British artist Jenny Saville (1970), one of the Young British Artists, deconstructs the stereotypes of beauty and eroticism of the female body as seen through art and through men, and then broadens them. She experiments with obese women and changes in the body, but above all she uses her own body as a model and means of reflection. She reveals the natural beauty of the individuality of the women she paints, and her own. Through the body, she expresses states of sensibility that bind us to our existence: uneasy, anguished, painful fleshiness… This defines her artistic language as much as her traditional pictorial technique. Figures are the sole focus of attention of her huge canvasses, which often cannot contain the whole figure in the same way that our selves cannot control our bodies. Her painting and her skill at drawing spawn a multiplicity of realities that build movement.
Your bodies experience anxiety, strangeness, sorrow... Do you recognize yourself in your multiple representations?
I think you are in everything that you make, to be honest. But I like to include everything, even to show sadness and violence. I want to encompass the whole world when I make art, I don’t want to exclude anything. The best work I’ve ever made has been through my instinct. When I try to be too clever or too analytical, it doesn’t work. I don’t ask myself too many questions during the making of the work because I follow my instinct. It holds a truth which is greater than the truth that I’m trying to get at through over-analyzing something. That was a lesson to me quite early on – that there’s something within that truth; that there are truths greater than knowledge. And if there’s a knowledge, sometimes you have to let go and follow your instinct to get to that greater truth. If you over-analyze or over-critique something, there’s almost no point in doing it. There’s no risk involved. I like the risk and the change and the transformation that’s possible in the making, and for me, that gets you to a greater art. It’s beyond reason. That’s what you’re trying to get… truth beyond reason. Because if you could write it down or you could speak about it, you wouldn’t need to make it.
Jenny Saville. Reverse, 2002 - 2003. Oil on canvas.© Jenny Saville. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery.
The figures in your drawings overlap as a plurality of identities. Your face is present in most of your portraits. Is identity an important subject for you?
It’s not really my identity… I lend my body to myself, that’s the way I’ve always looked at it. But sometimes people aren’t prepared to put themselves into as painful a position as my body is prepared to be in. I’ve been conscious - since I was very young - that one day I’m going to be under the ground, I’m going to be dust, I’m going to be nothing. So what’s the risk? There’s no real risk. What could it be? Judgment? That I have a different body? That I don’t have an ugly body? I don’t care about that. I care about trying to use my capacity as a human. How far can I go as a human to make something that’s interesting? It’s not really about whether it’s my identity or not. It’s about a human identity. If you look at the Velázquez dwarf paintings, there’s an identity that goes across all of humanity. Or a great Rembrandt portrait – it covers everybody. I’m not an old woman in a Rembrandt painting; I don’t know what it’s like to be a seventy year old woman, but I feel the humanity when I look at that painting, so that’s the way I’ve looked at it.
If my body can offer me the ability to get to something interesting, then I use my own body. If I can’t, then I work with somebody else. So it’s not about this endless self portrait, it’s just that I’m available and it’s the ability to use my body to say something or to get to the emotion that I’m trying to get at in the work.
Jenny Saville. Compass, 2013. Charcoal and pastel on paper on board. Photo: Steven Russell.
Where does your interest or fascination for imperfect, violated, wounded or operated on bodies come from?
I don’t really know. It’s something I’ve had since I was a child. If someone fell over, I wanted to see what had happened. It’s curiosity; I just have a curiosity for that. It’s also an aesthetic interest. I mean, I’m not so interested in a kind of surface beauty, I think there’s a certain humility to getting underneath the surface of something or being prepared to show the reality of something. There’s a humility involved in it that I find in the work that I like. If you look at ancient Greek theatre or Greek tragedy, and you’re harrowed by the emotions on stage and the extreme violence, somehow that gives you a humility in who you are as a human being in the face of gods, or in the face of the universe. You’re so small and nothing. I think that’s the drive, because that’s the kind of art I like across the board – whether it’s in film or music – it’s the art that touches that part of us.
You spoke earlier about the influence that clasical artists from the past have had on your work. There is also a carnal tradition on Western painting. What is your opinion on art from other eras?
I’ve naturally always looked at older art. Especially because if you paint the figure when you’re young and you’re trying to learn, you’re going to look at figurative painting. So I learned by looking at Titian, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Leonardo, Michelangelo… I was very lucky as I had an uncle who, from when I was eight, really taught me to look. Also, if you want to have a hero to look at, choose a really great artist, because that’s your measure. You can think that you’re great in the time that you live in, but you only have to look at really great artists and you’re a long way from that level. I’ve held that very dear to me, it’s become the backbone for the way that I work. However much I try, I’m never going to get to that. It’s a long journey to try and reach anything like that. And then I have had an interest that has switched or moved around… I mean, I have a team of players around me who I’m in constant dialogue with – artists like Picasso, Velázquez, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens – and then I have other art which is ancient Greek sculpture that I love, fertility goddesses from the ancient world, all of those. After I had children, I wanted to find an art that felt like the rawness of giving birth. I lived in Sicily for a long time, so being in Palermo around those myths and ancient history really linked me to that and the myths of the ancient Greek world… gods and goddesses and the power of fertility. So that seeped into my work a lot then and it’s a big driving force in my work now, especially in the drawings. A kind of creative urge. I’m much more interested in what the life force is of a creative urge, or how to make something and destroy it and bring it back. Through that cycle, which is basically a cycle of nature, you get to a greater truth, or a more interesting area of the work. I only really managed to do that through looking at ancient art.
