I’m still on a Jenny Saville bender (see post below)…Here are a few passages from an interview with Saville conducted by Suzie Mackenzie of the Guardian. I found these passages provocative and insightful.
She attributes the early “fascination with fat” to sitting on the floor watching her piano teacher. “From below she had these big, thick thighs, a thick tweed skirt and tights, and I’d spend the whole time looking at the way her thighs never parted and how the flesh would rub against the tights.” People sometimes observe that the experience of looking at one of the big early Savilles, with their dramatic cropping and foreshortening, is a bit like a child confronting a grown-up. A mix of awe and intimacy. “I wanted both in those pictures. A large female body has a power, it occupies a physical space, yet there’s an anxiety about it. It has to be hidden.” So a part of it, she says, was a search for intimacy, “as if being in a mother’s arms”. And part of it was discomfort, “the anxiety that comes from living with flesh”.
She began with the body for all sorts of reasons. “The art I like concentrates on the body. I don’t have a feel for Poussin, but for Courbet, Velásquez – artists who get to the flesh. Visceral artists – Bacon, Freud. And de Kooning, of course. He’s really my man. He doesn’t depict anything, yet it’s more than representation, it’s about the meaning of existence and pushing the medium of paint.”
What interests her is wherever the body breaks open – the genitalia – and, most particularly of course, the head, the face and all its openings. Her 2003 exhibition Migrants consisted of six paintings, three of them heads, all staring out at the viewer blankly, as if indifferent to their state. Gone are the morbid flesh tones of her early work; here the paint, a vibrant red and brown, is as charged as the images. Aperture, unusually, is a gruesome head of a man – puffy, one eye battered closed. Reverse and Reflective Flesh use her own image. Not as self-portraits: “I am not interested in portraits as such. I am not interested in the outward personality. I don’t use the anatomy of my face because I like it, not at all. I use it because it brings out something from inside, a neurosis.”
And she was a child of her time. Born in 1970, she came of age in the 1980s: “Everyone was obsessed with the body – it was all about dieting, gym, the body beautiful. Pornography, Aids were the big debates.” She was influenced by feminism. “As a child I’d look through art books and there were no women artists. Of course, you start to ask why not.” And: “Could I make a painting of a nude in my own voice? It’s such a male-laden art, so historically weighted. The way women were depicted didn’t feel like mine, too cute. I wasn’t interested in admired or idealised beauty.”
Females, as she says, are used to being looked at: “I don’t like to be the one just looking or just looked at. I want both roles.” Taking herself as her own model, her exaggerated nudes point up, with an agonising frankness, the disparity between the way women are perceived and the way that they feel about their bodies. Their massive bodies look diseased, half alive, half dead, the skin erupting in places as if cracking under the strain of having to contain so much fat, so much anxiety. In Branded, she inscribed on the flesh adjectives often used to describe women: “supportive” is scratched across one breast, “irrational” across the other; “delicate” across the midriff.
Propped has, etched into the paint, indecipherable words by the French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, whom Saville studied on a sabbatical in America. There was “immense conviction” in making these pictures, she says, and an element of self-loathing. “There is in everybody. We are taught to judge ourselves from a very young age, to groom ourselves.” And this creates a neurosis for women, she says. “You see this dichotomy in women’s magazines all the time: an article on breast cancer – empowering; an article on skin products that make you look younger – neurotic.”
She says that feminism interests her less now. “I was never that polemical. That feels like a conversation I was having with myself then. I’m not drawn to that kind of admired beauty but I can’t say if it is because I am a woman or because my instinct visually is not that way.”
Paint, she says, is her language, the way she communicates – and everything else, everything else, takes second place…”My life is subservient to painting – I can’t find a substitute for it in the world.”