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


And here’s what the editors of 12 had to say in their defense (because people were really flipping out):

First of all, we would like to say we are happy that our shoot provoked an international discussion, at some scale.
It is also important to say, that we do NOT support violence of ANY kind, and this is NOT a shoot glamorizing, or encouraging, or supporting violence against women. We believe that images such as ours can be seen from various angles, and we think that exactly that is what is beautiful about fashion and photography in general – that anybody can understand it their own way,and fill it with their own meaning. Where some see a brutal wound, others see a skilful (sic) work of an artist, or an exquisite face of a beautiful girl.

That being said, we do understand why some accuse us of promoting, in a way, violence, but we do not agree with that, and we think that it is very narrow-minded way of looking at the photographs.
And after all, isn’t it true that we see brutally wounded people all the time, in real life – on television, in the news, in movies, videogames, magazines and websites, and they are all very different, but alike in one thing: some are real, some are not. And fashion photography is an imitation of real life, sometimes realistic, sometimes delicate, other times grotesque, or shocking.
1. How would you perceive those photographs, if they were accompanying an campaign against domestic violence? Would you still think of them as disgusting or you would praise them as brave and thought-provoking? Worth the think, isn’t it?
2. What would you say if those where bespoken men, carefully groomed, but still, terribly injured? Probably nothing, and quite frankly that’s a bit sexist.

Hmmmm… Thoughts?

  • 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.