ideal in a phallocentric philosophy or society. These unapologetic fat women challenge the established patriarchal society desires for women to be invisible or tucked away. A tradition that generally makes women feel: guilt, shame, unfeminine- all of which traits, I would argue, are not recognisable in Branded. I would go far as to say that fatness feels almost sinful and can be compared closely to sins like Gluttony and Sloth, worthy of repentance by diets and weight-loss. However, it can be argued that the topic of the ‘ideal’ body and lifestyles is a social construct which changes and moulds over time. For example, Venus at a Mirror 1555, (Figure 2.) a painting by Titian displays a voluptuous woman when curves were a signifier of wealth- easily comparable to the fleshy, curvy woman we see in Jenny Saville’s Branded. I think that the fact these two figure paintings are of comparison, even being nearly 437 years apart, proves how fashionable body types fluctuate through time and the ideal body is a social construct. An endless vicious cycle of constant scrutiny. 

However, unfashionably beautiful the woman Saville paints is, she cannot be denied her grandeur. It is common to think that Artists and artworks have a relationship and the Artist is the genius behind the work, thus meaning the creator becomes as important as a part of the work as the actual art itself. I would argue that the nature in which Saville tackles this dilemma is interesting as her work is not exclusively autobiographical but does, in fact, feature her face. Saville is not a large woman herself and can be considered as typically petite. This means Saville’s work is definitely not an actual documentary to her physical self, questioning her reasoning to include her own face in her artwork. I believe the reasoning behind Saville’s thinking was to create this very conversation. As previously mentioned, the spectators actually complete the artworks, opening up to interpretation and conversations. Similar to Branded Saville’s painting entitled Propped (Figure 3.) also includes writings etched into the woman’s skin, however, this time the words are in mirror-writing by Belgian feminist theorist Luce Irigaray. ‘In order to read it, however, we have to not only peer closely at the contours of her flesh, we have to put ourselves in the picture with her.’ (Mansfield, 2018) Further encouraging viewer engagement.

As the art world is an incredibly complex ecosystem, the audience/viewer/observer/spectator is part of the network of the art world, it is no longer one person having one relationship with one piece of work. More so now that they become part of the conversation and coproduce meanings as a community. This social activism enables spectators’ pallets to become infinitely expanded. So, Saville uses her perceptions of her self-image to ask the audiences to unlock meanings of the artwork, solidifying the Artist being of importance, however, it can be argued that Saville has gone one step further than this by including herself in the images to be part of the audience and their thought processes herself. I think by the inclusion of her self-image actually makes her part of the spectators, relating herself to their interpretations and chewing their thoughts with them.

In Branded we see Saville’s head and face but her eyes are difficult to see. She is purposefully challenging the male gaze in the phallocentric society we live in today and not giving us the satisfaction of actual eye contact with her eyes being half shut and lazy looking. This is actively challenging the viewer to engage with her whilst she is being unapologetically herself and absolutely denying any objectification. Again, through this technique we see her defying the well-established patriarchy desires for women to be obedient, to be seen beautifully and not heard. Therefore, think the silence the woman we are confronted with- through her use of eye contact is strident. For the purpose of this essay, this is probably a suitable point to mention that of course men are subject to fat discrimination and scrutiny as well as women, however, in the context of Jenny Saville’s artwork and for the particular piece Branded it is perhaps a less relevant point. It is, however, just as important to discuss the similar pressures put on modern men to look (and act) a certain way, with Toxic Masculinity as an imperative issue. With the male nude being presented through mediums such as the sculpture Belvedere Apollo by Leochares (Figure 3) influencing modernism, it is equally difficult for men to be portrayed subjectively as it is for women. Saying this, men tend not to have the exact same patriarchal expectations to be invisible, therefore their privilege as a male allows them to have more acceptance within society to possess more body fat.

In conclusion, I believe Jenny Saville has presented us with these women in her paintings, like Branded, to make us think about contemporary society and our individual roles we play. Saville has given us the spectator an opportunity to have an active engagement and to complete the artwork ourselves. Instead of the conventional art for art’s sake, Jenny Saville’s women have challenged stereotypes of the active and passive in relation to genders. I wholeheartedly believe Jenny Saville is an activist for self-love, something that comes through her art and encourages others to do so, which is majorly important today’s society. I have looked into her own involvement in her art pieces in association to the Authorship debate and come to the conclusion that her involvement in her own artwork is necessary for the spectator’s ability to relate but not absolutely essential, as seen by Saville’s representation of only her face and not her actual body. I have considered the importance of the actual location of Branded and deducted that because of the sheer- almost overwhelming- the scale of the painting, a White Cube aesthetic works well with this piece. I have looked at this in relation to how this impacts the relationship between the Artist, the piece of art and the spectator and came to the decision that is was to make viewers aware of their smallness subsequently making them conscious of their roles in culture. By doing this in turn, makes viewers contribute to the completion of the piece- something in which I believe Jenny Saville intended.




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Images bibliography

Figure 1-

Saville, J. (1992). Branded. [Oil and mixed media on canvas] Unknown.

Figure 2-

Titian. (1555). Venus with a Mirror. [Oil on canvas] Washington DC: National Gallery of Art.

Figure 3-

Saville, J. (1992). Propped. [Oil on canvas] Unknown: Private Collection.

Figure 4-

Leochares. (Circa 120-140 AD). Apollo Belvedere. [White marble] Vatican City: Vatican Museums.


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