Issue Number: 97
Palermo is good for her painting, the new Academician Jenny Saville tells Sarah Greenberg, but she misses sushi. Photograph by Julian Anderson
Jenny Saville RA in Sumosan restaurant Photograph Julian Anderson
Jenny Saville is much smaller than her paintings would lead you to believe. Anyone who has seen her massive and powerfully painted Rubenesque nudes would be surprised to see this tiny dynamo, with an almost childlike demeanour that belies her 37 years. When I meet her for the first time, over lunch at Sumosan, I wonder how she manages to make paintings that are often twice her size.
‘I roll out the canvases on the floor, attach brushes to the end of long stick and sweep the paint across the picture,’ says the five-foot tall painter. ‘It gives me a longer reach.’
Now based in Palermo, Saville squeezed our lunch into her schedule while she was in town for the Frieze art fair in October, requesting sushi because she never has a chance to eat it in Sicily. I chose Sumosan, one of the top Japanese restaurants near the RA, because I thought its tasting menu would appeal to the sushi-starved artist. We order it and and are then rendered speechless when the waiter arrives with a giant conical contraption on which hang dozens of spoons, laden with bite-size samples of the chef’s specialities. Neither of us has ever seen anything like it: I compare it to a rococo sweetmeats tray; Saville says it looks like a torture instrument. The proof, however, is in the eating. As we sample chunks of lobster wrapped in salad, miso marinated black cod, oysters doused in gingery ponzu sauce and tuna and truffle rolls, each dish tastes more delicious than the last. The presentation may be unorthodox but the quality is outstanding.
Saville came of age in the 1990s, gaining recognition as one of the YBAs in the RA’s Sensation show of the Saatchi collection in 1997. More recently, she was commissioned to make paintings for a chapel in Rome, for which she painted Rosetta, an oil sketch of a blind woman (RA, Autumn 2007, page 105).
‘I had always wanted to paint a blind stare and it made sense in an altarpiece because her upward gaze has something spiritual about it, like the ecstasy of St Teresa,’ she says. ‘I love showing work in Rome, it’s got such romance. It’s the home of Michelangelo, Velazquez, Caravaggio. I like being near the big boys of figurative painting.’
She moved to Palermo three years ago, never intending to become a ‘painting exile’, as she calls it. ‘ I wanted to work somewhere else. So I bought an old palazzo and just stayed because the work went well. The light’s amazing and, although I find the solitude challenging, I like it. I’ve got a deeper relationship to the history of painting than I did before. ’
Palermo – perhaps the most carnal city in Europe – seems an appropriate place for her to paint her meaty nudes and red heads oozing with sanguine tones that, says the artist, can cost her around £12,000 per painting: ‘I use lots of paint. I typically mix 300 pots for a canvas and vermilion costs £80 a tube.’
She lives above the central market, and every morning watches the colours of the seasons unfold. ‘One moment everything’s red, from tomatoes to peppers, then everything’s going to darker greens and oranges. I have coffee with the market men, looking at intestines being hung up on meat hooks. It reminds me of paintings by Soutine. You literally feel the guts and that’s had a big effect on me. I want to paint the carcasses more than the people.
'Everything in Palermo is a carcass. It was bombed in the war and it’s just been left. So I stare out of my window and see the hanging out innards of architecture – baroque palaces where the roof’s been blown off. I instantly knew I could make work there.’
Perhaps the city’s greatest attraction is its light: ‘In winter Sicily has the clearest light I’ve ever seen for mixing colour – crisp, cold, clear light makes a big difference. You can hit a colour and get an incredible violence through it. But in the summer the heat in Palermo is very aggressive. The shadows cut so harshly, I’ve gotten that into my work, the cutting shadows between light and dark.’
Saville does not paint from life but instead composes paintings from images taken from photographs, medical textbooks and newspapers. She has even attended plastic surgery operations in order to see how flesh can be moved and manipulated. There is a defiant strength in her grotesque women, with their uncontrollable bodies. ‘Throughout history, women have been pressured to streamline their contours into a normality that is boring. There’s space to operate when a body is monstrous, when it misbehaves. If you look like a Barbie doll, you don’t have any individuality.’
Saville is proud to call herself a feminist: ‘The younger generation don’t want to go near that word, but I’m grateful to the women who came before me, whose struggles allow me to exist.’ Indeed, one of the reasons she was interested in joining the RA was to add a young female voice to an institution that, from the outside, can seem like a gentleman’s club.
‘I wanted to join Tracey Emin and Fiona Rae. It’s important for the next generation to make sure everything keeps going.’
Saville takes on the history of painting, particularly of men painting the female nude, and makes it her own. ‘De Kooning is a text book of what you can do with paint – he abstracted the figure so much that it dissolved. I want to abstract the figure but hold on o a sense of gravity,’ she says, as if she is in a continual dialogue with the painters of the past.
‘I feed off that and also off Bacon. Everybody knows a Bacon and they recognise themselves and their human failings when they look at his paintings of the distorted human body. I look at artists who have been able to use paint to access those feelings and I think I’m nowhere near that. But I have time.’