Tuesday, October 05, 2010


Here it is,the finished, slaved over article.

Jenny Saville and Walter Sickert: Looking at the world through reality coloured glasses

Jenny Saville and Walter Sickert are separated by a century of painting tradition, but, to my eyes, both are equally able to look at, examine and reveal the reality of our society. In this revelation they force us to see beyond this discomforting image in front of us, but to create a narrative that gives the discomfort meaning and therefore emotional validity, which is missing from many of their contemporaries more socially acceptable works. For me the definition, the very purpose of art, is to create an emotional response. To fail in this delegates it to mere interior decoration. This accusation can never be levelled at Saville or Sickert. In fact throughout both of their respective careers, they have openly courted that emotional response.

Jenny Saville was born in Cambridge in 1970, to parents who were initially teachers, but who ascended the educational hierarchy to such a point that their careers created a peripatetic existence for the family, causing regular moves around the country, and putting Saville in 15 different schools. This inevitably placed Saville in the role of outsider, irrespective of her ability to assess the characters of her new school cohort. She watched and categorised the other children around her, developing the instincts to survive and assimilate in the new school. These instincts give her the ability to place herself in arenas which many other would find impossible to enter. In the operating theatre as the surgeons are recreating, augmenting or reducing breasts, meeting with transsexuals, pre-op, post transition or midway through their metamorphoses. These very subjects have fascinated Saville from a young age, “I like bodies in a state of transformation, whether through injury or surgery. Even as a child, if I was in the playground and I saw a girl fall and skin her knee, I would look at it and be fascinated.”

Walter Sickert was born in Munich in 1860, to a Danish-German father and an English mother. At the age of 10 he moved with his parents to England. His father Oswald, was a painter of some note and was invited to England by Ralph Nicholson Wornum, Keeper of the National Gallery during the Great Exhibition. As a result of his parentage, his mother was illegitimate, and his birth nationality, Sickert was to enjoy the status of outsider his whole life, although he often played with this role. At a dinner attended by Sickert and ‘several rather conventionally-minded young officers’ at the outset of WW1, Sickert was heard to declare “-And no-one could be more English than I am - born in Munich in 1860, of pure Danish descent!” It was this very otherness which gave him such a view of the world that was at odds with the aesthetic paradigm of his time. He published an essay in The Art News in May 1910 arguing that Idealism is an absurdity, citing John Singer Sargent’s work as “a form of flattery in which the sitters were beautified and rendered as glamorised and ideal versions , not of what they were, but of what they would have liked to be”. Art can only function when describing “gross material facts of bulk, shape and colour…..such are the conditions of the very existence of plastic art” “The more art is serious, the more will it tend to avoid the drawing room and stick to the kitchen. The plastic arts are the gross arts, dealing joyously with gross material facts. They call, in their servants, for a robust stomach and a great power of endurance, and while they will flourish in the scullery, or on the dunghill, they fade at a breath from the drawing room.”

Whenever Saville is compared to other artists, the first is always Lucien Freud, for obvious reasons, but she credits Willem De Kooning as her greatest influence especially his use of paint. “De Kooning is my main man, really, because he did just about everything you can do with paint.” Francis Bacon is also a major influence, with his use of paint to create a tension with the subject, that is less about representation of the form and more about creation of that form on the canvas. Sickert’s influences read like a who’s who of great painters. Some were his teachers - Whistler, Degas, and some his contemporaries, from the Camden Town group, Lucien Pissarro, Wyndham Lewis, and from the wider world, Van Gogh and Gaugin. However Sickert’s style was his own, developed as it did under Whistler’s tutelage and Degas’ mentorship.

Although both artists look at the discomforting truth, the truths they observe take different forms. This is, I suggest more to do with their historical perspective rather than personal places. Saville creates large scale nudes, in oils, initially exclusively of huge women, bloated, obese and white fleshed, as in the triptych Strategy (fig 1).

Fig 1

In recent years the subjects of her work have extended into pig carcasses, transsexuals, transvestites and victims of disease, injury or surgery. This can be seen as a maturing of her oeuvre rather than a search for new subjects. She is still painting the marginal within our society, only now she has a stronger, broader palette and a more mature style, where the subject and the process meet to create a tangible tension in the work that was not evident in her early work.
Sickert chose to look at the reality of everyday, working class lives, be they out in the Music Halls or in the bedrooms of women forced by domestic violence or poverty into prostitution. His nudes were “lower class women in cheap rooms”. He worked on a smaller scale, also in oils, but in a more impressionist way. His work did look at these subjects from skewed, distorted or unusual positions. In his musical hall paintings, he used mirrors to confuse the composition, as in Little Dot Hetherington at the Bedford Music Hall (fig 2) creating a tension in the viewer attempting to resolve the confusion, and forcing them to create a narrative to resolve the tension.

