British painter Jenny Saville has long established herself as a cornerstone of contemporary art. Her portraiture earns comparisons to celebrities as distinct in time, style and circumstance as Peter Paul Rubens, Francis Bacon and Marlene Dumas. With her focus on fleshy female forms and a fan base among feminist theorists and art royalty alike, she might be the most important female artist in the Western world.
Despite the importance of her work, Saville’s first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom was just last year; her success seems to come in swaths. Saville was born in Cambridge, England, in 1970. Her early artistic influences include her childhood piano teacher and Pablo Picasso (she likes how he depicts subjects as real and substantial and there rather than fleeting). She studied at Scotland’s Glasgow School of Art from 1988 to 1992. In 1990, she exhibited at the Royal College of Art Contemporary. She later attended the University of Cincinnati, where she recalls seeing “big women and big white bodies in shorts and T-shirts” (Widewalls, “Jenny Saville,” 01.09.2017). These themes would later make themselves known in her paintings.
Today, art collector Charles Saatchi is a figure steeped in controversy, but he was integral in pushing Saville into prominence. In 1985, Saatchi, then co-owner of the largest advertising company in the world, opened the Saatchi Gallery in London. He was famous for collecting millions of dollars worth of contemporary painting and sculpture, and throughout the 1990s he exhibited many of the works of the Young British Artists, or YBAs—a cohort that boasted Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and, later, Saville among its ranks. YBA works are not uniform in the least, but generally diverse, even shocking, in their approach to material and subject matter: Hirst famously preserved a tiger shark in formaldehyde in a huge glass display case, while Lucas has demonstrated a fascination for breasts and found objects like stockings and cigarettes.
Saville’s first big break came in her early postgraduate years, when Saatchi offered her an 18-month contract to work at his London gallery. Her work was shown in “Young British Artists III” in 1994 and “Sensation” at the Royal Academy of Art in 1997, both organized by the art mogul, catalyzing a rapid rise to success. She told the Guardian in 2005, “What he did for me was amazing. I didn’t have lots of money. I make big paintings; I couldn’t afford to invest the time or money…Charles was like, ‘Whatever you want, whatever is your dream, do it.’ Things I’d wanted to do for ages, I could do. And it made me a bigger artist” (The Guardian, “Under the Skin,” 10.21.2005). In 1994, her triptych “Strategy (South Face/front Face/North Face)” was featured on the Manic Street Preachers’ album “The Holy Bible,” which earned as much critical acclaim for Saville as it did for the band.
Earlier this month in a London salesroom for Sotheby’s—the world’s largest art business— her 1992 oil painting “Propped” sold for £9.5 million, or $12.4 million, against an estimate of £4 million. This not only broke Saville’s personal record for auctioned works, but also marked the highest price ever paid for a female artist’s piece. The nude self-portrait first garnered attention over a decade ago as part of Saatchi’s “Sensation” exhibition. It is quintessential Saville: A large naked woman sits on a chair, toes pointed (she wears flats), fingers swollen and clutching her lap, chin up, looking down at the viewer in ecstasy, disinterest, pain or something in between. Written across the surface is a quote from the French feminist critic Luce Irigaray. It is chilling, with a fleshly liquid quality only her brushstrokes could create. I welcome another Saville craze. One of my favorite things about her work is its power to unsettle. Her drawing skill is undeniable, only emphasized by the shapeliness of her figures and her crisp, wavey, multidimensional shading. Even though her art is pictorial, it is biting; she comments on beauty standards, playing with widespread cultural discomfort surrounding female sexuality and fatness. Her subjects may seem shameless at first in the full nude, with their proximity to the viewer, their legs splayed and faces contorted. Simultaneously, the viewer can tell they are insecure and anxious. As most of her early works are self-portraits, paintings like “Propped” reflect her concerns about her own body.
“A large female body has a power; it occupies a physical space, yet there’s an anxiety about it. It has to be hidden,” she explained to the Guardian, citing the contradictory reactions her nude portraits can provoke—both the material comfort of “being in a mother’s arm” and “the anxiety that comes from living with flesh” (The Guardian, “Under the Skin,” 10.21.2005). Yes, her art is carnal in keeping with Western tradition, and her subjects command attention like those in Picasso’s portraiture, but Saville can stir great emotion—pain, contentment from freedom—and capture beauty and movement in a way unparalleled by artists of old. Her definition of art? “The ability to have freedom” (The Huffington Post, “Interview With Jenny Saville,” 06.08.2016).