The Body Beautiful

Already renowned for her paintings of large, naked female torsos, JENNY SAVILLE is now going one step further, examining how women are viewed and how they see themselves. She speaks to Lila Rawlings about art, life and beauty and gives The List readers an exclusive preview of her new work. All photographs by Jenny Saville and Glen Luchford.

uestion: What have Glen Luchford’s black and white photos of wonderwaif Kate Moss modelling the latest Calvin Klein undies. and Jenny Saville’s gigantic paintings of hulking naked women got in common? Answer: Not much. At least on the surface that is. The fact that Luchford and Saville have been working together on a project for the last few months suggests there is something more to this unlikely coupling than meets the eye.

Jenny Saville’s story is the stuff that dreams are made of. At the age of 22, fresh from Glasgow School of Art, she was commissioned by Charles Saatchi to produce a series of paintings for the Young British Artists show in London. When the doors of the Saatchi Gallery opened. the media went into a frenzy and the public came in droves. Audiences were diminished in front of the seven giant canvases of sumo-sized naked women, grotesque and resplendent in their fleshiness. The show gained more column inches than Damien Hirst’s sensationalist dead shark in a tank and Rachel Whiteread’s controversial reverse space extravaganza House put together. Waldemar Januszczak, pundit of the visual arts loved it, so did the Manic Street Preachers who used the triptych Strategy for the cover of their Holy Bible album.

Now 24, Saville is on her second commission from Saatchi for ten more paintings to be produced over the next few years. In March this year, Plan, Saville’s painting of a naked giantess whose body has been marked up with ‘target’ areas ready for plastic surgery, was awarded Glasgow’s Lord Provost prize of £12,000. Voted by the people of Glasgow as the best of five paintings, it left even Ken Currie’s work standing.

Like many other students, Saville spent her time at art school juggling her painting with holding down various jobs to supplement her grant and keep the bank manager at bay. Glasgow School of Art, with its commitment to figurative painting, provided the perfect environment for her to develop her skills as a

painter while concentrating on her interest in representing the body. ‘Glasgow is a unique art school in that it teaches you to have total, almost romantic belief in being a painter,’ she says. ‘Maybe it’s something to do with the building and its tradition. It has a history of painters who are out there in the world doing it. I suppose it’s really a feeling that goes through the place that constantly reminds you that you are in a school of great painting. It celebrates big work, it likes painting that makes a splash.’

As a painting student, life classes were compulsory but Saville was beginning to feel increasingly frustrated with the traditional relationship she felt existed between artist and model. She was also particularly aware that the history of figurative painting had been a male bastion for too long: men were the artists, women their models. In painting, the female body existed as a passive, idealised object to be looked at, with all the lumps, bumps and curves adjusted according to what was considered aesthetically pleasing at the time. ‘I wanted to acknowledge the fact that women have always been models for male painters, rather than ignore it,’ says Saville. ‘I thought it was really important to look at the way women are forced to constantly assess themselves. their body shape etc, because they are always being looked at. I didn’t want the power position of looking at somebody else. I wanted to smudge the power boundary between object and subject.’

By placing perspex across a platform and lying naked on top of the structure, Saville found that her body, photographed from underneath, appeared to have the same distorted, grotesque look as the flesh she had seen sucked and tucked in Dr Wientraub’s surgery.

The press has repeatedly compared Saville to Lucian Freud. Yes. she’s a British artist who paints naked bodies, but in terms of what she’s trying to do with her painting, all comparison stops there. She is more akin to American photographer Cindy Sherman, who also uses her own body as the model for her pictures. In her Untitled Film Still series, Sherman flirts with hundreds of ‘fictional’ images of woman familar in movies the hooker, the femme fatale, the girl next door etc. Her work is about the disparity between how a woman is looked at, how she is defined by her appearance and how she actually feels inside.

While training in Glasgow, Saville won a place on an exchange programme to Cincinatti art school where she hardened up many of her ideas. A women’s studies course introduced her to a new kind of feminist writing that inspired and excited her. Many of the female artists she

met in the States at this time rejected painting. especially the figurative kind, as too ‘establishment’ and steeped in traditional ‘male’ values. Their views had a profound effect on Saville and, for a while at least, she lost the desire to paint altogether. This didn’t last for long and after spending time with her it is easy to see why. Jenny Saville was born to paint: she radiates a kind of quiet confidence characterised by her down-to-earth, no bullshit approach to her work that blows any misconceived assumption of her as a ‘precious artist’ right out of the water.

On returning to Glasgow. she found a way of fusing her theoretical ideas with her painting, which culminated in her graduation show in the summer of 1992. It was this work that impressed Charles Saatchi and prompted the Young British Artist commission which she worked on for eight months, a virtual recluse in her Queen’s Park flat.

By the time the Saatchi show closed in August 1994, Saville was exhausted and badly in need of some time to get her head together and reflect on things. Invited by wealthy art collectors Bob and Susan Kasen Summer to visit their artists’ studio and retreat in Connecticut, she was on the next plane she could manage. Her painting Plan had inspired ideas for a new series of work exploring plastic surgery. America land of the nose job - seemed the perfect place to find plenty of good source material.

Susan Kasen Summer put her in touch with Dr Wientraub, one of New York’s top plastic surgeons, who allowed her to sit in on operations and chat to patients. ‘In America, there’s an attitude that plastic surgery is almost a necessity,’ says Saville. ‘One sixteen-year—old girl wanted a new nose for her prom and her mother was paying for the operation. I saw a lot of breast implants, which are almost comical to watch because they can only put the silicon bags into the body with a certain amount of water in them so that they have to be inflated afterwards. One woman who was an A cup wanted to be a D cup!’

Saville became fascinated by the treatment of clients as patients. ‘There’s a definite feeling that these people are unwell, that surgery will make them “better”,’ she says. Many women she encountered were going back to work after having children and felt they couldn’t compete in the job market: ‘lt’s really quite sad that these women believe a pulled-back face will help them, but ultimately it’s about how you feel about yourself and most of the women I spoke to really did feel better about themselves after surgery.’

Back in Connecticut, she began to think of a new way of working by smearing paint on glass to make it look like a body that has been sliced up. In order to get the right kind of source material for this work, Saville, with the help of

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