Executed in 1992, when the Artist was still in her early twenties, Cultural Fetish is a fascinating and important work, created at a pivotal time in her career. Having studied at Glasgow School of Art from 1988-1992, Charles Saatchi purchased her graduate exhibition show, going on to offer her an 18-month contract to support her while she created new works to be included in his Young British Artists III exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in 1994. Saville was to rise quickly to public prominence, in part due to Saatchi’s backing, who recognised in the young student’s work an unusual and captivating power.
Saville is best known for her arresting portrayal of the female nude, a subject steeped in art historical tradition, yet one which she has endeavoured to divorce from its inherent associations: of the woman as subject not creator, depicted for scopophilic pleasure, denied any power over the viewer or their gaze. As Sarah Kent has written: 'By addressing the female nude as a subject as well as an object, she forces consideration of the prejudices that enslave us. In her hands the female nude is no longer the currency of conversations between men.' (Sarah Kent, Shark Infested Waters: The Saatchi Collection of British Art in the 90s, Zwemmer, London, 1994, p.85).
Discussing two paintings which were included in the Young British Artists III exhibition, Prop and Propped (the model for both of which is thought to be the same as Cultural Fetish), Saville has said: ‘The Prop paintings are a presentation of what I couldn’t do, of the frustration that I didn’t know how to paint myself out. The realization of my relationship to the history of art as a woman, as a vision in art, and not really the producer of culture. I was frustrated by this but it gave me great determination. It made me really want to paint.’ (Jenny Saville, interview with Simon Schama, Jenny Saville, Gagosian Gallery, Rizzoli, New York, 2005, p.126).
No-one could argue that Saville has created a body of work which is nothing less than an acute and searing realisation of this aim. Her paintings are monumental, thought-provoking, highly skilful masterclasses in painting and reinterpreting the nude: and Cultural Fetish embodies this most unique of approaches superbly. Depicting the figure using an unusual perspective which places the viewer beneath the figure, Saville encourages our eye to travel up and over the woman’s body, emphasising her feminine breasts and thighs, only to unseat our expectations through both her bald head, somewhat androgynous features and contemptuous gaze. The figure fills the frame, her size and weight – consciously chosen in opposition to society’s ideals of beauty – magnificent and magisterial. In expanding the figure, Saville simultaneously diminishes the viewer: they instead become the viewed, almost scornfully surveyed.
Saville’s work is unusual not merely due to her unique treatment of the subject, but also her choice and use of medium. Employing oil pastel and watercolour – traditionally far from the most forceful of materials – she nevertheless creates an image of real strength. There is a delight in the medium inherent in all of Saville’s work, and here we see the inception of her developing treatment of paint and flesh; she has said that ‘I want to use paint in a sculptural way – I want it on the surface’, going on to declare that ‘the longer I’ve painted the more I’ve shifted from a subject matter (the body) to the body of paint – to get as much tension between the two as I can’ (ibid., pp.124-5). Here, Saville uses nebulous layers of pastel and watercolour, building up a surface of sensations, of cool and warm tones, which feel fleshy and alive. Beautiful but unidealised, defiant and passionate, Cultural Fetish is an uncompromising depiction of the contemporary Woman which shows Saville at her very best.
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