Visceral, fearless and brilliantly painted, Jenny Saville’s Shift was an unforgettable work in an unforgettable 1997 exhibition called Sensation. Rising to prominence with her YBA peers, she continues to focus on the human form in her virtuoso practice. As Shift is about to appear in the Contemporary Art Evening Auction in London, Saville spoke with Sotheby’s Oliver Barker about the infamous Sensation show, megacollector Charles Saatchi and her varied influences, from Titian to David Lynch.
Oliver Barker: Compositionally, Shift is quite a unique work within your oeuvre, what was the inspiration behind this painting?
Jenny Saville: Shift is the first painting of body piles that I made. I’ve tried and continue to try to paint groups of figures. One of the issues with painting more than a single figure is that a narrative or conversation between figures happens and a painting like that can become quaint quite easily. This I wanted to avoid, I wanted a human mass that had some universal sense of humanity that I saw in Old Master paintings like Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas. But I even wanted to avoid what was ‘figure’ and what was ‘background’, or ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ space in an academic sense. If there was a narrative it had to be in the painted flesh. I had ‘curtain of flesh’ written down as an idea. I remember being interested in David Lynch’s use of curtains in his films.
JENNY SAVILLE, SHIFT. ESTIMATE $1,500,000–2,000,000.
A few paintings were influential on the work. Cézanne’s bathers paintings because of the groupings of figures, Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas with the vertical upside down figure and Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso’s painting has always interested me and I was thinking a lot about the strong, verticality of those women. The dimensions of the painting in a more square format was influenced by Picasso’s Demoiselles.
The summer just before I started this painting I had taken a trip and visited several concentration camp memorials across Europe. This experience had a profound effect on my work. I saw many photographs in the Memorial Museums of stacked up bodies that etched themselves into my brain and which have influenced my work ever since. I didn’t want to paint those images directly as what could you possibly add to those images, but seeing those bodies and the land of the camps has had a lasting effect on me. Even the work I made for the RA Rubens show called The Voice of The Shuttle used images I found on that trip.
OB: Does this painting depict anyone in particular?
JS: Several women came to my studio to model for a couple of days and it was interesting to see all these women lying together. They didn’t have a strong individual outline, there was a sense of togetherness and a mass of flesh that I wanted. The very thin woman who is slightly curled around was a famous fashion model who had offered to model. I’d built a series of steps for each model to lie on and then I was able to photograph them at an angle to get a feeling of mass and eliminate a receding perspective. This gave me a series of images to work on as a starting point.
OB: This painting is very impressive in terms of both its scale and the number of figures depicted, how did you approach the canvas for this work?
JS: I worked from lots of photographs, made collages and drawings, which I scaled up. The painting took a long time because there was so much flesh to articulate and I worked on it from every direction turning the painting around and using a platform on wheels to reach the top.
OB: You have consistently painted the naked female form since the early 1990s, what is it about the female nude that has continued to drive your production?
JS: I’ve consistently painted the naked body but not always the female body. I’ve painted and drawn lots of male and transgender bodies too. In the 1990s I painted mostly women as I was interested in painting the female nude as a female artist. If you paint a naked female you work in dialogue with all those great paintings of the female nude and ancient sculptures from history, it’s a canon in Western art. Rather than avoid painting the female nude at the end of Twentieth Century, I wanted to paint it.
OB: How did you feel seeing this painting installed at the Royal Academy for the first time when it was shown as part of the infamous Sensation in 1997?
JS: The RA has beautiful rooms for showing paintings and Charles Saatchi is one of the greatest hangers of exhibitions that I’ve come across. He really thinks about the placement of objects and paintings and I liked the position he had hung the work. The only issue was the painting was upside down. I had made the painting with the very thin figure being on the right side of the canvas. When Charles visited my studio and first saw Shift I was working on the painting upside down. He was very enthusiastic when he saw it and hung it that way. There’s been an ongoing debate about the correct way to show the work, but it should be shown with the very thin figure to the right side of the canvas.
SENSATION: YOUNG BRITISH ARTISTS FROM THE SAATCHI GALLERY AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY OF ARTS, LONDON, 1997 IMAGE: © SAATCHI GALLERY ARTWORK: © DAMIEN HIRST AND SCIENCE LTD. / © JAKE AND DINOS CHAPMAN. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, DACS.
OB: Regarding the volatile general response to Sensation, why do you think this exhibition provoked such a reaction?
JS: It was quite a different atmosphere for contemporary art then. Whatever Charles Saatchi was doing at that time got piles of newspaper press in UK. If he purchased a whole show of an artist’s work it would make the front page of a national newspaper. These artists were young, provocative and had grown up through Punk and Thatcher Britain. It wasn’t bourgeois and Charles Saatchi and other like-minded galleries were giving these artists support and a platform that they hadn’t had in the same way before. Today the general public across the globe have tuned into contemporary art and there isn’t the same fear.
OB: How did Sensation impact your career?
JS: I met Larry Gagosian at the dinner held for the opening of Sensation in London. He asked me that evening if I would exhibit with him based on seeing my painting Shift. But I probably felt the impact of Sensation more when it opened in NY. My first solo show called Territories at Gagosian NY opened the night after Sensation opened at The Brooklyn Museum. A lot of the Sensation artists and people who work in the art world were in New York and there was a feeling of becoming international artists on that stage. I remember sitting discussing art with Cindy Sherman and then Richard Serra and these were artists I had admired at college just a couple of years before.
LEAD IMAGE: QUEUE IN FRONT OF THE ROYAL ACADEMY FOR THE EXHIBITION SENSATION: YOUNG BRITISH ARTISTS FROM THE SAATCHI COLLECTION AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY OF ARTS, LONDON, 1997. IMAGE: © SAATCHI GALLERY.