Lot 16
  • 16

Jenny Saville

600,000 - 800,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Jenny Saville
  • Witness
  • signed and dated 2009 on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 269.8 by 219.7cm.; 106 1/4 by 86 1/2 in.


Gagosian Gallery, London

Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2010


London, Gagosian Gallery, Crash, Homage to J. G. Ballard, 2010, p. 153, illustrated in colour

New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville, Continuum, 2011, pp. 106, 107, 109 and 117, illustrated in colour

West Palm Beach, Norton Museum of Art; and Oxford, Modern Art Oxford, Jenny Saville, 2011-12, n.p., installation view

Catalogue Note

Executed on a monumental scale, Jenny Saville’s Witness is an extraordinarily seductive yet disquieting example of the artist’s iconic and provocative facture. Here abstract painterly marks meld, morph and collide together to form the armature of a woman’s head, thrown back in the throes of death with gushing blood-red painterly effusions oozing from her open mouth. Based on a photograph from a crime scene, Witness represents the culmination of a career long fascination with medical imagery, flesh, blood and wounds. Attesting to the raw, primitive power and unnerving honesty of the violence depicted in the present work, it was included in the notable exhibition Crash: Homage to J. G. Ballard at Gagosian Gallery, New York; an exhibition of works that celebrated the dark, car-crash fetishism of renowned novelist J. G. Ballard. Although the dramatic scale of the work immediately envelops and shrouds the viewer in all its rich, gory detail, the subject of the painting imparts an overwhelming sense of intimacy as we become privy to the last moments of someone’s life. 

Renowned for her richly layered, palimpsest approach to flesh and content, much like that of the British master and Saville’s idol Francis Bacon, Saville primarily works from memory in combination with auxiliary photographs, cutting and pasting different source images together to graft a new picture. Another deep-seated preoccupation that Saville shares with Bacon is an obsession with medical photographs, diseases, fleshy wounds and images of extreme humanness. Saville expounds: “Art reflects the awareness that in life the only certainty we have is death. This belief helps to explain why over the years I’ve collected so many medical and forensic photographs to help my work. A book called Death Scenes has been invaluable… Somebody found this L.A. detective’s pile of photographs after he died. He had been collecting images of death scenes and morgue victims… What I like about forensic and medical photography is that it has a raw quality, because the purpose is to illustrate the nature of damage or disease or death. Using images like these to make paintings only works, though, when you can get beyond the spectacle and the paint can transform it. I made a painting called Witness based on a photograph of a blown-up mouth, and it was tough going to push beyond the surface horror into the paint. If you don’t manage to get far enough it looks like a cheap trick” (Jenny Saville in conversation with John Richardson in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville: Continuum, 2011, pp. 15-16). Anything but a “cheap trick”, the present work exudes a primal energy that bursts forth from the great swathes of lavishly applied paint. Herein, Saville captures the immediate nature of the blood drenched forensic source photograph. Transcending the limitations of pure abject horror, as viewers of Witness we are invited to revel in the sensuous, unrestrained brushstrokes of its maker.

Executed with Saville’s typical aplomb and artistic flourish, Witness is an absolute masterclass in tone and texture. Remarkable for its heightened use of colour, in the present work Saville has skilfully suffused her warm palette of rich, bloody crimsons and soft pinks with nuanced shades of complex cool blues and brilliant whites to pick out the subject’s limp and lifeless body and ghostly lips. Glutinous, energetic brush strokes dance across the canvas in bold exclamatory marks, exuding a captivating and palpable tactility that amplifies the work’s searing and intense realism. Witness overwhelmingly resonates with the authority and poignancy of an artist at the very height of her creative powers; a powerful homage to society’s perverse fascination with death.