As you read this, one of the best artists of our time, Jenny Saville is probably tucked away in an office space in Oxford, brush in hand. The woman referred to by the Guardian as ‘the heir to Lucian Freud’ is perhaps surprisingly little known locally (outside of Pembroke College which funds her work studio).
After a long and solid climb to the attention of the art world since she graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 1992, Saville was finally celebrated last summer with a retrospective at Modern Art Oxford – her first ever solo show. Trotting around the gallery space then, I found myself gasping at the sheer size and strength of the pieces. Probably no other living artist has had quite the same effect on me; none so thought provoking, physically imposing, or visually delicious. I had heard vaguely of the name ‘Jenny Saville’ in connection to the art world but had yet to have any face or art to put to that name until I wandered into Modern Art Oxford on a whim that summer. Exams had just ended and I was keen to look at something other than a text book.
It is difficult to explain quite how physically immense Saville’s paintings are; often spanning the depth of the gallery space with frames reaching from floor to roof. Saville blames her height (she is a tall woman) for this quality, although she admits that it is something which cannot fail to attract even her notice, saying that she referred to one of her massive paintings, ‘Fulcrum’, as ‘the Bitch’ during its time in her studio such were the logistical problems it posed in housing it and moving it around. She has even had to remove some of the ceiling tiles in her studio to accommodate her taller paintings. Saville credits her early interactions with art as a small child for this approach, “I spent several summers in Venice when I was young, which was important to my perception of art. My uncle [an art historian] showed me Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ altarpiece in the Frari, and I was awe struck by the scale and dynamism… it’s instinctive to try and get at that feeling of wide-eyed astonishment at something visually exciting on a grand scale.”
Even the book cataloguing her journey, Continuum, dwarves its colleagues as its huge size dominates the shelf in the Fine Art section of my college library.
And yet the size of Saville’s art work is anything but a gimmick or cheap trick. Her portraits are sensitively and searingly conveyed with great skill; her attention to detail across the ten foot space is just as careful as that of a painter of miniatures.
Perhaps the most beautiful amongst her works is the series Pentimenti which Saville worked on whilst pregnant with her second child. Pentimenti itself means when evidence of an artist’s earlier intentions or traces of pervious work are visible in the finished work. This sense of change and shift in her children’s physical – and her personal – development is captured in the blurred lines, and double expression of the portraits of herself with her children. She credits these two close pregnancies for giving her a unique outlook on the human body, saying “For two years I was literally making flesh. The sense of weight was very powerful; so was the sense of holding and reproducing – not just holding a child in your arms, but one in your body too. I kept thinking of the formation of flesh and limbs outside my body, of regeneration – while I was in the act of painting flesh, a similar process was taking place inside my body… I came to see the material of paint as a kind of liquid flesh I could mold in my hands.” And indeed, we see this paint slip and slide, as restless and as wriggly as the toddler in her lap.
Of the double vision and overlap in her work, Saville credits Andy Warhol’s ‘Double Elvis’ and Degas’ ‘Repassause’ as her ancestral inspiration.
She says of the two works, “You feel the images shifting – his ‘sacred shudder.’ In my Pentimenti series, I wanted that sense of internal-external shifting.”
The result of Saville’s technique is something like Da Vinci’s ‘Man’ in motion. The art scene has needed someone like Saville for a long time. To coincide with her retrospective, two of her pieces were in the Renaissance gallery at the Ashmolean. At the time she told the Guardian, “I was standing there the other day, and it’s full of nude women all painted by men. I’m the first woman to show in the room, which is great, but it’s also obscene. Actually, it’s not even obscene. It’s just… silly.”
Since her major display at Modern Art Oxford in summer 2012, we haven’t heard much from Jenny Saville. Which, disappointingas it is in the short term, is paradoxically a good sign for fans of the artist. Such silence im- plies she is within her Oxford studio, brush in hand, working away. Surely more beauty is yet to come.