Two years ago, a painting by Jenny Saville set a record at auction for the highest price paid for a work by a living female artist, but the British painter doesn’t like to think about that too much. “I try to keep my eye firmly on the art; the painting is the same painting as it was before the auction,” she says matter-of-factly, when we meet in her drawing studio in Oxford.
The painting in question is the gargantuan, corpulent self-portrait, Propped, created in 1992 and one of five works by Saville to have been exhibited in the Sensation show of Young British Artists (YBAs) that caused such a stir at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1997. The seven-foot-tall canvas sold for £9.5 million.
“That’s crazy money, but at the same time, compared to Jeff Koons’ bunny, it’s not crazy,” Saville says, referring to the US artist’s stainless-steel leporine sculpture, Rabbit, which fetched an eye-watering US$91.1 million at auction in 2019, making Koons the most expensive living male artist. By any standard it represents a painfully pronounced gap between the value of art made by men and women, but, as Saville notes, “The good thing is the bar has been set that bit higher for other women artists coming through.”
Setting the bar high has been a constant for Saville, who has made a 30-year career out of her love for “the sensuality of flesh”. She started out painting women’s bodies, chiefly her own, but has also turned her gaze on men (Pablo Picasso’s late biographer John Richardson often sat for her). More recently, in works such as Vis and Ramin II (2018) or Out of one, two (symposium) (2016), fluid tangles of male and female body parts merge to create non-binary figures. “I like the idea of a transgender painting where the work itself doesn’t have a fixed gender,” she says.
Saville’s own gender has been a rich source of inspiration. She was born in Cambridge in 1970, at a time when feminism was far from mainstream. She tells me emphatically how becoming a mother had a profound effect on her practice, in particular honing her drawing (Saville’s children are now 12 and 13). “When you paint, there’s a lot of clearing up and I just didn’t have that time. Drawing became something I could do very quickly,” she says. “My body and their bodies also changed so quickly that making one image of a solid painting just didn’t satisfy. Multiple lines and the ability to change became more suitable to the experience I was having in life.”
Motherhood has been cast as career suicide by some artists, including Tracey Emin and Marina AbramoviÄ‡, but Saville is vehemently opposed to that point of view. She recalls that lots of people—men and women— warned her that having children would be “the death” of her creativity. In fact, it had the opposite effect. “I became more creative. I’ve made more work since I had children,” she says. “The experience of actually making flesh, making a body inside you, was so profound I wanted to use that advantage. And that gave me an extra energy to work.”
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