Are Jenny Saville’s Paintings Feminist, Misogynist Or Just Grotesque?


Jenny Saville is a world-renowned contemporary painter with a new solo exhibit at the Modern Art Oxford in the UK. Saville is known for painting the human body– usually that of a woman’s– with little desire to evoke traditional ideas of beauty, let alone femininity. In fact many of her nudes are of morbidly obese women, or depict women who appear to be battered and bruised. Still, she’s described as “kind of a feminist” and I’d like to take a closer look with the PITNBrs to see if that’s how this art should be classified. And I warned you– they’re either feminist, misogynist, or grotesque (or something else), so be prepared. And if your bosses don’t appreciate nudes, some of these are also NSFW.

Here’s what the HuffPost had to say about Jenny Saville:

Saville was born in Cambridge in 1970. She recounted to The Guardian’s Rachel Cooke being hypnotized, at 6 years old, by the image of her piano teacher’s thighs would rub together during lessons: “I was fascinated by the way her two breasts would become one, the way her fat moved, the way it hung on the back of her arms.” Her childhood curiosity and creativity were fostered from a young age and eventually attended the prestigious Glasgow School of Art.

One thing that remains consistent throughout Saville’s work is skin, skin and more skin. Yet a glimpse into Saville’s world of flesh looks more like peeking into a butcher window than a Playboy magazine. Her works clearly could not be further away from the idealized male views of the female form, but they inhabit a strange and undefinable realm between pride and grotesqueness. It feels as if Saville is the lovechild of Willem de Kooning’s violent misogyny and Lucian Freud’s carnal hunger who, somehow, popped out as kind of a feminist.

Read more here.

So here’s my thing. What makes for feminist art? Do the paintings automatically qualify because the subjects are women and the artist is a woman? Because you could also argue that these paintings exploit the femme form; it’s certainly not celebratory… right? Or do these, in some way, express a certain feminist idea? You could certainly make that argument about this one, which shows a woman with a very particular set of marks on her body:


Saville had this to say about Plan:

The lines on her body are the marks they make before you have liposuction done to you. They draw these things that look like targets. I like this idea of mapping of the body, not necessarily areas to be cut away, but like geographical contours on a map. I didn’t draw on to the body. I wanted the idea of cutting into the paint. Like you would cut into the body. It evokes the idea of surgery. It has lots of connotations.

I spent a long time on this one. I like the idea of concentration on the body. And there is obviously some sort of vulnerability here, because having liposuction in the first place– you’ve got to have some sort of vulnerability to go and get it. But I like the idea that there’s also power and strength in the body at the same time. So again you’re not sure; it’s ambiguous. Some people think it shows a loving caress of the body. I never really perceived it when I did it in that way. For me, it’s much more to do with the fact that women who have got very large breasts pull them up to have a look at the rest of their body. You want to see the rest of your body but you can’t without lifting up your breasts. So it’s this idea of self-examination that I saw in it.

Read more here.

I’m really interested in Saville’s process, although I still don’t know exactly what to make of these images. They’re intense! They’re not sexy; which is what I kept telling myself as I worked on this post (and kept having second thoughts about it all), lol. I try to give you guys sexy, fun artsy stuff to look at and I don’t think that’s what this is but here we are! And I really wanna know what you guys think!

And while we’re on the subject of artistic depictions of women that may or may not make us squirm, did any of you ever see the fashion spread Victim Of Beauty? It was in the Bulgarian magazine 12, and it pissed off a lot of people. Is art like this ever ok? Peep the gallery.

[Source] [Source]

  • Jennifer

    I love going to PITNB and seeing the words feminism and feminist. You’ve made me love this blog even more.

    I feel like these photos aren’t feminist because she’s still exploiting women it seems. I think there’s something great about the abject body for showing us bodies that make us uncomfortable but I don’t know what exactly the point is of them (other than the surgery one). I feel like most feminist scholars and artists would say that their work is supposed to have the goal of social justice and social change. Or to deconstruct norms, whereas these photos seem to uphold the objectification of women. I don’t know if that was literate, I’m way too pooped, but thanks again for the post!

    • Jennifer, totally literate, totally valid points. Thank you for commenting! It’s interesting that you align feminism with social justice; I don’t know if everyone’s doing that. I guess we’d need one specific definition of feminism to declare these feminist or otherwise, but I agree that there is the sense of objectification. I just don’t know if that’s her intention (although it may not matter).

      Thanks again for commenting!

    • Megan

      ‘I feel like most feminist scholars and artists would say that their work is supposed to have the goal of social justice and social change. Or to deconstruct norms…’

      Surely these paintings are deconstructing the norm of seeing photos of nearly naked women with ‘perfect’ bodies everywhere in the media?

    • Megan, I think that’s one way of interpreting it and I had that initial reaction. She’s clearly deviating from a norm… but does that alone make it feminist? Or can it still be considered objectification?

      Now, another huge point might be that the purpose of the paintings is not to incite or encourage that prototypical male gaze BUT I agree with James who mentioned a potential “shock art” factor. That element makes it feel… hmmm… inauthentic in a way TO ME. But I also agree with Keegan who says reading up on her helps so I’d like to do that too.

