Young British Artist (YBA) Jenny Saville is known for her monumental, richly colored, highly textured oil paintings and drawings of everyday people, mostly women. There is raw power in her larger than life figurative work which shows both the grotesque and the beautiful aspects of the human body.
Saville is working against the male-dominated history of idealized women. “I want to be a painter of modern life and modern bodies.” Working in a style with links to the 17th century artist Peter Paul Rubens, she depicts single bodies posing brazenly. She presents fleshy depictions of nudes sometimes in states of exaggeration. Her 1994 “Strategy” is a gigantic oil triptych of her friend, which was negatively criticized for the weight of the model. “So I wanted to construct paintings that were about seeing bodies from many different angles all at the same time.” In paintings of two or more people, she often depicts them embracing or intertwined in highly sensuous and disturbing poses.
Saville was born in Cambridge, England. Her father was head of a primary school and became Director of Education. She wanted to study art, and it was an uncle who suggested that she study in the school he attended. She did this and received her B.F.A. from the Glasgow School of Art. Upon viewing one of her degree show paintings, Charles Saatchi was so taken with her work that he commissioned her to make 15 new works for the Saatchi Collection. This effectively supported her working in art for two years. He exhibited her works in the young British Artists III Show of 1994. She was 23 years old, and this exhibition made her career.
In the 2011 “Continuum” exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, Saville presented eight drawings and five paintings which demonstrated her debt to art history. The inclusion of the word ‘pentimenti’ in several titles makes this point. Saville’s “The Mothers” 2011 depicts herself as an exhausted mother struggling to hold her two small children. This painting emerges from Leonardo’s drawing “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John” ca. 1499-1500. Her painting “Study for Pentimenti IV (After Michelangelo’s Virgin and Child)” 2011 most likely emerges from Michelangelo’s “The Virgin Child with the Infant Saint John,” ca. 1504-1506.
Saville’s huge drawings, mostly done in pencil, pastel or charcoal, also reveal her creative process of exploring art history sources. Her charcoal drawing “Study for Pentimenti V (Velazquez, Picasso, de Kooning),” 2011 shows her layering of ideas and lines as she appropriates the little girl from Velazquez’s “Las Meninas.” Through sketching, erasing, and resketching repeatedly, Saville gives energy and uncertainty to her characters.
In her 2014 exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, Saville again appropriates the great figure paintings of the past. The odalisque can be seen in her work along with Venus figures and the Madonna. In her oil and charcoal painting “Odalisque” 2012-14 there is a flow of sexual transactions doused with colors of grays and blacks. Again, her paintings in this exhibit reveal her debt to the Leonardo cartoon as well as to the paint strokes of Willem de Kooning.
Saville’s work was included in the 50th Biennale di Venezia in 2003. Her work has been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the world, including the Museo d’Art Contemporanea in Rome, Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Gagosian Gallery, and the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. Currently Saville’s biggest solo exhibition of 100 paintings and drawings is spread across five Florence museums. These works hang next to idealized female forms painted hundreds of years ago by Renaissance artists.
Her work is in the public collections of major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Broad Museum, MOCA San Diego, and Saatchi Collection, London.