THE HISTORY OF NOW: THE COLLECTION OF DAVID TEIGER SOLD TO BENEFIT TEIGER FOUNDATION FOR THE SUPPORT OF CONTEMPORARY ART
Great swathes of painted flesh envelop the canvas of Jenny Saville’s monumental painting Reflective Flesh. Quite literally larger than life, at ten feet tall and eight feet wide, this is a raw and powerful work of vast proportion which celebrates the female form in all its glory. In spite of its enormous size, the work expresses an incredible intimacy in both subject matter and sentiment. As in major works such as Propped (1992), Saville frequently inserts herself into her compositions, using her own physique to explore the intimacies and intricacies of the female body. Working from photographs taken of herself in awkward and compromising positions, Saville lays her own nakedness bare, sparing no details from the viewer. The resulting paintings offer a bold, defiant, provocative and intellectual response to one of the most venerable genres of art history: the female nude. “The direct engagement involved with using your own body interests me,” she states. “You force yourself to confront levels of judgement you exercise over your own body. Over history, conventionally women have been looked at, rather than being the people who look. As an artist, your role is to look.” (Jenny Saville in conversation with Martin Gayford in Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville: Territories, 1999, p. 30) Surrounded by mirrored surfaces in Reflective Flesh, Saville gazes out defiantly towards the viewer. With legs splayed, pudendum overtly exposed, and bulging, weighty, corpulent flesh exhibited and reflected at every angle, the artist strikingly subverts the genre of the nude by simultaneously positioning herself as subject and object, protagonist and producer.
Reflective Flesh is a greatly important and generative painting from Saville’s oeuvre and was exhibited in the artist’s 2003 solo exhibition Migrants at Gagosian Gallery in New York. Speaking of the painting, Saville has explained that the composition was inspired by a famous Roland Barthes quote which contemplates the fact that we are never able to see our own bodies in their entirety, except through the mediated and secondary lens of a mirror or camera.
Born in Cambridge in the United Kingdom in 1970, Saville grew up as a teenager in the 1980s at a time when body regulation and the diet industry were on the rise. Coming of age in an era where women were continually presented with the message that slender is synonymous with beautiful – that the smaller, the thinner, the lesser, the better – had a profound impact on Saville’s artistic practice. As if in search for an antidote, her colossal paintings refuse to be contained or confined. With their richly painted abundance of lush, female corporeality, they are at once overwhelming and empowering in their potency. In Reflective Flesh, Saville defiantly displays the female sexual organ as the focal point of the painting. In so doing, she at once recalls and disrupts the great tradition of the female nude throughout the canon of art history, from Titian, Rubens and Chaim Soutine to Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Yet it is Gustave Courbet’s provocative painting The Origin of the World (1866) that this painting most strikingly evokes. As Linda Nochlin writes: “Looking at Reflective Flesh, one thinks of the long history of this subject, the female sex-organ, the first image to be inscribed on the walls of caves at the dawn of history, according to current art-historical mythology accounting for the origin of art, a theme reaching its apotheosis in Courbet’s scandalous Origin of the World, a small canvas meant for private delectation, once modestly hidden behind a green baize cloth, now hanging brazenly for all to see on the walls of the Musée d’Orsay. Jenny Saville, in Reflective Flesh… has indeed returned painting to its origins at the same time that she has made it new.” (Linda Nochlin, "Migrants," Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville: Migrants, 2003, n.p.)
Characterized by a disorienting, multifaceted and fragmentary perspective, Reflective Flesh presents Saville’s response to Barthes’s enigma, while continuing the tradition of such modern masters as Willem de Kooning and Pablo Picasso, all of whom addressed the female form in new and innovative ways. Saville has long been fascinated by the comparable characteristics of paint and skin and, through a meticulous process of layering, her paintings seek to explore and exploit the tactile and visceral qualities of both her medium and her subject matter. Drawing an analogy between the slow build up of paint on a canvas, and the multiple layers of identity that we construct, develop, inherit, absorb and perform over a lifetime, she writes: “I want there to be an awareness of wearing this paint body, the artifice of it – a mixture of reality and fiction. I admire the way that Cindy Sherman, in the film stills, wears these myths of femininity. You believe them but also know that it is a fictional world that she’s created.” (Jenny Saville in conversation with Martin Gayford, Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville: Migrants, 2003, p. 30) At once bold, beautiful and brazen, Reflective Flesh majestically encapsulates the most noble and profound sentiments of Saville’s artistic practice.
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