Studies on Jenny Saville’s Bleach: The Mouth (Part One)

~840mm x ~1188mm, Acrylic on Canvas (unmounted)

This is a study on Jenny Saville’s piece called Bleach (painted in 2008, oil on canvas, dimensions:252 x 187 cm). It was done as I thought it was relevant to my current A2 unit’s theme – Flaws, Perfect, Ideals or Compromises. (Disclaimer: I do not own any of Jenny Saville’s work and am merely studying it for educational purposes.)



The moment when I first saw this painting, I immediately associated it with a selfie someone had taken on Instagram and had applied a filter that simplifies the photo by creating shapes based on tone, such that those shapes would more or less resemble the original image. Upon further examination, with the rough and harsh textures of the skin portrayed along with darker and reddish skin colour around the eyes, it feels like the woman’s skin is peeling off her face revealing the muscle layer beneath as if she were diseased or decaying. The expressive marks extended to her hair, which seem to flow down her head due to gravity. This was all contrasted by the more controlled areas of the painting – sensory organs: the eyes, the nose, the ears and the mouth which are portrayed in a more tight manner. My favourite feature in the painting would be the eyes since they seem to lock into eye contact with mine. I suppose this is effective in terms of attracting the attention of viewers (keeping into account of the sheer size of the painting would most likely amplify the effect).

Jenny Saville is a contemporary British painter. She was awarded a six-month scholarship to the University of Cincinnati where she states that she saw “Lots of big women. Big white flesh in shorts and T-shirts. It was good to see because they had the physicality that I was interested in.” Saville has been noted for creating art through the use of a classical standard—figure painting. Although Saville’s chosen method is traditional, she has found a way to reinvent figure painting and regain its position in the context of art history. Known primarily for her large-scale paintings of nude women. Much of her work features distorted flesh, high-caliber brush strokes and patches of oil color, while others reveal the surgeon’s mark of a plastic surgery operation. In 1994, Saville spent many hours observing plastic surgery operations in New York City. Since her debut in 1992, Saville’s focus has remained on the female body, slightly deviating into subjects with “floating or indeterminant gender,” painting large scale paintings of transgender people. Her published sketches and documents include surgical photographs of liposuction, trauma victims, deformity correction, disease states and transgender patients as she was interested in the transformation and difference between them and healthy normal people.”

The themes of perfection and flaws are quite obvious in the painting as Saville attempts to portray the woman with realism, which she succeeded in doing so in my view. The fleshy tone around the eyes might suggest bruising or a wound or it would have been beige like other parts of her skin. Furthermore the harshness and vigorousness of the brush strokes of the skin creates an impression as though it is forcefully covering up something. Maybe it isn’t skin but makeup that is used to cover up wounds or bruises – parts of the face that seem unnatural like the red rings around the eyes as discussed before, the patch of brownish red just to her left of the nose and the part beneath the lip are all portrayed in unusual fleshy tones. Perhaps Saville might be suggesting that this woman was beaten in the face and had makeup partially covering the flaws created from the abuse to partially and temporarily achieve perfection, restoring what she should have looked like before. This is not surprising considered she had based her paintings on actual people who had been physically abused or even worse – a grim interpretation might be the woman she had based this painting on might had been a relatively fresh corpse considering what Saville was interested in painting. “Accidental” art also appears in the piece like the blotch of background coloured paint splashes over the woman’s right shoulder and down her neck. With everything mentioned above, I am confident to say that the piece might have looked “perfect” from a distance, but as one approaches it, he/she would notice more and more “flaws” of the painting but for some reason these “flaws” are visually appealing – the skin textures from the harsh brush strokes, the rough fleshy tones around the eyes, etc. that would be contrasted against the tightly drawn smooth eyes and succulent lips to make them stand out even more and also capture the viewer’s attention (or maybe even prolonging the attention span since the viewer would spend more time looking at the painting due to its size, which also exaggerates the perfection-flaw relationships). Considering the thick and solid colours in parts of the painting and solid edges of some shapes without any hollow brush marks, I suspect that Saville might have applied a massive amount of paint in doing this. Finally I find it quite interesting why Saville chose to do such an “unattractive” portrait with the beaten up textures portrayed on the woman’s face as I thought most people would like to do a portrait of themselves when they look at their finest. This might be due to how women are commonly portrayed as perfect and sexually attractive as seen in male-orientated media like Playboy magazines, the Penthouse, etc. I believe Saville tried to challenge how most men constantly sexualise the female body by painting what she actually saw from her models. “I’m not trying to teach, just make people discuss, look at how women have been made by man. What is beauty? Beauty is usually the male image of the female body. My women are beautiful in their individuality.” I believe this idea came about when she was in America where obesity rates are sky high and where she witnessed liposuction at a plastic surgeon’s (possibly where she got inspired to paint Plan). “A lot of women out there look and feel like that, made to fear their own excess, taken in by the cult of exercise, the great quest to be thin. The rhetoric used against obesity makes it sound far worse than alcohol or smoking, yet they can do you far more damage. I’m not painting disgusting, big women. I’m painting women who’ve been made to think they’re big and disgusting, who imagine their thighs go on for ever.”

As to investigate how Saville creates such harsh marks with brush strokes, I attempted to create a painting based on Bleach, focusing on the mouth. I chose the mouth in particular because it is one of the sensory organs of a face and is also one of the things one would notice when engaged into visual contact with another person. In the painting it acts as a vocal point along with the two eyes since these three features, like I said before are usually the first to be noticed.







The final product – what I found hardest was the mixing of colours (I was only provided with the primary ones and a few others like yellow ochre, raw umber, etc.) such that I could have them identical to the original (which I clearly failed doing so) and the method of overlaying layers on top or beneath or even blending into each other. Just by staring into the original painting and determining what layer should be applied first and whether if I should apply another layer while the layer beneath is wet or not was difficult. It had to be done in trial and error unfortunately.

In the next part, I will be talking about a study based on the portrait’s eye to investigate the relationship of how perfection and flaws contrast and complement each other


To be continued…

(Part 2)

Sources: Wikipedia and An Interview by the Independent

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