Jenny Saville displays range and reach with first UK solo show at Modern Art Oxford

By Mark Sheerin | 21 August 2012
Oil painting of an androgynous young person's face
© Jenny Saville. Image from
Exhibition Review: Jenny Saville, Modern Art Oxford, Oxford, until September 16 2012

If you had the kind of space to hang a monumental Jenny Saville, she would not leave you wanting more for your money. Her first UK solo show demonstrates full control of a box of painterly tricks, together with a surface so seductive that even a pig carcass (Torso II) could brighten up your mansion.

And yet many people do have the resources to house one of the painter’s works. As has been noted elsewhere, her works are quick to disappear into private collections. This leaves her at once famous but obscure. Since her moment in the YBA sun, she has become a slightly mysterious name.

What’s clear from the current show in Oxford is that, if you’re in the market for figurative painting, Saville pushes the envelope just enough to make your purchase credible.

Yes, she paints nudes but they might be obese or even transsexual. Yes, she paints portraits, but the faces reveal injuries and damaged personalities. She drags the Tradition, and perhaps her collectors’ collections, into the 21st century.

Saville can be seen taking the lessons of the past 100 years and pulling them all together in ways we can easily assimilate.

She paints eyeballs which blur like a Gerard Richter. She slaps paint on in epic, two-inch thick brush strokes like an abstract expressionist. She draws multiple viewpoints of a single subject in a cubism that anyone can get to grips with.

But what gives these well-known paintings and recent drawings even more reach is the lexicon of art history which Saville plugs into.

The pig quotes Rembrandt, Chaim Soutine and surely a Goya etching as well. The fractured Mirror quotes from Titian and goes forward from there. And the broad female back (bearing the imprints of a set of underwear) is surely in dialogue with the sculptural Back Series by Henri Matisse.

So this is an art that ticks all the technical and contextual boxes. Its sometimes challenging subject matter is never less than easy on the eye. And Saville can claim to have achieved all this on her own terms, having ploughed a lonely figurative furrow for two decades. But does it offer anything really new?

The answer might be no were it not for the recent drawings on the ground floor, many of which are mother and baby compositions. And as a visit to will remind you, this theme is one of the trickiest in all Christendom.

Yet Saville reaches hitherto unrealised heights of realism. There are unvirginal mums with breasts like water balloons and children with uncontrollable vigour in their grasping hands and feet.

They wriggle in an ill-behaved manner. Two have been installed in the nearby Ashmolean, where they risk upsetting Room 43 as much as a real life tantrum in a pushchair.

The University of Oxford museum is a new setting for Saville and it appears to suit her. You cannot blame her for selling her work, but the price of those statement paintings and dynamic drawings, sadly, just went up a notch or two.

  • Open 10am-7pm (5pm Tuesday and Wednesday, 12pm-5pm Sunday, closed Monday). Admission free.

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