Friday, 20 February 2015

Jenny Saville
Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela), 2014-15
Oil on Canvas (dimensions unknown)
Royal Academy, London
29 January 2015

In "La Peregrina" at the Royal Academy in London, Jenny Saville RA has curated an exhibition to show the influence of Rubens on 20th and 21st century artists ranging from Picasso to Sarah Lucas.  As part of this personal response she has included a new painting of her own called "The Voice of the Shuttle (Philomela)" based on a myth depicted by Rubens (“The Banquet of Tereus”, 1636-37 Museo Nacional del Prado).

The large canvas is dominated by two decapitated heads, named Tereus and Pandion, floating above a tangle of limbs in the foreground of a blasted landscape.  Closer inspection reveals the words “jug jug” amidst the bodies in a spidery charcoal script and a child’s head on the ground to one side.  There are a few sparse abstract painted marks in the centre of the canvas in blue, brown and crimson but the majority of marks are monochrome in either charcoal or paint.  The background of the painting contains some random stains of very dilute paint.

In conversation with Tim Marlow, Director of Artistic Programmes at the RA, Saville explains that the work doesn’t directly quote from the Rubens painting but instead uses the source text from Ovid’s Metamorphoses for her inspiration.  This tells the myth of Philomela, a daughter of Pandion I of Athens who goes to visit her sister, Procne wife of the King Tereus of Thrace.  Tereus accompanies her on the journey but instead of protecting her, rapes her and when she threatens to tell her father he cuts her tongue out.  Imprisoned, Philomela weaves a tapestry that tells her story and sends it to Procne.  Horrified, Procne takes revenge by decapitating their son Itys and serves him to Tereus at a banquet.  When she reveals the head of her son, Tereus takes up an axe to kill the sisters, but the Gods transform them into birds and they take flight.  Procne is transformed into a swallow and Philomela a nightingale, because of course in nature the female nightingale is mute and only the male sings.

Without the title it would be difficult to decode the imagery in the painting, because although Saville uses text within the painting to reinforces her theme, e.g. the words Tereus and Pandion, we get no clues from the heads themselves.  They are actually from a photograph of the heads of two notorious brothers, Abel and Auguste Pollet, guillotined in 1909 for crimes including robbery and murder (no mention was made of rape). The words “jug jug” make an additional literary reference, this time to T S Eliot who in turn directly referenced the myth of Philomela in his epic poem “The Waste Land” and evokes of the call of the nightingale.

The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
"Jug Jug" to dirty ears.

Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns). "The Waste Land" (Faber & Faber: London, 1972) lines 99–103

The final photographic source is the landscape, taken from a photograph of gaunt bare tree trunks in the devastated Chateau Wood, a portion of one of the battlegrounds in Ypres taken in 1917, which gives structural depth to the painting and provides a contemporary context.

Saville comments on the rarity of images in art to do with rape and how when talking about art “the issue of rape, the abduction of a woman’s body is never discussed”.  She acknowledges the difficulty of depicting rape in a painting and in this work uses a variety of sources to support her theme.  Perhaps best known for painting monumental close-ups of large nude women, Saville dispenses with any Rubenesque fleshy paint to savour, keeping the mood of the painting as grim as its subject.  The style adopted is a continuation of her relatively recent experimentation with pentimenti. These altered marks found in a traditional painting usually suggest that a correction of a pose was made in the under-drawing for the work.  Here they are clearly visible on the canvas and work in a totally different way depicting elapsed time as the artist strives to resolve the image and evoking the violent struggle in the tangled bodies on her canvas.  Although the face of the male perpetrator is hidden in melée of body parts, Saville has included as historical avatars the Pollet brothers, executed for their guilt 100 years earlier. This ensures the rape is not seen as a sexual impulse that has got out of control but as an aggressive and violent manifestation of sexuality. The introduction of the battlefield reminds us that rape was seen as an unpleasant but inevitable by-product of war that only recently was deemed a severe a breach of conventions.

La Peregrina is showing a part of the exhibition Rubens and his Legacy at the Royal Academy, London, WC2,
until April 10, 2015
(44-020-730- 8000;


  1. I’ve only just come across your comments from about a year ago on Jenny Saville’s work, “Voice of the Shuttle,” and I have not seen the work in the original, but some thoughts come to mind.
    Thank you first of all for supplying the reference for the two severed heads. However, I’m struck by the large visual disparity between her own work and Saville’s claimed inspiration from the Rubens. Looking at Saville’s picture, the only direct visual connection is the severed head in the centre of the Rubens. The ‘jug, jug’ writing obviously gives the Eliot connection, and further use of the Philomela myth.
    Had I come across it cold, I would have interpreted the Saville work as either an indictment of slaughter caused by the owners of the two heads, or as an overall scene of slaughter, with the two heads as a spicy bit of detail within the overall category ‘slaughter.’
    You say “Saville comments on the rarity of images in art to do with rape and how when talking about art ‘the issue of rape, the abduction of a woman’s body is never discussed’.” I’ve read the interview with Tim Marlow online, but can’t find those words. Does Saville use them in another context, a book on her work, perhaps?
    Looking at Rubens, not to mention many other European artists from the 15th–19th centuries, I’d say rape comes up constantly as a subject for paintings. Wouldn’t you? So what’s Saville on about?
    Further, the two severed heads in her work link directly to the severed heads in the countless ‘Judith and Holofernes’ paintings produced by European artists from the 15th–19th centuries, where the topic, of course, is nothing but rape. I find Saville’s comments to Tim Marlow highly tendentious

    1. Apologies for the delayed reply - only just found your comment. The Saville quote is from the sound file interview with Marlow. Hot link at the beginning of the third para. It is about 2:30 into the sound file. I hope that helps.