Lot 49
  • 49

Jenny Saville

250,000 - 350,000 GBP
386,500 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Jenny Saville
  • Passage
  • signed and dated 2003/4 on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 336.5 by 290cm.
  • 132 1/4 by 114 1/4 in.


Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner in 2005


London, Saatchi Gallery, Galleon and Other Stories, 2004
Rome, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Roma, Jenny Saville, 2005, front cover, and pp. 116-17, illustrated in colour
Oxford, Modern Art Oxford and Ashmolean Museum, Jenny Saville, 2012


Simon Schama, Ed., Jenny Saville, New York 2005, p. 143, illustrated in colour, and pp. 144-5, 146-7, illustrations of two details in colour
Gagosian Gallery, Ed., Jenny Saville, Continuum, New York 2012, p. 94, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

"That's why transsexuals and hermaphrodites have become interesting to me. I want to be a painter of modern life, and modern bodies, those that emulate contemporary life, they're what I find most interesting" (the artist quoted in: Rachel Cook, 'Jenny Saville', The Observer, 9 June 2010). 

Passage, executed in 2004, paradigmatically realises Jenny Saville’s intention to “be a painter of modern life, and modern bodies” (the artist quoted in: Rachel Cook, ‘Jenny Saville’, The Observer, 9 June 2012).  Achieving intimacy through grandiose and immersive scale, Passage is at once a challenge to normative subject matter and astonishingly technically adept. Composed of heavily-layered and gestural strokes, its surface balances the rectangular building blocks of unmixed paint marks with the corpulent curves of a spectacularly realistic nude figure. Its exhibition history spanning Saville’s seminal 2005 retrospective at the Museo d’arte Contemporanea Roma (MACRO), and subsequently her first public UK solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford, in 2012, Passage is among Saville’s most defining and crucial works to date.

Suffused with electric green and aqua blue, Passage departs from the saturated pinks and reds - what Saville calls the “very British flesh, cold flesh” - of her previous works, and evokes the Mediterranean environment of her Sicilian studio with “a much more international feeling” (the artist quoted in: Laura Bushell, ‘i-N Conversation: Jenny Saville’, i-D Online, 26 June 2012, video). Upon first visiting Palermo in August 2003, Saville was drawn to the city’s palimpsestuous and hybrid nature, conquered and culturally transformed repeatedly throughout history. Perhaps responding to this intermediate and layered environment, Saville began photographing transvestites in Rome for her paintings. She encountered the model for Passage on one such trip, “…in a transvestites’ café, near the railway station in Rome. Carla had a fantastic body, exactly the kind of physicality I was looking for. She was a Roman prostitute born in Bogotá…. I remember being really excited by Carla’s dark penis in this amazing sea of milky flesh. I knew I could get those relationships into paint” (the artist quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville: Territories, 1999, p. 14). For Saville, Carla’s physique was utterly contemporary by virtue of encompassing a natural penis and prosthetic silicone breasts, because “thirty or forty years ago this body couldn’t have existed” (the artist quoted in: Simon Schama, ‘Interview with Jenny Saville’ in: Simon Schama, Ed., Jenny Saville, New York 2005, p. 126).

In pursuing Charles Baudelaire’s undying dictum, Saville’s depictions touch not only on contemporary advances in technology - bringing forth implants, prosthetics, and surgeries - but also address theoretical advances of the Twentieth Century that emancipate sexual and gender identities from the reductive binary of male and female. Of Passage specifically, Saville has said: “I was looking for a kind of contemporary architecture of the body. I wanted to paint a visual passage through gender - a sort of gender landscape. To scale from the penis, across a stomach to the breasts, and finally the head” (the artist quoted in: Ibid.). Her absolutely unique painterly technique corroborates the in-betweeness of these bodies, whose ingeniously manipulated oil paint fashions bulky corporeal presences that seem to live and breathe, even as their deconstructed flesh is wrought with porous and airy gaps. Saville explains how scientific and medical study has informed this permeability: “I saw a plastic surgeon put his hand through a woman’s breast… I try and make holes in my paintings” (the artist quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, Rome, Op. cit., p. 108). An unceasing obsession with flesh underlies all of Saville’s work; de Kooning’s oeuvre and his assertion that “flesh was the reason why oil paint was invented” are among her most formative influences. 

Devoting her attention to the nude, the oldest and most loaded art historical trope, Saville is acutely aware of canonical precedents. The grandiose scale of Passage deliberately rivals that of Venetian Cinquecento masterpieces, such as Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin altarpiece in the Frari and the series of paintings by Tintoretto in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, both of which struck Saville for their immense and highly dynamic compositions. Passage utilises the severe foreshortening of the figure - a formal structure developed by Saville throughout her career - to enhance the subject’s monumentality. By foregrounding Carla’s genitalia, Passage also specifically references Courbet’s iconic and groundbreaking painting The Origin of the World (1866), and loosely follows the diagonal angles of his model’s torso and thighs. Yet whereas Courbet’s painting ultimately complied with conventional notions of gender and power - offering a disembodied pudendum painted by a male, for a male commissioner’s collection of erotic art -  Passage has an entirely different relationship to constructions of the body. Saville deliberately obviates normative boundaries; scholar Linda Nochlin believes her subjects occupy a “postmodern realm of gender nirvana, brilliantly theorized by Judith Butler as a zone of shifting sexual identities and the rejection of essential difference between male and female” (Linda Nochlin, ‘Floating in Gender Nirvana', Art in America, 88, no. 3, 2000, p. 96). Radically updating and emancipating the genre of the nude from centuries of stricture, Passage is among Saville’s most important achievements.