Jenny Saville in Boston

Saville uses her own body for most of her paintings

This week we heard painter Jenny Saville speak at Boston University. Thirty minutes before the lecture was scheduled to begin at Morse Auditorium, 500 people were already in a line snaking down Commonwealth Avenue. My initial reaction was, how cool. How often do you find people waiting in a long line to hear a painter talk?

Sure, Saville is an international art star of the first order. Her work sells at astronomical prices. And as one of Saatchi’s early finds (he purchased her entire graduate exhibit) and part of the juggernaut of successful artists known as YBAs (Young British Artists), she hit the big time in her early twenties. Now she has a lottery winner’s life, living in a magnificent but tastefully dishabille 18th-century palazzo in Palermo, Sicily. She has 22 rooms that each house a painting she is working on. OK, it does sounds like the ultimate painter’s dream.

But this was no lifestyle evening. Saville stood up and launched immediately, talking for 90 minutes straight. Using double screens, she showed examples of her own work alongside images that have inspired her. Her source material was a steady stream: Photographs of distended, obese bodies; medical textbooks for plastic surgery; burn victims; murder scenes; slaughterhouses; autopsies. But there were also lots of paintings—Soutine, Degas, de Kooning, Velasquez, Warhol, Pollack. Clicking through hundreds of slides, her energy and passion for the power of these images never flagged.

Spending time sketching and photographing in a slaughterhouse was, according to Saville, one of the most beautiful experiences of her life

Saville isn’t slick or particularly polished. She seems to struggle to capture in language what her eye sees with such alacrity. Her description of her struggle as a woman artist who must, as she put it, get out from under the “burden” of the painting canon was delivered haltingly. It isn’t her content or her narrative that compel me; it is rather a dauntingly brilliant hand. There’s so much love and respect in her for wet pigment on a surface. Her mastery is in understanding how plasticity becomes an artifact with its own eminence.

Saville’s work is a cacophonous celebration of paint. Her immense canvases, when encountered close up, are complex, lush and juicy. Stepping back from the abstraction of the microview to perceive her larger than life figurative imagery—exploring the vicissitudes of flesh has been her primary project since art school—offers up a completely different encounter with her art. Both are valid means of experiencing the potency of a Saville painting.

Many times she referred to the “violence” she sees in a painting or an image. She sees it in dead bodies and mutilated limbs. But she also sees it in the streak of red paint in a de Kooning, in a young girl’s hair being combed in a Degas, in photographs of derelict buildings and crumbling ruins. That is Saville’s lens on the world, and it leads to paintings of subject matter that speak to that view. While that is not my lens, I am inspired by her relentlessness.

Saville speaks about her work without self-regard or arrogance. She has an unbridled intensity and humility (“This painting was supposed to be about the different tones of flesh, but I think I failed miserably”) that is palpable. She seems at ease opening her kimono to an auditorium full of strangers and exposing her peculiar and extraordinary mindset. I was not expecting that level of candor. I’m too quick to assume celebritism kills what was once authentic in a person who has achieved that level of success. How wrong I was.

At one point she described herself as having a “vicious” eye at collecting imagery. Well put. When I think of Saville now, I envision her as a giant cosmic eyeball that never stops scanning and absorbing everything in its domain. And doing so with intense heat. A hot, provocative, relentless eyeball.

She was, and is, unforgettable.

One panel from a commissioned triptych Saville is painting for a church in Rome

13 Comment

  1. Deborah – if you went to her lecture, i am completely and utterly jealous – what a once in a lifetime experience. I have never seen a Savile up close, just in repros, however the sheer mastery and energy of her paint handling, and her scroching gaze is astounding. G

  2. G, I had no idea she would command my attention so utterly. My inner vibration has been altered by this encounter. Seriously.

  3. Elatia Harris says:

    I see a connection to Francis Bacon here — was he one of her cited influences? Sometimes an influence is so great the painter doesn’t feel it as such. What a wonderful essay — thanks!

  4. Completely blanked on her Bacon connection when I wrote the post. Absolutely. I also love what she said about Sargent, which I think you will appreciate:

    Sargent is one of the worst artists ever! He is a master of tone but he had such a limited view of what art can be. His sensations are dull and dreary.

    Her words are a bit harsh, and there are exceptions IMHO. But I know what she is saying, especially after having walked into her world for an hour and a half.

  5. Hello!
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  6. Elatia Harris says:

    Sargent is no savage, that’s for sure. But, not to admire him is to see only with millennial eyes. I can see why she doesn’t like him — he is coming at frontality and the notion of a set piece in a way that’s not terribly far from hers, actually. There is also in her work a disconnect — intentional I think — not only between the painterliness of what’s going on and the subject matter, but between the subject matter and the drama it’s presented with. You could say the same of Sargent. My feeling is that as an artist you need to look very closely at what you virulently don’t like — for points of resemblance to yourself. Even if you find none, it’s a dynamic relationship in which you can discover much. To be a painter who resists Sargent is kind of sad — but she should just keep on doing what she’s doing, since it’s working for her.

  7. I too felt enormously privileged to catch the lecture. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I know that one of the BU libraries plans to make the recording available in a few weeks, but you wouldn’t per chance know if anyone smuggled a copy out of the auditorium, would you?

  8. Not to my knowledge. But my guess is a call to the Fine Arts Dept at BU would lead us to the videotape. I have several friends who missed it who have asked about seeing it as well. Let’s share what we find out.

  9. […] or in the visual arts. She went to the same lecture by Jenny Saville that I have written about here (although at the time we did not yet know each other) and felt immediately at home as Saville took […]

  10. […] quote by de Kooning came to me by way of my friend Nada Farhat. Like Jenny Saville whose eye sees violence in everything, from a cadavar to a painting by Degas, we are all filtering […]

  11. greby says:

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  12. greby says:

    good, good i am very happy to read your blog.
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  13. I wish I had the privilege to go to her talk. Thank you for sharing.

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