Jenny Saville in conversation with Hunter Davies in: Hunter Davies, ‘This is Jenny, and This is Her Plan’, The Independent, 1 March 1994, p. 21
“There is a thing about beauty. Beauty is always associated with the male fantasy of what the female body is. I don’t think there is anything wrong with beauty. It’s just what women think is beautiful can be different. And there can be beauty in individualism.”
Jenny Saville in conversation with David Sylvester, The Independent, 30 January 1994, quoted in: Richard Calvocoressi et al., Jenny Saville, New York 2018, p. 14
“I’m painting these kinds of figures because I think it’s important to challenge traditional representations of the female nude.”
Jenny Saville in conversation with Pat Kane, Pat Kane, ‘A Full Body of Work’, The Observer, 23 January 1994, p. 69
Hailed a “destroyer of false fetishes” by Simon Schama, Jenny Saville has done more for the traditional genre of the female nude than any artist in recent history (Simon Schama, ‘Interview with Jenny Saville’ in: John Gray et al., Jenny Saville, New York 2005, p. 125). She stages pure spectacle in paint: images of the female form that are all-consuming and over-powering, larger than life giantesses that revel in their fleshy abundance. Towering three metres tall, Juncture (1994) is a tremendous illustration of Saville’s unassailably contemporary talent as a figurative artist. Alongside other examples from the famous body of 1990s monumental nudes – a group of paintings that includes the record-breaking Propped (1992) and Shift (1996-97), and The Broad’s gargantuan triptych Strategy (1993-94) – this work is not a quiet painting, but a theatrical entity that commands our attention. With a clear conceptual resolve and technical ability way beyond her years, Saville produced this unprecedented sequence of blockbuster paintings within a remarkable five year period between 1992 and 1997. Where 1992 marked the beginning of Saville’s professional career as launched by Propped at her staggeringly successful Glasgow School of Art degree show, 1997 cemented the pinnacle of the YBA phenomenon with Saville’s inclusion in Charles Saatchi’s controversial Sensation at the Royal Academy in London. Created at the mid-point between these two landmark events, Juncture is a paradigm of Saville’s principal subject: the fleshy female body in paint. Reproduced in every major publication on Saville’s work to date and exhibited widely – first in 1994-95 at the Royal College of Art in London, and most recently in 2005-06 at the National Portrait Gallery in London and Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney – Juncture is among the most recognisable and significant of Saville’s 1990s output. This painting celebrates the female body in a way that squares up to our social-media present and its obsession with images of a bodily ideal that propagates ageless perfection and petite symmetrical proportion. Indeed, even though it was created 25 years ago, it is as relevant and vital today as it was in 1994, perhaps even more so.
There is a strong feminist backbone running through Saville’s paintings; an intellectual impetus which came to Saville as an epiphany during her time at art school. In January 1991, during her third year at Glasgow, she won a scholarship to study for a term at the University of Cincinnati. Her experiences there would prove a real turning point, as aside from attending art classes, she also had access to a whole curriculum of theoretical studies. Having been an academic student at school, Saville jumped at the chance to flex her intellectual muscle and elected to take a course on Écriture Féminine in the department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. The course was a revelation; it was the first time Saville came to understand the relative absence of female expression in art history and suddenly, this awareness led her to question her own experiences as an art student. In an early interview published in The Independent, Saville recalls her thoughts at the time: “I'd always wondered why there had been no women artists in history. I found there had been – but not reported. I realised I'd been affected by male ideas, going through a male-dominated art college” (Jenny Saville in conversation with Hunter Davies in: Hunter Davies, ‘This is Jenny, and This is Her Plan’, The Independent, 1 March 1994, p. 21). The revelation of female authorial absence was an eye-opener and derailed Saville somewhat; her response was to turn away from painting for a time, deeming it too polluted by masculine dominance and female subservience or absence. This malaise soon came to an end, however, and Saville’s need to paint won over her political objections. By the end of the term, and with her feminist beliefs now firmly cemented by the writings of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, Saville resolved to incorporate feminist perspectives into her works on canvas: “The realisation of my relationship to the history of art as a woman, as a vision in art, and not really a producer of culture. I was frustrated by this but it gave me great determination. It made me really want to paint” (Jenny Saville in conversation with Simon Schama, op. cit.). On her return to London, she began creating the paintings Branded, Propped and Prop, breakout pieces that would sell-out her degree show, get her on the front cover of the Times Saturday Review, and bring her to the attention of businessman and art collector, Charles Saatchi, at the age of only 22.