Jenny Saville. Propped, 1992.© Jenny Saville. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery.
You also had a dialog, this time through an exhibition, with Egon Schiele at the Kunsthaus Zürich last year. What held the most significance to you from that experience?
The whole experience was an amazing journey. As a teenager, I absolutely loved his drawings… the honesty and the brutality of his drawings, of both himself and the females that he was drawing. My aesthetic interest led me to Egon Schiele at a very young age, so when I was asked to do a show together with his work, it was a dream. It was an incredible dialogue.
In that exhibition, the Schiele paintings were imbued with a strong eroticism. Is this also an important subject for you, do you think it is implied in your work?
It has become more and more important, I would say. Instead of erotic in a sexual sense, I would say erotic in a life force or drive. That’s really vital to my work, especially in the drawings, because of the way that I work now. It’s almost like a performance when I’m working, so I do sessions of working for four hours for example, where I draw lots of figures and they start to collapse and then I build them back up again. And through that whole physical process, like a game, new forms start to emerge from the nature of the drawing. So it is a sort of game where you get lost, and through it, you’re almost sculpting out a reality from the process of that moment. It’s almost like a dance or something; you create things that you didn’t know were in you.
Instead of one thing that represents what it is, when you multiply you get closer to a greater nature. That’s become very interesting for me and I’ve only really developed that in drawing because I can change so much and have several toes interlocking, or a male body over the top of a female body and that suddenly become a hermaphrodite. But I’m not drawing a hermaphrodite. I’m drawing many bodies together so that the gender becomes fluid. So parts of the male body become the female body, and that becomes really exciting because it almost represents more what we’re like as humans, rather than these separate sexes. We’re made up of masculinity and femininity, so those are the things that become interesting by layering them up.
Do you feel that you have a body or that you are a body?
Some artists like Michelangelo worked almost with God working through him; he was doing God’s work and there was a kind of divinity involved in it. God has been slipping away for most of us, but when we make work, I’m interested in what the drive is. When I’m working in the middle of the night and I’m trying to get to something, am I working with a wager on God’s existence? I don’t make work for an audience. I don’t make work thinking that I’m going to show this to an audience. But it’s definitely a form of communication. So it’s almost as though there is a third person involved, whether it’s God or whatever. That drives me to go further in the work, and I don’t know what that is.
Jenny Saville. Fulcrum, 1998 - 1999. Oil on canvas © Jenny Saville. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery.
Are you interested in the outside world?
Landscape is hugely interesting to me. Especially the sea… I spend hours looking at the water. I look at the way the light moves on the water. I get up early so that I can see the sun come up. But I don’t want to paint landscape paintings. I’m interested in all of those things. But I’ve never wanted to paint those directly, like I have with the body. And actually, the older that I get, the more closely related to nature I feel, or the more interested I am in depicting that. My mediation is through the body. All of my work really has been a sort of landscape; it’s the landscape of the body, or the architecture of the body in nature, or the nature of flesh, or the way that light affects a body.
What is art to you? What is your definition of art?
I would say the ability to have freedom. That’s fundamental. I really believe in imagination and inventiveness. It’s a combination of factors including humility, incredible hard work – it’s going to take a long time to have any kind of mastery in this – plus being brave enough to take a risk. When, in the work, if I’ve made something look really good and I sit back and think that it is looking good, that’s the moment that I try to destroy it, whereas before I’d polish it off. Now I’ll say well, that was easy access, or an easy journey to get there. Where else can you go? If you’re prepared to do it, you can get somewhere far greater. That takes a lot of hours and a lot of risk, but you’ve got nothing to lose. Why not try to invent something? I have learned through Picasso that the really good art lies in the ability of not knowing how to do something. And the journey of trying to articulate something you don’t know how to do is where the art is. If you know the journey that you’re walking, in a way there’s not much point in walking that journey. It’s in the struggle of trying to articulate something that almost seems impossible, but you’ve got a hint in your initiative to do it, or an instinct, and you follow it. That struggle to articulate it is really where you can find something interesting and Picasso is the artist I’ve found who can do that, so he’s really been a guide for me in the last few years.