Painting on a monumental scale, says the British artist Jenny Saville, “has always felt right for me”. Visiting museums as a child and student, she saw that the great painters taken most seriously by history, whether Michelangelo, Rubens, Velázquez or Jackson Pollock, made big works. She was also keenly aware that women were absent among the makers, but were everywhere in art subjected to male attention. Now her monumental and uncompromising depictions of the naked female form occupy key locations in five historic venues in Florence. Her fascination with the body and tradition is displayed alongside the same masters that instilled in her a love of paint and the human figure.
Jenny Saville’s exhibition consists of 100 paintings and drawings distributed across five historic museums. The result might be unwieldy for the visitor, but this solo presentation, the largest of her career so far, abounds with extraordinary confrontations: between history and the present, and between spontaneous fluid gesture and solid bodily structure.
Perhaps the most striking encounter occurs in Palazzo Vecchio. Installed on a plain, freestanding background in the Salone dei Cinquecento and surrounded by the room’s imposing decoration and massive frescoes by Vasari is Jenny Saville’s canvas Fulcrum (1998–99). Only this location could make a huge painting, four metres wide, appear small. Yet, close to, the viewer is enclosed by a painted terrain of human flesh. Three reclining female bodies seem to merge together in an alarming way. Boundaries between forms disappear, so that navigating the composition becomes difficult. Unfolding across these surfaces are multiple narratives of existence that have accrued over time. The body, the painting insists, is never neutral: it is a constantly active ground, capable of change.
Saville acknowledges Fulcrum as a physical and logistical challenge from which she learned much. The struggle became part of the work, communicated by the awkwardness of the women’s poses: they almost wrestle themselves into position. That effort is evident, too, in the paint itself. Tones move back and forth in strokes and marks to build up a vast area, which expresses weight, volume and the sheer humaneness of her models, shaped by light like a great landscape. Whereas the Renaissance masters sought an ideal of beauty in the figure, Saville projects its power. Her work shocks with its direct and violent representation of human vulnerability as well as its strength. Balances of that nature define her approach. In Fulcrum, the artist observes how flesh holds itself within its structure when weighed down by gravity. Death and life are almost interchangeable as identities shift between subjective representation and dynamic abstraction.
Yet this artist is unquestionably dedicated to the figure. In contemporary terms, her focus is unusual. Saville emerged in the 1990s with the phenomenon of the Young British Artists (YBAs). Unlike her peers, who included Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, she was fascinated by the oldest idiom of all: painting people. Others questioned her choice at first. But travels with her artist and art historian uncle had introduced her to Michelangelo’s unfinished Slaves in the Accademia and to altarpieces by Titian and Tintoretto in Venice. Those experiences established her lifelong allegiance to the titans of the past.
This exhibition takes place with that link to the greats in mind. At Casa Buonarotti, Michelangelo’s psychologically intense drawing of the Virgin holding her son (1525) is placed near Saville’s drawing of the same subject (2019–21). Motherhood has been revelatory for Saville and here she holds her own infant child. At the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, the artists meet again with Saville’s Pietà I (2019–21) conversing with the Bandini Pietà (c.1547–55). Just as Michelangelo modelled for his own Nicodemus, Saville assumes the identity of sitter. Her large-scale drawing has sculptural qualities that echo the linear complexity of Michelangelo’s carving. Now working from photographs rather than life, she layers five figures, one over the other, in a tumble of limbs and contained energy, who attempt to hold the single, lifeless corpse of a male.
Jenny Saville, Rosetta II, 2005-06
Oil on paper, mounted on panel 252 x 187.5 cm
99 3/16 x 73 13/16 in
© Jenny Saville. All rights reserved, DACS 2021
Private collection. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian
Saville survives in that company through force of image rather than subtlety. Elsewhere, she takes on Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and the Della Robbias. Her women are vigorous and emphatic, beckoning the standard critical response that her work has a political purpose. That dimension undoubtedly exists but alongside other concerns of equal importance, such as perceiving a range of significance in her figures simultaneously and exploring the aura of reality in her “unartistic” poses and the scientific examination to which she exposes them.
During a studentship in New York in the early 1990s, she watched cosmetic surgeons at work, moving flesh around to alter their clients’ appearances. The brutality of these procedures prompted the fragile nature of personal identity in work that has also featured mortuary records of violent crime and transgender sitters. She studied anatomy to understand better how bodies are put together and then applied a similar approach to the make-up of painting. As a result, her paintings look to have been dismantled in terms of line, colour and time, and then remade. Memory plays a part, filtering remembered faces and past art into the process of layering together a new composition. The fluidity of this process is apparent in Byzantium (2018). It has been inserted among Gothic masterpieces at the Museo degli Innocenti and shares their reflective gold background. The motif of the Pietà becomes even more despondent and desperate as an idol-like figure holds onto a young man decomposing into the bare bones of the painting—its paint, drawing and fabric—to leave little hope of resurrection. Allusion to the current migrant crisis, and the conflicts causing it, is not far-fetched.
Saville draws inspiration from abstract art as much as figuration. Paintings often start by throwing paint onto the canvas to establish the tonality of the piece that gets it going. The colour pitch is heightened towards artificiality, especially in recent canvases, and the trail of the brush is visible, flipping paint and registering the artist’s restless, notational method. Willem de Kooning remains a strong influence as does Cy Twombly.
Many commentators speak of Saville in the same breath as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. That judgement might be premature, although one encounter in this show is breath-taking. The former chapel in the palazzo occupied by the Museo Novecento was restored with help from Saville’s American dealer, Larry Gagosian, to display Rosetta II (2005–6). Placed above the altar, a decision which itself is surprising, the anxious face of a young woman twists into the light to show her sky-crystal blue eyes. They dictate the tone of the work—blue like Antonello da Messina’s painting of the Virgin Annunciate in Palermo—but, with shock, it is clear they are sightless. On this occasion, Saville found a way to access beauty as well as impact.
Museo Novecento, Casa Buonarotti, Museo degli Innocenti, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio
Until February 20, 2022