The event that truly introduced Saville and Propped to the British public, Sensation, was undoubtedly the most provocative and ground-breaking exhibition of contemporary art Britain had ever witnessed. On the 18 September 1997 record queues twisted around Burlington House for the opening of the controversial exhibition. The unparalleled media storm surrounding this event launched a barrage of stories in the news with headlines such as: ‘Artrage!’ at the ‘Royal Academy of Porn!’ which caught the attention of a wider public. Amidst this media frenzy, the exhibition witnessed an unprecedented series of events: a record-breaking 300,000 visitors attended, Royal Academicians resigned and protesters picketed the entrance in outrage. The 42 young British artists whose work adorned the walls of the Academy’s central galleries triggered such an extraordinary and intense response in part because of their innovative recourse to reality and real life itself. Despite widespread apathy towards contemporary art in Britain at the time, these artists’ work spoke to a series of essential truths by confronting the taboos with which they are associated. As a posterchild for the exhibition, Propped should be considered alongside other epoch-defining works that were shown in Sensation, such as Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossiblity of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963-1995, and Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary, as one of the most important works of the contemporary era, remarkable in both concept and execution.
The primary subject of all of Saville’s early works is the artist herself. This was in part due to the convenience of having a model to hand at all times, but there can be little doubt that in the context of a female painter carving out a space for herself in a very male dominated field – not simply painting, but painting the female nude – there is significance to this choice of subject. Saville’s body, her craft and her existence are all predicated on her understanding of femininity and the challenges inherent in that classification. Speaking of Propped, Saville observed: “The marks are like inscriptions on the flesh. As we go through life traces or memories both physical and psychological are left on the body; they almost help to produce your body” (Jenny Saville in conversation with Martin Gayford, in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery. Jenny Saville: Territories, 1999, p. 30). The present work, one of the greatest and most celebrated paintings of Saville’s career, can thus be read as a self-portrait not simply in terms of its source material but in terms of the conditions under which it was produced. Its scale, virtuosity and conceptual basis all reflect the defiance that characterises Saville’s work.
When Propped was first displayed at Jenny Saville’s degree show in Edinburgh in May 1992, a mirror was hung opposite the work, at a distance equal to the height of the painting. Although the work would later cease to be displayed in this fashion, with the artist’s blessing, an interrogation of the precise reasoning for this decision illustrates the tight conceptual basis that underpins all the greatest of Saville’s work. The fulcrum is the writing across the surface of the painting. One of only two paintings from the period where Saville directly incorporated text into her work, the other being Branded, in which stereotypically feminine adjectives – ‘delicate’, ‘supportive’, ‘pretty’ – are etched into the copious flesh of Saville’s subject, Propped depicts a woman gazing at her reflection in a clouded mirror. Gouged across the surface in a fashion reminiscent of Cy Twombly is a quote from ‘When Our Lips Speak Together’, an essay by the French feminist Luce Irigaray, which interrogates the way in which men and women interact. However, the quote is inverted and illegible. It is as though the viewer is standing on the voyeuristic side of a double-sided mirror, an impotent observer to a scene whose meaning is elusive. The quotation is intended for the subject’s consumption, as opposed to the viewers, and thus, with the mirror installed behind them, the viewer is presented with a choice: to face the painting, and thus act as the metaphorical mirror, or to turn, rendering the quote legible but in doing so implicating themselves in the artwork and making themselves the subject of the work through the reflection, albeit with an attendant loss of painterly luxuriance. Considered alongside Irigaray’s text, these roles of the reflected and the reflective take on a gendered significance.
