I first encountered Jenny Saville’s work, alongside that of Tracey Emin, Chris Ofili, Damien Hirst and others, when she was included in the newsworthy, even notorious, Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997. More recently, two of her canvases were shown at Tate Britain as part of All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a century of Painting Life. One linked her with that loose agglomeration of mainly young and controversial artists short-handed as YBAs; the other positioned her within the broader tradition of representational painters of the human figure – the body. Only with the survey that forms the major part of the current NOW show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One) in Edinburgh, did I have the opportunity to see as broad a selection of her work in one place – seventeen pieces ranging from the 1992 “Propped” to “Aleppo” from 2017/18.
The effect is to be – let’s step aside from any art speak here – gob-smacked, slapped into consciousness. First it’s the size – these are big canvasses and in this perfectly hung exhibition they are granted the space they deserve; then its the paint – the thickness, richness of the paint – and the flesh, the flesh of female bodies, faces – flesh that is almost overwhelming, overwhelmingly real, faces that are torn yet tender.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Saville studied anatomy, that she has or had a particular interest in plastic surgery, that the many images she has collected range from those illustrating war wounds to the physical abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Pain manifests itself in some of these paintings, cruelty even. And yet there is a tenderness here – call it love, even – sympathy, affection.
I came to see the material of paint as a kind of liquid flesh I could mould in my hands.
Astonishing, that’s what these paintings are, astonishingly real. Look, look away, look again; look up close at the sworls and gouges of paint, paint dragged across the surface of the canvas, the surface of the body. Women’s bodies.
The history of art has been dominated by men, living in ivory towers, seeing women as sexual objects. I paint women as most women see themselves. I try to catch their identity, their skin, their hair, their heat, their leakiness.
NOW is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until September 16th.