“Human perception of the body is so acute and knowledgeable that the smallest hint of a body can trigger recognition.”

—Jenny Saville

Born in 1970, Jenny Saville is a contemporary artist famous for her self-portraits and figural painting depicting fleshy, obese females. These monumental artworks are characterized by exaggerated realness and blatantly highlight flaws that counter the classical representation of female bodies in art.

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Jenny Saville_©Jenny Saville

The portrayal of folded flesh, redness of the skin, and veins capture the inherent vulnerability, solidity, and power of the female form. Her work is a synthesis of ancient Renaissance portraiture, cubism, abstract expressionism , and fauvist art styles . The precise depiction of human flesh comes from her study of the extremities of the female body which she observed through plastic surgeries and her hours at the morgue.  

Jenny Saville’s career has been glorious from the very beginning. Her works have been a part of top galleries and exhibitions. These include Saatchi Gallery, London, Gagosian Gallery, New York, Museum of Art, Norton Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Art and many more. The artist continues to challenge society’s perception of the perfectionism of the female form and counters the male gaze-centric approach of art. 

Some of her most famous works include – Propped (1992), The Plan (1993), Closed Contact (1995-96), Fulcrum (1999), Hyphen (1999), Reverse (2002), Rosetta II (2005-06), Mothers(2011), Mirror (2011), Prism (2020), etc. 

1. Propped (1992)

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Propped_©Jenny Saville

Propped launched Jenny Saville’s career and brought her a lot of fame. This groundbreaking artwork sought to challenge the preconceived notions of female beauty in ancient art forms. It transgressed the cultural aversion to corpulence by distorting the male gaze. The self-portrait shows Jenny Saville gazing at her hazy mirror image while self-loathing in her struggle to fit into the prescribed feminine role. A feminist quote on the mirror faces the subject questioning the way men and women interact. This artwork was one of the most wondrous paintings by the artist that was auctioned for a whopping sum of £6.8 million.

2. The Plan (1993)

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The Plan_©Jenny Saville

The Plan is Jenny Saville’s striking self-portrait depicting herself as a nude woman struggling to fit in the frame. The artwork was revolutionary at the time as it had a rather unique take on nude female imagery, where a nude female was looked at as the subject instead of the object. The remarkable artwork captures the minutest details of the body, from veins, and fleshy folds, to the texture of the skin. The contour-like lines on the body depict the supposedly problematic terrain of the body, often disguised as fat. Through this, she brings attention to the issues around the female body, and the cult of exercise that encourages plastic surgeries. The artwork is emblematic of her concern around the constructed perfect image of the female form that makes weighty women feel disgusted about every little flaw in their bodies.    

3. Closed Contact (1995-96)

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Closed Contact_©Jenny Saville

Closed Contact was a photographic series in collaboration with Glen Luchford. The images used Jenny Saville as a model, that later translated into a fresh series of self-portraiture. The emotive crux of these images depicts the violence and anesthetized pain of transformation plastic surgeries. The abnormal distorted forms depicted in the painting conjure viewer with a sense of visceral uneasiness. This discomfort is triggered by our monstrous virtues of not being able to comprehend shapes beyond the normal form. Nonetheless, the paintings quintessentially capture flesh, tonality, color, and repulsive facts of the human form.  

4. Fulcrum (1999)

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Fulcrum_©Jenny Saville

Fulcrum is a monumental artwork depicting three weighty figures laying on top of one another. At a glance, it appears like an enormous flesh blob struggling to fit into the frame. The scale and the form seem to demand comparison with grand sculptures and follow a language of plasticity and grotesqueness. This artwork by Jenny Saville is a continuation of her neo-expressionist weighty depictions of human forms.  

5. Hyphen (1999)

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Hyphen_©Jenny Saville

Hyphen portrays Jenny Seville and her sister as wearers of social scars. The close-up head shots of the chubby cherubs have a somewhat unsettling quality seen in the way the rosy red lips strokes go. These vigorous sharp tones denote the silent violence of the societal beauty standards. It uses contradiction on the soft parts of the face presenting an interrogation of how we define beauty.  The artwork subtly continues the former thread that challenges societal beauty standards. 

