In a society often obsessed with physical appearance, Jenny Saville has created a niche for overweight women in contemporary visual culture. Known primarily for her large-scale paintings of obese women, Saville has recently broken into the contemporary art world with the help of gallery owner and art collector Charles Saatchi. Rising quickly to great critical and public recognition in part through Saatchi’s patronage, Saville has been heralded for creating conceptual art through the use of a classical standard -- the figure painting.
Saville was born into a family of educators in Cambridge, England, in 1970. She began a course of study at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland in 1988. There, she found only one female painting tutor -- a disappointing lack of female perspective for the budding feminist. This lack of a female presence was soon filled through the feminist texts that Saville began reading during a visit to the United States midway through her college career. Saville was awarded a scholarship to attend Cincinnati University for six months. The college was located in Ohio, where Saville’s lifelong fascination with the workings of the human body began to affect her artwork. Finding herself immersed in a different culture, Saville “was interested in the malls, where you saw lots of big women. Big white flesh in shorts and T-shirts. It was good to see because they had the physicality that I was interested in.” It was in this environment that Saville began to read the feminist literature that would later play an important role in paintings such as Propped. With these texts and other artists such as Cindy Sherman (a contemporary conceptual photographer) as an influence, Saville embarked on creating a series of works that would later make up her degree show in Glasgow.
At this college degree show, Saville’s career began to take shape. All of her paintings shown were sold -- quite an uncommon and impressive feat for a 22-year-old artist. This was only one of the first signs of the success that Saville would soon achieve. Former advertising mogul-turned-gallery-owner Charles Saatchi spotted Saville’s work in a 1993 show called “Critic’s Choice,” at London’s Cooling Gallery (a show Saville herself didn’t get to see because she lacked the finances to make the trip from Glasgow). Impressed with what he saw, Saatchi decided to track down the paintings that had been purchased in Glasgow to buy them for his own collection. In addition, he challenged Saville to make paintings to fill his gallery. Paying her to work from August 1992 until January of 1994, Saatchi used the commissioned works to produce a 1994 show of Saville’s paintings in his gallery space in northwestern London. This show widened Saville’s audience and subsequently led to the inclusion of her work in exhibits at venues such as the Pace McGill in New York, the Museum of Kalmar in Stockholm, and the Royal College of Art in London.
Shortly after this string of shows, Saville crossed the ocean and moved to New York City for a period of time in 1994. There, Saville spent long hours observing the work of Dr. Barry Martin Weintraub, a plastic surgeon based in the city. Taking photographs while standing in on cosmetic surgeries and lyposuctions, Saville gained a better understanding of the human body and the various manipulations that can be made through modern medicine. Not only did she improve her knowledge of the physical workings of the alterations, but -- perhaps more importantly -- she gained insight into the psychological factors behind the changes as well.
The controversial 1997 “Sensation” exhibit, which showed at the Royal Academy of Art in London, furthered Saville’s notoriety. “Sensation” included fellow Young British Artists (as they came to be dubbed by the media) Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Marcus Harvey, Tracey Emin, and Chris Ofili, among others. The show opened to mixed reviews and throughout its run caused quite an uproar, inciting more than one occurrence of vandalism of the artwork. Fortunately, Saville’s work survived unscathed and was also featured in the equally uproarious New York showing of the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which Mayor Rudy Guiliani openly protested. Saville’s gigantic paintings dominated the show in sheer size, thus making her a household name in London and her work recognizable in popular British culture.
Saville is lauded for her celebration of paint and her loyalty to oil painting as a medium. In a society of constant technological advancement, Saville has resisted the temptations of using media such as video in her work and has dabbled only briefly with photography. Although Saville finds great inspiration in such media and often sees multiple films per week, these modern fillers are not for her. Instead, she has embraced the physicality of paint and thus has chosen a medium that dates back hundreds of years. Saville is most often compared to contemporary British painter Lucian Freud. Though she acknowledges the truth in such a comparison, she has an interesting view of the ultimate in painting ability: “The marriage of [Francis] Bacon and [Willem] de Kooning -- Bacon’s figurative skills and de Kooning’s painting skills -- would make the best painter who ever lived.”
Despite the prevalent use of her body in her work, Saville’s personal life is not often discussed. Although she has been involved with fellow painter Paul McPhail since the two met in art school seven years prior, there are currently no thoughts of marriage in Saville’s future. As she told Vogue, “I don’t have a desire to be a wife or to have a husband.” Right now, the closest Saville is willing to come to having children is a potential painting of a baby.
Most recently, Saville was featured in a solo show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. The exhibit featured six new paintings that continued Saville’s pattern of large-scale nudes. One painting, Hybrid, is a double portrait of Saville and her sister based on a childhood photograph. The image is a close-up of the two heads, which appear to be attached like the heads of Siamese twins. Another painting, entitled Matrix, shows Saville’s interest in gender, as it depicts an intersex person. This slight digression from Saville’s usual subject matter is perhaps a sign of her new work to come.
Currently, Jenny Saville lives and works in London, England, where she is a tutor of figure painting at the Slade School of Art in London. Her position at the Slade School allows her to share and learn with her students, and gives them the opportunity to work with one of the most talented up-and-coming artists of the twenty-first century. In an age where technology often prevails, Saville has found a way to reinvent figure painting and regain its prominent position in the context of art history.