Saville Wisdom

Jenny Saville in her Oxford studio
Jenny Saville, photographed in her Oxford studio, June 2012. (Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer)

Some memorable quotes about Jenny Saville from an article in the Guardian last year, Jenny Saville: ‘I want to be a painter of modern life, and modern bodies’:

Painting is my natural language. I feel in my own universe when I’m painting. But, in Britain, there has been a drive in art schools to describe and to rationalise what it is that you’re making, and that is a death knell to painting. Painting doesn’t operate like that. It works on all the irrational things. If you stand in front of Willem de Kooning’s Woman, I, you can’t unravel with words how that works on you. In America, painting is embraced, perhaps because one of the last great moments of painting was in New York, with de Kooning and Pollock.”

She hesitates. “I’m not anti conceptual art. I don’t think painting must be revived, exactly. Art reflects life, and our lives are full of algorithms, so a lot of people are going to want to make art that’s like an algorithm. But my language is painting, and painting is the opposite of that. There’s something primal about it. It’s innate, the need to make marks. That’s why, when you’re a child, you scribble.”

Later, she was encouraged by her uncle, an art historian, to whom she remains close (he lives near her studio in Oxford; they like to eat lunch together, and talk about Prussian blue). “When I was about 11, he gave me a section of hedge, and told me to observe it for a whole year. So I did, and I learnt such a lot about how nature shifts, and the necessity to really look.”

She sees my face. “It wasn’t weird at the time! It’s only weird when I tell other people. I’m so grateful to him. Later on, he took me to Venice, and it wasn’t just that he said this is Titian, and this is Tintoretto, or whatever. At six o’clock one morning, we went to draw at the fish market at the Rialto bridge. Great art wasn’t something far away; it was part of life. We would go and drink in the same bar Rembrandt drank in; it was as fundamental as that in terms of the working life of the artist.

Once again I feel a commonality with Saville. Our work is very different, but our views often overlap.

Previous posts on Slow Muse about Jenny Saville:

Truth, Lies and Dodges

Subservient to Painting…More on Saville

Jenny Saville in Boston

Schjeldahl on Global Feminism

4 Replies to “Saville Wisdom”

  1. D, enjoyed your posts. All of them. Inspired me to check out a few others on Saville.

    Philip Hartigan from Praeterita:

    “Is Jenny Saville any good? (
    Jenny Saville is a British artist who paints chunky, bruised looking nudes in a manner reminiscent of Lucien Freud, or so say many people:
    She sometimes uses colour harmonies, and the visceral potential of oil paint, to make images that seem to play with suggestions of violence:
    Jonathan Jones, art critic for The Guardian newspaper in the UK, wrote something on his blog last week asking a form of the question that I asked above – what to make of Saville’s work? It sparked an interesting discussion on Alan Sundberg’s G+ and Facebook page amongst different artists…
    Most people in the discussion so far come down on Saville’s side. I’m on the contra side, mainly because I think she uses her great skill in the service of quick effects. As I write this, I think that traces her line of descent not only from Freud, but also from Euan Uglow, another twentieth century British painter…In each case, both Freud and Uglow have much more patience with their subject matter than Saville has. Yet I accept that there are people who love her, and would completely disagree with my response. Like all value judgements concerning art, how does one move beyond entirely subjective positions?”

    Jonathan Jones:(

    “Does Jenny Saville fix it for you?For once, I’m not offering an opinion, because I can’t decide. Is feminist activist and YBA Jenny Saville the real deal or not?”

    Which spawned this thread from Alan Sundberg (

    “Jones asks is jenny “the real deal”and also asks “does jenny fix it for you” (that’s odd language) even for an art critic talking about the work of a feminist artist, no?”

    I thought the word “fix it” was also odd. Kind of like, “are you women now satisfied with your whole—whatever it is you are ranting about. Has Jenny now fixed that for you?”

    As an artist discovered when she was so new, Jenny’s work and process have been put under a microscope and discussed and blogged the world over. I wonder what that must be like, trying to find your way, your own voice, while at the same time having so many other voices chatter about you and define you. Do you think, possibly, it’s easier to be less known? Working under the radar, and just doing your work and letting growth happen from within– without the hugeness of fame and early notoriety? Or does the chatter help you define yourself? How much do the critics influence an artists work?

    BTW, I think there is something Jenny captures that is like looking in a mirror. It may speak to men differently than to women, but the violence in what she portrays in her women’s features are very much like the violence that we women inflict on ourselves when we look at ourselves in a mirror. Forcing us to look at what we believe to be ugly is forcing us to find what is truly beautiful.

    Will she be as lasting as Freud or Uglow? I want to think she will.

  2. deborahbarlow says:

    Cindy, thanks for including a range of responses. In my world she is pretty much a god. So many painters admire her painterly gifts. And even though our work would seem to be at either end of the painting spectrum, I usually agree with her words. She is very thoughtful and smart.

    But I love this addendum. So appreciate it!

  3. the last 4 paragraphs are actually my response to her. yes, I really love how she thinks.

  4. Please put me on your email feed. Thanks

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