Article written by Misha Capnist on May 7, 2021
"One of the undisputed masterpieces of the Young British Artists" - Sotheby's European head of Contemporary Art, Alex Branczik.
Jennifer Anne Saville (born 7 May 1970) is a contemporary British painter known for her large-scale painted depictions of nude women. Saville has been credited with originating a new and challenging method of painting the female nude and reinventing figure painting for contemporary art. Saville works and lives between Oxford, England and Palermo, Italy.
On 5 October 2018, Saville's Propped (1992) sold at Sotheby’s in London for around $12.4 million US dollars, becoming the most expensive work by a living female artist sold at auction.
Jenny Saville © Sotheby’s
At the end of Saville's undergraduate education, the leading British art collector, Charles Saatchi, purchased her degree exhibition. He offered the artist an 18-month contract, supporting her while she created new works to be exhibited in the Saatchi Gallery in London. The collection, Young British Artists III, exhibited in 1994 with Saville's self-portrait, Plan (1993), as the signature piece. Representations of the body are an important aspect of Jenny Saville's work, and she has been also noted for creating art through the use of a classical standard—figure painting, but with a contemporary approach:
"I'm drawn to bodies that emanate a sort of state of in-betweeness: hermaphrodite, a transvestite, a carcass, a half-alive/half-dead head."
In 1994, Saville spent many hours observing plastic surgery operations in New York City. Her published sketches and documents include surgical photographs of liposuction, trauma victims, deformity correction, disease states, and transgender patients. Much of her work features distorted flesh, high-caliber brush strokes, and patches of oil color, while others reveal the surgeon's mark of a plastic surgery operation or white "target" rings. Her paintings are usually much larger than life-size, usually six-by-six feet or more. They are strongly pigmented and give a highly sensual impression of the surface of the skin as well as the mass of the body.
In her depictions of the human form, Jenny Saville transcends the boundaries of both classical figuration and modern abstraction. Oil paint, applied in heavy layers, becomes as visceral as flesh itself, each painted mark maintaining a supple, mobile life of its own. As Saville pushes, smears, and scrapes the pigment over her large-scale canvases, the distinctions between living, breathing bodies, and their painted representations begin to collapse.
She is more interested in the raw and unaltered female form, and the valuable reactions of disgust which are generated when viewing her pieces. Her body of work therefore challenges traditional representations of nude women and also the modern-day filtered and perfect body image, encouraged by social media. Saville does this by focusing on the bumps, dimples, rolls, and contours of women's bodies and flesh, representing some insecurities and imperfections, that have been excluded in depictions of nude women traditionally.
In the striking faces, jumbled limbs, and tumbling folds of her paintings, one may perceive echoes of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (c. 1532), Rubens’s Christ in the Descent from the Cross (1612–14), Manet’s Olympia (1863), and faces and bodies culled from magazines and tabloid newspapers. Saville’s paintings refuse to fit smoothly into an historical arc; instead, each body comes forward, autonomous, voluminous, and always refusing to hide.
Vis and Ramin, 2018 , © Jenny Saville
Human perception of the body is so acute and knowledgeable that the smallest hint of a body can trigger recognition.
- Jenny Saville
She plays upon the ambiguity of embodiment and what it means to be feminine or beautiful through the use of the distortion and disgust. This aesthetic of disgust pushed people to the uncomfortable and forced many into the shoes of countless women in the Western world, giving some the autonomy to decide their own standard of beauty beyond society.
Saville's subject, non-idealized bodies, have been understood as superposition of mental and emotional mindsets:
If we could see through our skins our psychological injuries, then the process will be clear: every injury and excess is hiding from the surface (in every successfully avoided blushing) it goes to our inner body (where it avoids to be noticed)
- (Luis Alberto Mejia Clavijo).
According to Artprice.net, Jenny Saville sold 4 pieces in 2020 in public auctions, (the size and the topics of her works limits her market a lot), while from 2001 to today she sold 74 artworks. In this data are excluded the printings and the limited editions.
Number of lots sold, from artprice.net
Her best buyer is her birth country, UK, with 51 lots sold and a turnover of $49.5 million, followed by the United stated with 19 pieces (worthing $5.9 million), Italy (2 works/$8000) and Germany (1 work/$4000).