6. Reverse (2002)

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Reverse_©Jenny Saville

Jenny Saville’s style briefly changes after her initial nude self-portraits to a colorful spirited facial portraiture. In Reverse she embraces the cracked appearance of her skin and uses tones of reds and browns to indicate what’s beneath. The portrait seemingly ‘reveals hints of her insides’. The stance taken for this painting makes it appear as if she’s breaking down with the mouth being the main focal point of the composition. Another significant evolutionary feature of this artwork is the fact the subject is no longer looking in the mirror and faces the audience.  

7. Rosetta II (2005-06)

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Rosetta_©Jenny Saville

Rosetta II is the portrait of a blind woman represented as an anxious young woman fiercely facing the world. Jenny Saville met Rosetta in Naples and was intrigued by her beauty. She describes her experience of painting Rosetta as one of the most beautiful experiences of her entire life. Timid at first, Rosetta trusted Saville for representing her to the world. The beautiful depiction of her sculpted face twisted to unveil her sky-blue light became a masterpiece comparable to famous Renaissance artworks like Antonello da Messina’s painting of the Virgin Annunciate.     

8. Mothers (2011)

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The Mothers_©Jenny Saville

Mothers is a chaotic self-portrait of pregnant Jenny Saville. She is seen struggling to hold two writhing infants over her swollen belly. The figures are drawn multiple times in grades to depict movement, dynamism, and simultaneity of activities. This mixed media artwork, like most of Saville’s work, challenges the former depictions of females in Renaissance art. With Mothers, she began her investigation on how a mother’s body changes during pregnancy. She combined her motherly emotions with her interest in fleshy human forms and reinvented her style as a spillage between a drawing and a painting.   

9. Mirror (2011)

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Mirror_©Jenny Saville

Mirror represents the History of Reclining Nudes in art. This artwork is the overlapping collage of Manet’s Olympia , Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus , the angular limbs of Picasso’s early nudes, and Jenny Saville’s self-portrait. Here, the artist doubles up as both the object and subject by using a mirror. The charcoal work attempts to create simultaneous realities into the same image. The dissimilar iterations of the reclining nude by different artists throughout history, how they sit next to each, and how we interpret them now are beautifully captured in this piece. 

10. Prism (2020)

Prism_©Jenny Saville and Gagosian Gallery

Prism is a result of Jenny Saville’s latest experimentation with pastels. It is a juxtaposed composition of layered portraits in fiery tones. There are around 30 faces in the painting, she started with charcoal and tones of red and kept on adding layers organically. The resulting eclectic mix is one of the most dynamic and exciting bodies of work ever produced by Jenny Saville. 

References:

  1. Saville, J., 2022. Jenny Saville Paintings, Bio, Ideas . [online] The Art Story. Available at: [Accessed 7 August 2022].
  2. 2022. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 August 2022].
  3. Artincontext.org. 2022. Jenny Saville – Exploring Jenny Saville’s Paintings and Contribution to Art . [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 August 2022].
  4. 2022. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 August 2022].
  5. Archives Fine Books. 2022. Closed Contact by Jenny SAVILLE, Glen LUCHFORD, Katherine DUNN on Archives Fine Books . [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 August 2022].
  6. Npr.org. 2022. NPR Cookie Consent and Choices . [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 August 2022].
  7. Rebecca Cameron. 2022. A Contextual Text of a Piece of Work – Jenny Saville – Reverse . [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 August 2022].
  8. Italy News. 2022. Jenny Saville Exhibition, Florence- Italy News . [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 August 2022].
  9. The Brooklyn Rail. 2022. JENNY SAVILLE with Jason Rosenfeld . [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 August 2022].
Author

Namita Dhawan is an architect and a writer. She is extremely enthusiastic about architecture, design, history, research, and writing. She believes architecture is about power, it can provoke thoughts, and emotions, and control the actions of the users subtly.

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