Jenny saville and the theatre of self-importance: Alexander Adams examines the reputation of one of the original young British artists

Branded, one of Saville’s earliest pictures, painted in 1992, fetched £1,497,250, double its low estimate, when sold at Christie’s

Most YBAs achieved prominence by recasting genuine avant-garde art in a palatable commercial form, influenced by advertising and pop culture, and served up to a credulous public largely ignorant of the original sources of the art. (Something Julian Stallabrass discusses in his book High Art Lite.) Jenny Saville was seen as one exception by virtue of the facts she studied in Glasgow, not Goldsmith’s College, and painted figures representationally in a non-ironic manner. Yet on closer study, Saville is not dissimilar to her YBA peers. Since paintings were acquired from her college studio,  Saville’s paintings have changed from billboard Lucian Freuds to hybrids of Freud, Bacon and de Kooning. Her painting rests upon adapting recent art and presenting it in a more extreme form (larger than that by the original artists), shorn of the original art’s foundations and complex origins, just as the art of other YBAs does.

The paintings have been described as “monumental” by writers who cannot differentiate between monumental and big. Likewise, painting something from a very close viewpoint (a Saville tic) does not convey monumentality or help us comprehend the mass of a figure.  Monumentality has nothing to do with size; it has do with the impression of size, which can be conveyed through adjusting the size of a motif relative to the picture surface, elimination of detail, lowering the observer’s viewpoint of the motif, reduction of colour, simplification of form and emphasis on the mass of a motif. Picasso could achieve this concisely in modestly sized paintings and drawings  (those of the Boisgeloup period, the Dinard bathers and the Gosol figures), as can any artist who applies the principles. Painting fat figures on large surfaces tells us nothing about fatness but it 301 Moved Permanently reveals the painter’s insecurity, her need to bolster insubstantial depictions of bodies by expanding them to cinema-screen scale.

Looking at Saville’s paintings is like opening the sketchbook of a teenage art student. There is the preoccupation with “body issues”, a reliance on photographs, the modish twist of gender-change surgery and emulation of the most obvious recent painters of the nude. Saville fails to realise that some great painters are bad influences and looking at artists you paint like (or aspire to paint like) can be damaging practice. (The recent drawn pastiches of Leonardo da Vinci show that Saville emulates rather than assimilates.) Saville’s imagery often relates to surgery, including blood

and wounds. (Bacon spoke about the beauty of wounds thus Saville paints from surgical photographs.) Louise Bourgeois can make shocking and gripping images of bodies in small rough sculptures lacking virtuosity. Bourgeois’s metaphors can slip under the skin while Saville hammers away with ponderous literalness, emphatically insisting on the seriousness of her subject. There is neither setting nor context for figures because Saville likes painting flesh, so that is what she paints and it is all she paints.Yet flesh – like all substances – exists in context.

Freud may have trouble with composition and proportion but he understands, and can paint, flesh. Saville cannot. Regardless of the ostensible subject, the appearance of flesh is dictated by the period of her style not any close observation and differentiation of subject. Her early paintings employ cloudy masses of conventional “flesh” tones.  Tangles of brushmarks, arranged to give an impression of impetuosity,  make up her later paintings. The seeming absence of pentimenti in the later paintings is because Saville’s formula is designed to give the impression of exploration and boldness. There is no need for revision because the subject is not a figure; the subject is Jenny Saville’s brushmarks. Saville is the Singer Sargent of the self-harming generation.

Why do all her figures tend towards sameness? Where is the concentration on describing the essence of an individual or situation?  Where is modest and patient observation? For sure, these qualities are sometimes missing from great figure paintings but those are paintings by artists of a magnitude of achievement and accomplishment many times that of Saville, artists with substantial range. Rembrandt could paint with consummate accomplishment but that never overwhelmed his humanity, empathy and breadth of understanding.

For example, consider Saville’s Passage (2004) a painting of a preoperative transsexual and Christian Schad’s Agosta, the Pigeon-Chested Man, and Rasha, the Black Dove (1929).While both paintings are nominally about human objects of curiosity, Saville’s painting is prurient and self-indulgent, filling in a canvas over 3 metres high, whereas Schad’s is a restrained, clear-eyed yet sympathetic, touching depiction of outcasts, on a canvas slightly higher than 1 metre. Schad has painted diligently and self-effacingly, the very model of a painter of humanity and has made a testament to the dignity of his subjects.

Flesh is such a various and vivid landscape that it is incomprehensible that a painter supposedly

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dedicated to depicting it could reduce this rich spectrum to the bloody slatherings Saville serves us with. Saville has remained a painter with an adolescent’s taste for sensation and self-absorption, her progress stymied by being taken seriously when she was an undergraduate. Collectors, dealers and critics are partly culpable for Saville’s failures. For those who appreciate and revere great painters of the flesh, Saville’s bombastic and egotistical pictures, her simulacra of adventurous figuration, will not bear prolonged scrutiny.

Alexander Adams is an artist and writer based in Berlin.

The Jackdaw May-Jun 2011