Beauty is something which seems to have been hotly debated through history. A physical beauty, natural or metaphorical; we all have our own opinions on what it is. The contemporary artist Jenny Saville revels in this concept and appears to attempt to skew our thoughts and present to us a new concept of ‘the beautiful’; one which is arguably grotesque and ambivalent.
A twisted torso, fleshy face and bulbous limbs: on first inspection the word grotesque screams out at you. This is not conventional beauty. In fact, most would argue that there is nothing beautiful about Saville’s giant works at all. Her female nudes appear to erupt and burst from the canvases, shocking its viewer, whilst quietly and subconsciously forcing them to question how we perceive beauty. She strips down conventions, and portrays her nudes as figures which plainly stare back at you, powerful in expression yet humbled in their perched states. With little background imagery to distract the eye, the viewer is confronted by a mass of flawed flesh, creased by life experiences but the works remain monumental in their own right. They are quietly and unknowingly powerful, stoic in some senses yet also awkwardly introvert in others.
Can Saville’s works be described as the modern day advertisement for real, honest beauty, or simply an unnerving portrait of the naked figure? Her work has been described by some as grotesque, by others as erotic, and by some as unashamedly profound. Yet is it the case that we feel a sense of unease when viewing these nudes, because we are thrown from our comfort zone and forced to face the unconventional? Alongside this, we become the voyeur, critiquing the figure’s every flaw or perfection. The subject has no way of defending itself, and we are free to stare and scrutinise, while they appear to leer back sometimes mockingly, at other times squirming at their stripped down states. We are the voyeur, and unapologetically so; we thrive on viewing these curiosities and we thrive and delight even further by the state of the models. One metamorphoses from the viewer to the critic.
I’m not sure I could honestly say these figures were conventionally beautiful. When observing them I admittedly shudder at their crude and unnerving states yet find myself beguiled by something. They are quietly and individually beautiful in their own right. Their power and dominance within the exhibition room radiates an internal essence of beauty, one that could be posited to be far more attractive than that of a conventionally beautiful image today. We can be quick to judge and we are always, though perhaps unknowingly, casting our judgement on people’s physicality’s. “She is fat. He is spotty”. We are all guilty. The ‘beauty’ of Saville’s work therefore, is its ability to make us stop, stare and ultimately re-evaluate our perceptions of beauty and its differentiation from the grotesque. Can something so grotesque actually turn into something beautiful? Saville’s answer? Perhaps it is possible.
Saville does not believe or is interested in ‘admired’ and ‘idealised’ beauty. She is instead interested in breaking down boundaries and reconstructing a tradition stemming from classical antiquity. We are so used to the ‘body beautiful’ that we forget realities. The naïve and vulnerable states of her women are far from Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” for example, and though admittedly one really cannot compare the two ideas, it is arguable that there is a comparative factor to them both. Venus is a vision of perfection, her porcelain style figure positively glowing, ethereal in quality, whereas Saville’s nudes are crude and imposing. Both show however, a passion and striking resilience to the scrutinising gaze of the viewer; a façade which disregards outside forces.
Saville’s hyperbolised figures allude with great frankness the differentiation between the way women are perceived and the way that they feel about their bodies. A brash and almost inhuman physique, with great folds and crevasses of skin, these women behold a lifetime of expressions, experiences and realities. In “Branded” the fleshy masses are inscribed with adjectives boldly facing the intimacies of these women. ‘Supportive’ scrawled across a breast, ‘irrational’ etched on the other and ‘delicate’ are amassed on the flabby stomach. Yes, these women do present to the viewer a powerful message, and although their beauty is questionable, we relate and rise up to an equal level to these figures.
For Saville, conventional notions of beauty have become so bounded around they have lost all meaning and worth. In their own grotesque way, they go to provide a sense of a united front, a reference point for all women. And that in itself is beautiful.