Monday 2 July 2012

Jenny Saville

Just before leaving the U.K., I went to see the Jenny Saville exhibition

at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford.

Saville's paintings are huge, monumental  and I was profoundly affected by them.

Her exaggerated nudes show with an agonising frankness the disparity between the way women are perceived and the way they feel about their bodies. In her work she visualises her concern about the tyranny wielded over women by the fantasy of the perfect body. By deconstructing the male fantasy about what a woman's body should be, Saville reappropriates this body.

Most of her paintings depict the body covering the whole of the canvas and sometimes spilling over the edges and this adds to the drama - her nudes push towards the viewer rather than being safely contained within the frame of the canvas.

The bodies of her subjects face the viewer with purpose and do not conform to the notion of a passive object to be viewed - they are very much in-your-face. When viewing her paintings, after looking extensively at the subject's body and flesh one is confronted with the subject's gaze, another challenge to conventional representations of the female nude where the 'nude' is an object of entertainment deprived of a thinking mind.

She has attempted the deconstruction of female 'nature' as fabricated by patriarchal discourse, seeking to reappropriate the female figure. By shifting the female body's position as an object of male delectation, and thus deconstructing the male fantasy projected for centuries on it, Saville is able to question the female body's representation throughout art history.

On one of her paintings, Propped , which unfortunately was not featured in this exhibition, Saville has etched Luce Irigaray's words across the canvas: "If we continue to speak in this sameness, speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other again",  thus explicitly articulating her concerns. As Helen Cixous has stated, in our phallocentric society there lies the necessity to produce the meaning of woman.

Bleach, 2008, Oil on canvas

One of the most striking things about her work is the sheer physicality of it: her painting of skin is violent, painful, bruising. "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 stomach for example, or creating the inner crevice of a thigh. I want a painting realism. I try to consider the pace of a painting, of active and quiet areas. In my earlier work my marks were less varied. I think of each mark or area as having the possibility of carrying a sensation".

Rubin's Flap, 1999

In a lot of her paintings she uses her own face and head and the body of a fat woman. In so doing, she challenges the active artist/passive model dichotomy by playing both parts simultaneously, a device that many women artists have been adopting.

Reverse, 2003, oil on canvas

Trace, 1993, Oil on canvas

The size of the paintings is overwhelming, some are 6 feet by 9, another departure from convention. Darwent comments that historically  'one genre of painting that has not by and large lent itself to large-scale treatment has been the female nude. Given the need of male viewers to reinforce their masterly role by looking at things smaller than themselves, oversized pictures of women were clearly a bad idea'. By countering expectations of the genre, Saville is achieving a critique of a time-honoured practice. The large scale of the paintings is empowering the figure depicted and thus challenging perceptions of the female nude as the object of male desire.

Witness, 2009, Oil on canvas

The monumental scale of the paintings can be seen in this photograph.

Fulcrum, 2007-09, Oil on canvas

'There is a thing about beauty. Beauty is always associated with the male fantasy of what the female body is. I don't think there is anything wrong with beauty. It's just what women think is beautiful can be different. And there can be beauty in individualism'.

Atonement, 2007, Oil on canvas

Entry, 2007-08, Oil on canvas

Stare, drawing, 2006-10

Red Stare, Head I, 2007-11

Torso, 2005-06, Oil on canvas

Reproduction, drawing III, 2009

Reproduction, drawing IV, (after the Leonardo cartoon), 2010

Study for Isis and Horus, 2011

Study for Pentimenti, 2011

Passage, 2004-5, oil on canvas

'With the transvestite I was searching for a body that was between genders - the idea of floating gender that is not fixed. The transvestite I worked with has a natural penis and false silicone breasts. Thirty or forty years ago this body would not have existed and I was looking for a contemporary architecture of the body.  I wanted to paint a visual passage through gender, a sort of gender landscape. To scale from the penis, across the stomach and breasts and finally the head'.

And finally, a picture of the artist.

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