We spent the day in Oxford today, mainly to see this solo exhibition of Jenny Saville’s work at Modern Art Oxford and the Ashmolean. I regard Saville as one of the greatest painters of our generation, and have always been attracted to the visceral sensuality of her work. She works from images, and has a particular fascination with medical and surgical images. I obviously relate to this as my own fascination led me into medical school. She sees the photographic work as a structure upon which the paint can take over, and regards her paintings as landscapes of flesh or portraits of emotion rather than figurative portraiture in its traditional sense. You can see how she enjoys moving the paint around the canvas, pushing and stroking it as you would with flesh.
The new work in this exhibition mainly consists of a series of large scale drawings, built up in layers to create a dynamism and energy that I don’t think I have seen before. Some images reference art history and traditional portrayal of the nude paired with her own imagery on top. The result is an interesting dialogue between past and present that sits easily together. In an interview on the Modern Art Oxford website, Saville explains the immediacy and timelessness of drawings such as Leonardos sketches, that always make them feel contemporary as opposed to paintings that are frozen in the time they are made. She has been emormously influenced by the experience of pregnancy and motherhood, and drawing provided a way of recording changes more quickly than a painting that can take many months. The multiple layers in the sketch above convey the movement of the child, and struggle to keep him on her lap. The drawings retain the intimacy I admire in her paintings and the quality of mark making and line was awe inspiring.
In the retrospective part of the exhibition, I found the paintings from her time in Sicily the most captivating as the light influenced her colour palette. Her background colours tend to be either intense blue-greens or lilac, which both accentuate the flesh tones and push the figures forwards. She also tends to use flecks of primaries in the focal points of the paintings which bring an energy to the painting. On paintings with lilac background such as ‘Red Stare IV’ she predominantly uses lemon yellow in this way, but in ‘Entry’ she uses blue accents on a sallow khaki flesh capturing the moment between life and death perfectly. There was an ambiguity in this balance that works beautifully.
In ‘Passage’ pictured below, I was interested in the decision to use bright cyan, as blue is usually a gender specific colour. It also works well with the defiant icy expression of the figure. A lot of Savilles paintings are disjointed, and the torso was one of the more unified in the exhibition, which makes sense as it is the unity of breasts and male genitalia that is the focus of the piece. The pose is reclining and almost submissive, which is at odds with the aggressive sexuality of her genitals being thrust towards the viewer.