Charles Saatchi first saw Saville’s work on the Times magazine front cover and also through the window of the Cooling Gallery on Cork street where she was exhibiting Branded as part of the fourth Critics’ Choice exhibition. She had only just graduated from her degree at Glasgow and was about to start her post-graduate studies when Saatchi got in touch. After flying her down to London, Saatchi offered the young artist a stipend to create paintings for an exhibition at his gallery. Established in 1985 and then based on Boundary Road in Northwest London, the Saatchi Gallery had gained a reputation for showing exhibitions of blockbuster post-war American artists such as Cy Twombly, Robert Ryman, Richard Serra, and Bruce Nauman, to name only a few. By 1992, however, Saatchi had turned his attention to the new wave of young British artists coming out of UK art schools; his influential promotion and almost single-handed cultivation of the YBA phenomenon thus put his gallery and the artists he showed there on the map. Without telling anyone about this prestigious commission, Saville worked for over a year in her small studio in Glasgow on five new paintings that would eventually be shown – alongside the three aforementioned degree-show paintings Branded, Propped and Prop – as part of Saatchi’s Young British Artists III in January 1994. This event marked Saville’s first major debut and would prove vital for her growing assurance as an artist. “I am totally grateful to [Charles Saatchi]”, Saville stated in 1994, “not just the money, but his act of faith. It built my confidence. I still can hardly believe it. He didn’t dictate the style I must paint in, or how many. He left it to me” (Jenny Saville in conversation with Hunter Davies, op. cit., p. 21). The exhibition quickly courted praise from the press who lauded the young artist’s daring confrontation of contemporary female embodiment, particularly the cult of thinness that had been gripping the collective Western consciousness since the 1980s. The colossal size and bold presence of works such as Plan (1993), Trace (1993-94), Strategy (1993-94), and shortly afterwards Juncture, arrived like a slap in the face to the populous’ obsession with body image, dieting, exercise, and the socially-unacceptable attitude towards displays of excess flesh and overabundant skin. “The fleshiness of women’s bodies is something that is never put on display in the Twentieth Century”, Saville once explained, “It’s always airbrushed or suppressed. I’m trying to do it with a certain sympathy and emotion” (Ibid.). Refreshingly feminist, Saville’s paintings of obese female bodies set a course that would secure her position as one of the foremost painters of her generation.
Following the fanfare of this major debut, Saville moved with her partner, Paul McPhail, to Bantum, Connecticut, to begin a Susan Kasen Summer Fellowship. Based in an old electrical factory that had been converted into live/work spaces, the fellowship was set up by art collectors Susan and Robert Summer who invited artists to live and work on their property over the summer months: Saville and Paul, however, ended up staying for over a year. It is therefore very likely that Juncture was painted in Connecticut during the second half of 1994 at around the same time that she began working on the Closed Contact photographs; a series of monumental images which depict Saville’s body squashed up against vast sheets of plexiglass. Indeed, the squashed composition of Juncture, the way in which this corpulent figure – which is undoubtedly based on images of the artist – is compressed into its rectangle and pushed right up against the picture plane, shares a kinship with this suite of photographs, and yet, articulated in the historical medium of oil on canvas, this painting cannot help but elicit art historical comparisons: Ingres, Rubens, and the distorted figures of Egon Schiele immediately spring to mind. As a base therefore, Connecticut thus provided a welcome opportunity to work in the peaceful surrounds of the countryside whilst being within spitting distance of Manhattan and its museums. Indeed, not only did New York offer Saville access to women’s study groups and the potential to sit in on plastic surgery operations (a long time ambition in part arranged by Susan Summer), it crucially provided easy access to the major public collections and exhibitions of the art world’s capital. It is thus feasible that Saville may have seen there, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a painting which shares a great semblance to Juncture: Lucian Freud’s astonishing portrait of Leigh Bowery’s corpulent back, Naked Man (Back View). Painted by Freud in 1992, this work was acquired by the Met in 1993, one year before Saville began making frequent trips to Manhattan and one year before she started work on Juncture.
Comparisons to Lucian Freud abound when it comes to Saville’s 1990s work, and she herself has often acknowledged the influence of the British master. Ever since 1988, when Saville visited the artist’s Hayward Gallery retrospective, Freud has served as a key reference point whilst remaining the artist with whom she shares perhaps the most striking visual parity. Like Freud, Saville is unsentimental and un-idealising in her treatment of human flesh; every imperfection recorded, every proportion exaggerated and scrutinised, all is laid bare to see. However, as intuited by art critic Mark Stevens, there is a fundamental difference between Saville and Freud’s respective projects; a divergence that can be traced back to the nature of each artist’s gaze. Freud’s is domineering; although not predatory, he scrutinises, dominates and lays claim over his subjects. Saville, on the other hand, allows her figures free reign, their overabundance spilling out of her compositions. Stevens explains: “Inside her rectangle, she gives up some control. She allows the figure some escape” (Mark Stevens, ‘Flesh was the Reason Oil Paint was Invented’ in: Richard Calvocoressi et al., Jenny Saville, New York 2018, p. 16). What’s more, unlike Freud – who often painted his friends, lovers and children – Saville’s subjects are anonymous fleshy entities. Though often based on images of herself, these figures are not portraits in the traditional sense, but embodiments of an idea. In Saville’s work it is the concept, namely the politics of female corporeality and representation, that takes precedent. As fuelled by her experiences in Cincinnati, Saville engages in the same discussion as Cindy Sherman who, in the late 1970s, began exploring stereotypical archetypes of female representation using herself as a model for the Untitled, Film Stills. Where Freud’s gaze is heir to a tradition of male painters of the female nude – onto which established masculine ideals of beauty and (conscious or unconscious) fantasies of desire or domination have been projected – Saville paints from the perspective of a woman. Conventionally, women have been the object of the gaze and have not been permitted to look, especially in the history of the nude portrait; at the Royal Academy for example, women were not even allowed access to the Life Room until the end of the Nineteenth Century. On the cusp of the Twenty-First, therefore, Saville’s tremendous nude paintings explore what is it to be both observer and observed within a tradition that has been dominated by the male gaze. Herein, it is this very conceptual project that imbues Saville’s paintings with their vital contemporaneity.
