Jenny Saville: Destroyer of False Fetishes (Fine Art Year One. January 2009.)

Jenny Saville: Destroyer of False Fetishes

Matrix is a work in oil on canvas, seven feet by ten feet, depicting a reclining nude with female breasts and hairless genitalia, but with a masculine, bearded face looking out at the viewer/ artist. The genitalia are thrust to the fore, making them much more of a focus in the picture than the gaze. The arms and legs of the figure are only partly seen, the extremities lying outside the boundary of the picture. The whole is painted in fairly naturalistic fleshy tones.

Matrix is a thoroughly post-modern nude. This picture makes a nonsense of the standard reading of the nude as set out by John Berger in Ways of Seeing – that the female nude is made for straight men.

The figure in Matrix does not look much like the idealised female form one might expect to feature as a nude. However, “the bodies in Saville’s paintings … may not be what most people would call beautiful, but they can’t be denied their grandeur”1 and this is part of a tradition that stretches back into prehistoric times, the portrayal of the female form, idealised as massive. In the modern era, this can be seen in the salacious cartoon work of Robert Crumb and the highly regarded paintings of Lucien Freud (Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, for example), with whom Jenny Saville is often compared. Further back in history, it can be seen in the work of Reubens and others, but the most obvious comparison would be with representations of female goddesses, earth mothers. Indeed, Linda Nochlin has described one work by Saville (Hem, 1998-1999), as being “a late-20th Century Venus of Willendorf”2, referring to a sculpture over twenty-five thousand years old, and one that is hardly unique, merely one of the best known examples of its type found throughout Europe and Asia.

Jenny Saville’s work is very often compared to that of Lucien Freud, and the similarities are obvious in that both artists are supremely concerned with flesh, the form and volume of the human body. The comparison with Lucien Freud should not be over-emphasised, and it may be significant that whenever this subject is brought up in interviews with the artist herself, Saville normally deals with it as quickly as possible before moving on. Jenny Saville’s nudes are, at least to my mind, much more aggressive and overwhelming than Lucien Freud’s. Also, Freud’s subjects are usually in an identifiable studio setting, placing them firmly in the real world, whereas Jenny Saville’s subjects rarely occupy such a definite space.

When asked whether this comparison with Freud annoys her, Jenny Saville has remarked that this an unsurprising link to make, given the shared subject matter and Freud’s pre-eminence in this area of British realism, but that she doesn’t want to be seen as a follower of his3. Saville makes it quite clear that more important influences on her work are Willem De Kooning, who she describes as her “main man”4, and Francis Bacon. She holds De Kooning in high regard as a painter, praising his ability, but prefers to maintain a high level of realism in her own practice. That said, she recognises that within the boundary of the flesh within her own work, there is abstract art, “the landscape of the brush marks.”5 The work of Bacon displays monstrous distortions of flesh that Saville’s shares (and both have been inspired to produce works based on that of Velasquez); again, Saville favours a certain realism.

Dismissing the comparisons with Lucien Freud, Linda Nochlin has claimed that Saville’s work has more in common with conceptual and feminist performance art, but Jenny Saville is emphatically a painter, claiming that she “can’t look at any other contemporary art … because …it gives me other options.”6 Almost all her work has been in painting, the most notable exception being a series of photographs produced in collaboration with Glen Luchford. She says that she is able “look at old art because it gives (her) a sort of linkage to some tradition”, which suggests that she sees herself as part of this tradition of painters, claiming that it is only a small number of artists (including Cy Twombly, De Kooning, Bacon, Velasquez, and Titian) that “give clues or answers to what I’m looking for.”7

The visual language of the pose in Matrix is very similar to that of the pin-up, of pornography, and of the contact magazine. In a different context, Matrix would not be about anything other than the crude, eroticised display of specific parts of the body. This language has been adopted from outside of fine art, particularly by feminist artists, and Saville would be familiar with this appropriation, having begun to read feminist art theory as far back as her scholarship at the University of Cincinnati (during her degree at the Glasgow School of Art).

Painted in 1999, Matrix must be seen in the context of 1970s feminist art history, and also the gay and lesbian art histories of the 1980s. Saville’s model is Del LaGrace Volcano, an artist who is also a self-declared intersex and whose own body is a component of his/her work. No longer identifying as a woman, Del emphasises male characteristics but does not want to be male. Presumptions like Berger’s can no longer be made about the sex and sexuality of the viewer, or even the subject of a work of art, Saville having been described as “a destroyer of false fetishes in terms of the tradition of the nude.”8


Berger, John. Ways of Seeing (London: Routledge, 1974)

Eccher, Danilo. Jenny Saville (Milan: Mondadori Electa, 2005)

Gagosian Gallery. Territories (England: The Colourhouse, 1999)

John, Elton. ‘Jenny Saville’, Interview (October 2003 edition)

Kuspit, Donald. ‘Jenny Saville’, ArtForum (December 1999 edition)

Leppert, Richard. The Nude: Cultural Rhetoric of the Body in the Art of Western Modernity (USA: Westview Press, 2006

Nochlin, Linda. ‘Floating in Gender Nirvana’, Art in America (March 2000 edition)

Ross, Peter. ‘Bringing Home the Bacon’, The Sunday Herald (September 17, 2000 edition)

Schama, Simon. Jenny Saville (New York: Rizzoli, 2005)

1 Barry Schwabsky , ‘Jenny Saville: Unapologetic’, Jenny Saville (Milan: Mondadori Electa, 2005), p.87

2 Linda Nochlin, ‘Floating in Gender Nirvana’, Art in America (March 2000 edition)

3 Elton John, ‘Jenny Saville’, Interview (October 2003 edition)

4 ibid

5 ibid

6 ibid

7 ibid

8 Simon Schama, Jenny Saville (New York: Rizzoli, 2005), p.126


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