Sunday, 24 May 2009

Jenny Saville

Reverse, 2002-3
Oil on canvas 213 x 244 cm

Royal Academy, London
18th June 2004

I saw this large self portrait, head on one side lying on a mirror at the Royal Academy Summer show in 2004. It was hung in a gallery of non-members work such that it could be seen from the central hall framed by the doorways; made the visit worthwhile.

It isn’t a traditional portrait by any means, more of an idea or sensation, perhaps akin to Francis Bacon but not as extreme. "Wants to be the subject/object as well as the artist/looker." The disconcerting gaze seems to be straight out at the viewer, challenging us as we satisfy our curiosity and look. Much larger than life, yet like many of her paintings, the subject almost seems too big for the frame and is cropped at the tip of the shoulder.

She finds working from life intimidating and she normally takes close up photographs of her model and uses these fragments stitched together to make her figure. However, she does use mirrors in the studio both to see her own flesh and to check a work from distance without having to stand back. Saville explains in a 2005 interview with Suzie Mackenzie from The Guardian that she doesn’t see the painting as a self-portrait; "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."[1]

She mixes the paint of various colours in large quantities in pots - up to 300 for a large painting. Starts with core tones and then shifts tones as required by adding purer colour. In Reverse there are lots of dark ochres in flesh and ground. A thin under painting gives way to thick layers of paint with lots of different marks. Some very dark (Degas) reds around the lips that make them vie with the eyes for attention. Brushwork with thicker paint looks very loose. Some marks are surprising going against shape of face.

Her work is often compared with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud but it is the extensive vocabulary of William De Kooning, her “textbook” of marks and Velasquez, a painter’s painter, where the materiality of the paint literally adds another dimension that she cites as references[2]. Like Cezanne she acknowledges that "each mark should have its own perspective"[3].

I would say that the work expresses an internal melancholia and it is possible to read the image as if she is looking at her own reflection in the mirror. This raises the question of whether “the neurosis she is trying to bring out” is Narcissus seeing the shadow of despair in his own reflection. “Depression is the hidden face that is to bear him away into death, but of which he is unaware while he admires himself in a mirage.”[4]


[2] Schwabsky, Barry. “Jenny Saville: Unapologetic” Jenny Saville Macro, 2005. 103-105

[3] Scharma, Simon. “Interview with Jenny Saville” Saville Rizzoli International Publications Inc 2005. 124 - 127

[4] Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun Columbia University Press,1989. 5

1 comment:

  1. An immensly skilled painter I agree with your comments about a melancholia being present in her work. I can't look at Jenny Savilles work without think of Egon Schiele. Opposites in many ways I know.