In her essay, Irigaray posits that men use women as mirrors, forcing them to fill an impotent reflective role in order to satisfy male narcissism. As such, Irigaray suggests that women find themselves exhausting their strength on becoming something that is “barely alive”, a “glacial” and “mute” image of the men that surround them (Luce Irigaray, tr. Carolyn Burke, ‘When Our Lips Speak Together’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 6, No. 1, Autumn 1980, pp. 69-79). In the quote chosen and paraphrased by Saville in the present work – “If we continue to speak in this sameness – speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other. Again, words will pass through our bodies, above our heads – disappear, make us disappear” – Irigaray calls for an end to the dominance of male language, suggesting that in reflecting men through the use of male forms of expression, women are silenced and, ultimately, ‘disappear’. By depicting a woman in front of a mirror, Saville subverts the role of ‘woman as reflector’ and emphasises the power of women as subjects. However, this message of empowerment is tempered by an evident degree of self-loathing; Saville's figure claws at her flesh, struggling to exist within the narrow confines of the role prescribed to her by a patriarchal society, failing to reflect back at men the sanitised image of beauty that is demanded of her. As the artist has pointed out, she “grew up as a teenager in the 80s, when body regulation became huge… we had a cultural obsession with the body” (Jenny Saville in conversation with Martin Gayford, op. cit., p. 31). Indeed, there is a self-evident concern with the presentation of femininity and the immense pressure placed on women to subscribe to gendered notions of beauty inherent to this picture. The text itself is a mirror of the societal expectation Saville felt at the time of painting the work: “I wanted the text to act as a mirror, in which I could see my own position” (Jenny Saville in conversation with Martin Gayford, ibid., p. 30).
The presentation of femininity and the precise associations of feminine aesthetics are pivotal to Saville’s work. With the exception of a later series focussing on transgender people, the artist has almost exclusively painted women, and in doing so has sought to interrogate prescribed notions of beauty, specifically, our collective aversion to corpulence. In the artist’s words, “I’m interested in the power a large female body has – a body that occupies a lot of physical space, but also someone who’s acutely aware that our contemporary culture encourages her to disguise her bulk and look as small as possible” (Jenny Saville in conversation with Martin Gayford, ibid., p. 31). Her paintings thus present the viewer with a dichotomy; there is an intense sense of vulnerability that permeates Saville’s subjects, and yet their immense size belies this impression of fragility. The figures are almost maternal. They envelop the viewer’s vision, and generate a sense of child-like intimacy, as if you are sitting in your mother’s arms. Mark Rothko famously stated that his paintings should be viewed from a distance of 18 inches, and Saville says the same. The works are intended to encapsulate all that we perceive, to create a sense of intimacy through their immense scale, and until we turn and look in the mirror, distancing ourselves from the painting but simultaneously inserting ourselves into the artwork, that is precisely their effect. Either way, we are implicated.
The effect of the works’ size is not only to dwarf and infantilise the viewer however, but to intimidate them. Saville has said of these works that in them she “made a body that was too big for the frame, literally too big for the frame of art history… I wanted them to confront you and exist” (Jenny Saville in conversation with Simon Schama, in: Jenny Saville, New York 2005, p. 127). There is something declarative and insistent in these representations of women – their very existence as subjects that are “not the refined and evenly proportioned nudes of classical art… [but rather] bodies that are not at all beautiful in any conventional sense” is defiant (Michelle Meagher, ‘Jenny Saville and a Feminist Aesthetics of Disgust’, Hypatia, Vol. 18, No. 4, p. 23). Speaking of one of her great heroes, the artist observed: “What’s always attracted me about [Willem] de Kooning’s Women series is the way they grow out towards the frame”, and indeed it is a far more nuanced reading of those paintings to view de Kooning’s subjects as sexually commanding than to see them as sexually subjugated (Jenny Saville in conversation with Simon Schama, ibid., p. 127). Indeed, Saville's reading of de Kooning in this way finds its fullest expression in her painting, and notably within the immersive corporeality of Propped. Revolutionary in every sense, it is a work of remarkable art historical importance that occupies a defiant critical stance, and in this regard, utterly encapsulates the bold and energetic spirit of David Teiger’s collection.
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