      Megan thanks for commenting!

  • Keegan

    I think a better understanding of her process would better explain her art. The image with the lines is a self-portrait that she painted from the perspective of mirrors she aligned underneath herself, juxtaposed with other images she had of models. The feminist idea that she was playing with was looking at the “average” American Woman contrasted against the way that women are idealized in media. There’s an article here -> that would better explain her thought process, I think.

    • Keegan, thank you. I plan to read up on her because I find myself more interested in the work, the more I read what she has to say about it. Thanks for sharing.

  • James

    Her work seems almost more like shock art than anything feminist, exactly. She puts these jarring images out there that seem almost aimed at desensitizing the viewer more than trying to depict women as equal beings to men, as feminism is meant to do. It’s not really about breaking down traditional standards of beauty either. I mean, she’s not exactly painting larger women in a Rueben-esque manner. I wouldn’t go so far to call it anti-feminist, though. It seems like there’s more style than substance overall, to be honest. But to be fair, I am not very familiar with her work.

    • James, I feel you on the “shock art” thing. Although the more I look at the paintings, the more I also see really honest, stark depictions of women as they are. I guess I’m wondering is it shocking because of what we’re used to? Or what we expect from nude paintings of women? I think a goal of feminism should be to point to women as we are– alike men and unlike men and human and imperfect and perfect and all that.

      Thanks for the comment, James. You got me thinking over here!

  • Lynne

    Supposed controversy aside, you do have to admit that she is extremely talented in painting the human form (this is coming from an artist that can draw landscapes, cartoons, etc, but can’t draw/paint the human body to save a life). My immediate reaction to these images was, “Damn, these women are almost life-like!” Very impressive.

    My second reaction, as an overweight woman myself, was that of joy and delight that someone is depicting the female form in something other than rail-thin skin and bones. Yes, this is what we big women look like naked.

    I’m also a domestic violence survivor, and these paintings honestly don’t bother me. Quite the opposite, in fact; I think these need to be shared, if not for the “feminism” aspect, then for no other reason than to bring awareness to the domestic violence epidemic that’s obviously not going away anytime soon. Do these images make one uncomfortable, make one squirm in their seat? GOOD–let’s talk about it! Let’s stop ignoring reality and work towards changing it.

    Okay, stepping off my soapbox now. :-)

    • Lynne, thank you! First, yes we didn’t even talk about how amazing these were. I was def impressed– if they were totally wack I would have ignored them, lol. I can imagine what it would be like amongst a collection of these in a gallery.

      I’m so glad you shared your perspective, and I’m starting to think that the squirm-factor is, in fact, a reflection of something in us, rather than the art itself. Whether it makes us uncomfortable or not, it’s realistic on some level.

      Soapboxes always permitted, esp when openly acknowledged, lol! Thanks Lynne.

  • V

    “Do the paintings automatically qualify because the subjects are women and the artist is a woman?”

    I liked this phrase a lot. So much art by females tends to be always scrutinized differently because people are looking for connotations of feminism. As an art student, I’m quite familiar with this – if I ever draw a woman in unconventional circumstances or oddly represented, there’s the whole feminsim/not feminism conversation with the tutors. It gets a bit dull sometimes. Not everything female artists have to say has to do with their identities as being a woman though, for sure, it is an important subject and there is much to say about it.

    On the OTHER HAND, the painting of the obese woman with the liposuction lines clearly has notes on societies demands on thin bodies, etc, so that one seems to have a feminist message, at least.

    Last point is that I definitely wouldn’t call these objectifying to women. Obviously woman are the objects in the paintings she has chosen to portray, but the woman aren’t trying to offer themselves up to the viewer, as is tradition in portraits seen throughout art galleries. If you want to see objectification of woman, the only thing you need to do is look for the classic nude. So it’s refreshing to see someone reinvent it with no intention of pleasing the viewer. :)

    • V, yes! I was just beginning to think that (about the women not ‘offering themselves up to the viewer’). The pleasure principle is different here. Because I think the artist has acknowledged that she receives a certain pleasure from these subjects, but it’s not what we’re used to seeing or experience so some of us are repelled or repulsed. And maybe that’s important.

  • Ben@pr

    Regarding Jenny Saville’s work I definitely agree with V, she’s no interested in pleasing the viewer specifically the one eager to see women with society’s beauty standards and that’s great. Personally, I think the paintings are really grotesque and some even disgusting. As a man (yes ladies it’s hard for us too :) who has battled overweight his entire life I don’t like it when some people might find the portrait of obesity and even morbid obesity as empowering or as a green light to be really overweight or obese and don’t assume any responsibility for it.

    The simple reason is that obesity kills really soon and put people at risk to a countless numbers of other diseases including cancer. It’s as bad as being anorexic or bulimic. I don’t think she is trying to glamorize morbid obesity or domestic violence because her paintings are really far from glamour but some people might think so. I think her point is to put people at discussion with two really sensitive subjects that usually are attached to women by presenting it in one of the most shocking and disturbing ways possibles. Because the more disturbing and shocking the more it will push people to talk about it.