Jenny Saville is for me, the greatest living figurative painter today. While various theories still abound on the positioning of figurative painting within contemporary art practice, Saville’s skill and virtuosity with any tool she picks up cuts across the majority of such theories with the sheer force of her talent. It is almost inconceivable that in a career spanning twenty years, this is the first-ever solo exhibition of her work in London. Some critics have said that Saville labours a little too much on the duality of the fleshiness of the female body and the nature of paint of canvas and indeed, I found the mother and child subject matter of her exhibition at Modern Art, Oxford a little bit too essentialist, but when her paintings are executed so marvellously, it should be as easy to allow her such obsessions as we do other artists with their own.
The distinction between painting and drawing is always blurred in Saville’s art and several of the pieces on display here show her characteristic collisions of charcoal, pastel and oil on canvas. Her subject matter remains predominantly the female form, but surely in paintings such as Olympia (2013-2014) and Odalisque (2012-2014), Saville is playing with art history depictions of the lone, passive female nude displayed for a male audience as rendered by artists such as Manet and Matisse. Saville subverts such depictions by again showing us very real women now joined by their lovers before, during or after sexual intercourse. These women are autonomous agents within the sexual act, sometimes completely absorbed, sometimes even bored – it is a reality, rather than a fantasy which Saville gives us here.
In the same way Saville’s mark marking has previously captured the horror and pain of surgical procedures, here she captures sexual energy. The splashing and dripping of her paint act as metaphors for bodily fluids being exchanged.
In The Realm of Mothers, III (2014)