Jenny Saville, The Candid Figure Artist Blurring Traditional and Contemporary Art

British artist Jenny Saville is best known for her chromatic, tasteful oils of the female body and face. She is heralded for the contemporary renewal of traditional oil painting, and her style has been compared to that of Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Lucian Freud. “Painting is my natural language. I feel in my own universe when I’m painting” she remarks.

Jenny Saville was born in 1970 in Cambridge, England. From a young age, she was fascinated with the details and nuances of the human body and its movements. She was especially intrigued by the “taboos” of the human figure, the normal details like fat rolls and acne that society superficially deemed ugly, average or undesirable. She graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 1992 and went on to earn a fellowship at the University of Connecticut in 1994. While doing her fellowship, she observed a plastic surgeon in New York City and was drawn in by the way the surgeon worked with flesh like an artist might work with a textile.

From thereon, she delved into medical books and Renaissance interpretations of multiple bodies, such as a mother and child embracing. She became a member of the Young British Artists (YBAs), a famous group of painters and sculptors that loosely exhibited together in the 80s. She has since grown astoundingly and has exhibited internationally, including in Istanbul, New York City, Copenhagen, Munich and more.

She blurs the lines between classical figure studies and modern progressive ideas of natural human bodies and their distortions. She celebrates different bodies, but also represents the less-than desirable emotions that can come with having a body deemed unattractive by societal standards. Unlike the painted nude ideals of the past, her bodies are distinctly less than conventionally-attractive. That, to many viewers, is the beauty of her work. She also has been admired for restoring more traditional forms of oil painting in a contemporary art sphere.

Additionally, once she had two children, her outlook on her career gained a soft depth unique to the knowledge of mothers. She said, “People told me [before I had children] that I wouldn’t be able to engage with my work in the same way once they were born… They were guys. Anyway, they were wrong. I enjoy the work 10 times more now. It’s still a necessity to me, something I have to do. But I’m more carefree. Partly, it’s watching them – the total freedom [my children] have, scribbling across paper, the way they paint without any need for form. I thought: I fancy a bit of that myself.”


Featured image credits: “Jenny Saville in her Oxford studio” by dou_ble_you is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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