What further sets Saville apart and underlines the relevance of her painted forms is the manner of her facture. Unlike Freud who only ever worked from life, Saville finds the presence of the live model somewhat inhibiting and restrictive. In choosing to instead work from photographs, art history books, and medical journals, Saville shares a greater affinity with Freud’s contemporary Francis Bacon, who famously painted from a vast pool of imagery culled from books and magazines, as well as from photographs of friends and lovers. Like Bacon, whose visions of the human body melded flesh with quotations from secondary visual media, Saville captures something of the contemporary world through an internalisation of the photographic. In Juncture, the severely cropped composition, the harsh lighting of fleshy highlights and shadows, and the painterly brevity of physiognomic detail, all conjure the human body as captured through the camera’s lens. It is Saville’s natural internalisation of the photographic – the by-product of a generation that has been overexposed to printed and televised two-dimensional imagery – that injects the here-and-now into paintings that are inescapably situated within a staunchly traditional art historical genre.
Ultimately, however, Saville’s work is all about flesh and the physical palpability of form. It is through the medium of oil paint – specifically the range and plasticity of its material qualities, from slick, juicy, sticky and opaque to dry, stain-like and diaphanous – that she is able to attain a simulacrum of human corporeality that is almost abject in its realness. The range of Saville’s marks communicate a fidelity to physical fleshiness; layer upon layer of paint renders dimples, stretch marks, lumps, bumps, and the passage of skin across an ample subcutaneous bulk of fat, muscle and bone. The immense corporeality of the bodies Saville paints, combined with the sheer scale of her canvases, immerse the viewer in a landscape of fleshy formlessness. Standing in front of these overabundant works, colour, texture, and verisimilitude begin to collapse and disband. It is via this breakdown that paintings such as Juncture draw their vitality as they tread a tightrope between the realms of abstraction and realism. As we are pressed up against the immense materiality of paint as flesh, the viewer is implicated in a paradoxical closeness, an ‘intimacy through scale’ that Saville associates with the work of Mark Rothko. In her own words: “Although large paintings are often associated with grandeur, I want to make large paintings that are very intimate. I want paintings to almost surround your body when you stand very close to it. Rothko creates an intimacy through scale. When you stand very close to his paintings the colour hums and vibrates through you – it almost wraps around you. It’s a child-like feeling” (Jenny Saville in conversation with Martin Gayford in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville: Territories, 1996-97, p. 31). Saville has often cited the distance favoured by Rothko to view his paintings – that of 18 inches away from the surface of his works – as equally ideal viewing conditions for her own. The effect is a sense of being enveloped or smothered by painterly form that is also flesh, and getting lost in the rolls of skin and fat that are also abstract marks. Herein, Saville bridges two canons of art history: the female nude and Abstract Expressionism. The influential feminist art historian Linda Nochlin once described Saville in these very terms: “It is as though a Sargent had mated with a de Kooning before our eyes, and the coupling was more of a violent struggle than a love match” (Linda Nochlin, ‘Migrants’ in: Exh. Cat., New York, Jenny Saville: Migrants, 2003, reprinted in: John Gray et al., Jenny Saville, New York 2005, p. 11). Indeed, Saville frequently cites de Kooning as a tremendous influence, particularly his abstract canvases of the late 1970s and she often quotes the Ab Ex master’s famous adage, “Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented”, as a way of thinking through her approach to the human form in paint (Willem de Kooning, 'The Renaissance and Order', trans/formation 1, No. 2, 1951, pp. 85-87). There is a sculptural quality to Saville’s facture that Simon Schama has likened to “creating pigmented human flesh”, and like de Kooning, Saville’s painterly swipes, daubs and dashes bestow a full-bodied and sculptural freedom (Simon Schama, op. cit., p. 124). In Saville’s monumental nudes, a panorama of abstract marks coalesce, to form immense landscapes of human flesh.
Created at the apex of Saville’s first major body of paintings, Juncture’s towering form at once calls to mind the classical examples of Titian and Ingres, the unsentimentalising gaze of Lucian Freud, the abstract exuberance of Willem de Kooning, and the gender politics of Cindy Sherman. As exemplified by this painting, Saville’s technical mastery at rendering the human form is brilliantly matched by her crucial feminist project; a long-awaited correctional to the gender imbalance of art history and the genre of the painted nude, as well as a perspicacious and relevant commentary on contemporary attitudes to body fascism and modes of self-presentation. As politically challenging as it is both monumental in size and virtuosic in facture, Juncture is an important work from a truly breakthrough moment in Jenny Saville’s career.
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