Jenny Saville’s paintings have always explored the insistence of corporeal mass, the fleshiness of flesh. Although her newest works continue this project on an enormous scale with masterful strokes of salmon, grey, palest blue and beige, they feel surprisingly divergent from the now iconic pieces that led to her discovery by Charles Saatchi in 1994. Comprised of 17 paintings and spanning her entire career, this is astonishingly Saville’s first museum exhibition held in Scotland, and only her third in the UK. The linear survey, part of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s NOW series, is spread sparsely throughout several rooms, and begins with Propped (1992) and Trace (1993-93).
Trace is a signature Saville-sized canvas (read: very large) filled to burst with a broad pale back cut off at the neck and just below the buttocks, whose waxen flesh bears indentations from undergarments, angry lines demarcating which part is what on the otherwise unformed mass. Propped shows a woman on a stool, looking down at the viewer, puffy fingers digging into mountainous legs, with backwards text inscribed into the paint. A mirror is provided, revealing the words to be a manifesto demanding a literal flipping of the script privileging a solely male perspective. Such overt messaging feels unnecessary as Saville’s work already upends the male gaze, and because the potency and beauty in the empty space behind the flesh, open to interpretation, becomes cluttered and obscured.
The next room is devoted to the early/mid oughts, and features portraits of people with various facial irregularities, from a blind woman (Rosetta [2005-06]) to a young person with an angry wound covering half their face (Red Stare Head IV ). Reminiscent of Diane Arbus’ proclivity for the freakish, Saville trades in a vaudevillian aesthetic for a nearly medical one. The close proximity of the faces could make the paintings intimate, but instead the overwhelming nearness imparts a chill, as though the subjects are undergoing examination. This examination reflects a curiosity that evades voyeurism, in fact none of Saville’s pieces feel voyeuristic, lacking as they are all signs of performative female pleasure. There are no averted eyes, tastefully arched necks, gently sloped shoulders, or languid spines found in Saville’s work, it is utterly devoid of the contrapposto and body-placement gimmicks used to turn resting woman into supine femme.
Saville’s most recent works are frenetic, piled with bodies, skewing temporality and nodding to overlapping, alternate realities. Olympia (2013-2014) twines together women from canonic paintings, a corpulent Olympia with a Venus of Urbino, or some other reposing beauty, reconsidered in a jumble of flesh. The women are superimposed over a modern urban background, their limbs spilling over the edges, the whole scene overwritten with slashes and marks resembling rushed graffiti tags. Perhaps suggesting that these female bodies are merely part of the scenery, an aspect of the built environment. Or, by enmeshing old forms with a new world, Saville reminds us that some things never change. For the first time I see why people are so eager to associate Saville with Francis Bacon - these works engender a tortured, layered psychological state typical of his work. They also contain a profusion of signifiers, and grasp for too much all at once, forgetting that simplicity has already accomplished what they, rife with historical reference and the imposition of context, strive for.
If an agonised psychosis is to be found in the unfettered figures of Saville’s early career it belongs to the viewer, as those bodies are free of implications, of instructions (with the exception of the overwrought Propped) regarding how they should be seen. Rendered in a palette of dusk and dawn and broad, dimpled backs, they invoke an intricate chain of thought, and nuanced proclivities of human fascination are more interesting than the fact that “toxic societal expectations are worked onto a woman’s body, therefore dictating how she perceives it, and how others perceive her”. Although this is undeniably true, and undeniably very important, it doesn’t appear to be Saville’s driving motivation to paint, and her visual depictions of the sentiment ring hollow.
If a feminist message within Saville’s work must be defined outright, it could simply be stated that women aren’t solely the sum and arrangement of their meaty parts. However I think Saville’s work resonates mostly because she sees differently, because her paintings invite us, through basking in the presence of bodies unfiltered and luridly exposed, to inspect our own prejudice, fascination, pleasure, and repulsion. She portrays bodies with empathetic curiosity and, crucially, without shame, which is a beautiful thing.