Jenny Saville; a missing link at Modern Art Oxford and the Ashmolean

Jenny Saville, British painting’s heir(ess) apparent is exhibiting now (and until September 2012) at Modern Art Oxford and the Ashmolean in Oxford.

Jenny Saville Drawings on You Tube.

I’ve followed Jenny Saville’s work for a while now; I think most artists that I know have a copy of that big white monograph. Even so, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to react to seeing her work ‘in the flesh’. Apologies for the bad pun but there is always a world of difference between the image of the work and the work itself. I visited the exhibition last week to find out:

The scale of space

I knew her work was large but I was still unprepared for the scale of it. I was struck by the sense of space created in and by her works. Yet they are not airy, nor deep in the manner of the old masters. The space is defined around and in front of the works.

The exhibition occupies all of Modern Art Oxford and the works are given generous amounts of space which they somehow need and fill. The interplay between the works and the character of the varied spaces at the venue was very thoroughly worked out and added a great deal to the experience and to my understanding of the works. I was led through the development of different sequences in time, idea and process; gaining fascinating glimpses of how the bodies of work shown were interrelated.

The landscape of flesh

The exhibition begins with new drawings and a few familiar paintings, marking out the relationships between old and newer works and making clear the old master references of the new drawing series.

The next room, upstairs, offers a nexus of themes and ideas, I returned to it a few times to follow a few of them, questioning how she developed those colour oppositions, striping down the selections from earlier works, then returning and recombining with a small shift in palette for a huge change in emphasis.

Some of her earlier paintings have landscape-like qualities of scale and approach, there were a few Gulliver in paint moments; in a landscape you can occupy but that never ceases to be flesh.

History, humanity and architypes

Saville achieves a balance of coherence and disintegration, a combination of the vast scale of her work and the dynamics of her brushwork, suprising by its sheer variety and complexity of layerings, pressures, strokes and touches. Yet a consistent portrayal of tactile fleshiness, bulk and yielding, unflinching yet ultimately humanely witnessed.

In the video accompanying the exhibition Jenny Saville talks about the themes in her work, focussing on bodily change rather than mother and child. She talks about drawing, or rather capturing, her wriggling children, like they are growing as she holds them, an unreal yet profoundly truthful time dilation effect.

But as much as her children wriggle Saville, the mother figure, is drawn here and there just as breast and distended pregnant belly, her identity deconstructed and lost, sought again in the architypes of Art history and the Ashmolean. The Virgin, the Mona Lisa and the Odalisque among them.


The Jenny Saville exhibition continues until the 12th of September at Modern Art Oxford and the Ashmolean in Oxford. Please note both are closed on Mondays!