This work is developmentally linked to the aforementioned paintings, Branded and Propped. Here, we are presented with the same tilted angle and tapering shape of the head, while the full-bodied shoulders, plump mouth, and gaze of the sitter all similarly belong to the artist herself. “I use me all the time because it’s really reliable, you’re there all the time”, she explained to art historian David Sylvester in 1994; “I like the idea of using yourself because it takes you into the work. I don’t like the idea of just being the person looking. I want to be the person. Because women have been so involved in being the subject-object, it’s quite important to take that on board and not just be the person looking and examining. You’re the artist but also the model” (Jenny Saville in conversation with David Sylvester in: David Sylvester, ‘Areas of Flesh’, The Independent, 30 January 1994, reprinted in: John Gray et al., Jenny Saville, New York 2005, p. 14). By simultaneously portraying and inhabiting the same female body, Saville approached the artistic tradition of the female nude from a highly conceptual feminist perspective in these early works; a novel approach that reconciled Saville’s acute awareness of the problematics of female depiction with her love affair with a traditionalist approach to painting and drawing the female form.
It was around 1991 that Saville began weaving feminist ideas into the fabric of her work. As part of a term-long scholarship to the University of Cincinnati, Saville was not only able to continue her studio practice, she also began a women’s studies programme. This academic curriculum introduced her to the important writings of Linda Nochlin – whose essay ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ (1971) came as a revelation – and the French post-structuralist feminism of Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva; areas of academia that, for Saville, unravelled patriarchy and unpacked why looking was the way it was. Indeed, for an artist in thrall to the male dominated paradigms of Renaissance and early Modern painting, this discovery came as both a crushing disappointment and a powerful motivation.
Intriguingly, the present work has a verso sketch that, while not considered a finished piece, hints at the important conceptual direction of her work at the time. On the reverse of the sheet, the beginnings of a drawing illustrate the head of a figure, behind which lines of cursive text spell out the words: ‘delicate’, ‘sensitive’, ‘petitie’, ‘virginal’, ‘precious’, and ‘soft’. This holds significance for both Branded and Propped, the two launch-pad paintings shown at her degree show in 1992. In Branded, the very same words appear gouged into the flesh of Saville’s similarly posed and leering corpulent figure, while the linearity of flowing script here presages the compositional arrangement of language in Saville’s Propped. The use of language is highly conceptual in nature; in these early works, it is used as a crutch to more fully articulate and convey the feminist thrust of her traditionalist practice of painting. In Propped, the mirrored text is a quotation from Luce Irigaray’s seminal 1980 essay, ‘When Our Lips Speak Together’, while in the present verso sketch and Branded, the words are those stereotypically associated with feminine ideals. Thus, as powerfully demonstrated in this early and developmentally significant sketch, the pioneering brilliance of Saville’s practice resides in her reconciliation of feminist thought with her passion for representing the figure in paint on canvas, or, as in the present work, in charcoal on paper.
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