Fig 2

With his nudes, often a second, dressed figure was included, portrayed in a menacing stance over the always female, nude figure, for example, L’Affaire de Camden Town (fig 3) These relationships within the paintings again forced to viewer to create a narrative. But these narratives were uncomfortable for many, suggesting as they did domestic violence and forced sex.

Fig 3

Despite the apparent differences in their work, style and subject matter, what is clear is the connection they have in their obsession with the apparently uglier side of life. Saville has followed her fascination into the most uncomfortable places and with marginalised people to portray them not as specimens, but as real people, deserving of sympathy, empathy and a voice of their own. Her depictions of transsexual people, in Matrix (fig 4) and Passage (fig 5) are an investigation into the changing nature of gender and sexuality.

Fig 4

Fig 5

Of Passage, Saville states “That body couldn’t have existed 30 years ago. Its possible because of silicon implants”

Jenny Saville works almost exclusively from photographs, although when she does use a model she will use photography first. She will employ a model for 6 hours, shooting up to 10 rolls of film, all in close up and work from the photographs. This allows her the time to get to know the physical structure of the model. She then uses the photographs to rebuild the model on the canvas, building up in sections rather than working on the piece as a whole. Saville learned Photoshop to enable her to change the colour saturation of the photos. Using this technique is how she has extended her palette into reds, blues and greens over recent years, creating stronger, more striking works. In addition to using models she collects medical literature, images of war zones, bombed out buildings, disused buildings, medical photography and accident scene photographs. Although she doesn’t use them directly in her work, they inform it and add to the intellectual architecture.

As Saville’s work has matured, her confidence with the paint has grown, not only extending her subject matter and her palette, but also the in how the process of painting has equal, if not greater importance in her work. Up close with these massive works, one can believe they are masterpieces of abstraction, the paint is heavy in places, the directionality of the brush strokes and the swift changes and juxtapositions of the colours and tones are alive with an incredible energy not seen in contemporary figurative painting. But step back, get a view of the whole work and one is astounded by the precision of that paint, which only a minute ago was almost random in its application. There is not a mark out of place, not a section that doesn’t fit exactly where it should. The expression in the eyes and the texture of the skin are real, the image is a real person, massive, vulnerable and naked before us, even when we know this is a composite being, drawn originally from photographs of models and medical illustrations.By every definition Saville is a painterly painter, using abstract techniques with the paint but with figurative work.
To achieve this energy and precision, Saville makes paint swatches and test pieces, usually on newsprint, trying out ideas and sections of the painting, always finding something which she can add to the work to keep it fresh, and energetic, even though the paint is heavily impasto and added in layers in some areas of the painting. “I like thick paint. I think you’ve got the solidity of the body of the paint itself. But there are areas of flesh that aren’t thick. So using thick paint’s not appropriate. The feeling isn’t big lumps and bumps, you know. So sometimes I use thick paint, sometimes I use thinner paint,”

These combinations, the duality of her work, using the latest technology - Photoshop - and the ancient craft of painting, utilizing the human form, but laying the paint in the way an abstract painter would, working on a gigantic scale, but always keeping her subjects very human in their identity, even when they are composite beings, that one would expect to create an irreconcilable dichotomy within her work, but it doesn’t, it instead gives us the chance to bear witness to one of the most interesting and important painters of the 21st century, possibly of the last 200 years, one who has taken a traditional process and subject and made it not only ultra modern and shocking, but also beautiful, poignant and personal.
Sickert also used photography in his work, but later in his career, the most notable works being Miss Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Isabella of France (fig 6) and Miss Earhart’s Arrival (fig 7).

Fig 6

Fig 7

In his earlier career, initially under instruction of Whistler, Sickert worked in an almost abstract way with his preliminary sketches, “concentrating on the central part of the motif first of all and then to work outwards towards the edges of the paper.” Later Sickert would move entirely away from this, Whistler’s favoured ‘alla prima’ technique, feeling it reduced the images and subjects too far into over-simplification, “The obligation, or effort to cover entirely necessitated an excessive simplification of both subject and background …. shows itself in subordinating, in arranging, in digesting any and every complication …… mastery …… is avid of complications.” As Sickert moved to France in 1883, met and was mentored by Degas, so his style changed. He found Degas’ methodology more in tune with his own ideas and ideals, and was able to adopt and adapt it to create his own style of work. Spending time creating detailed sketches of his subjects, which he them worked from, using under painting and building layers of paint, making changes and corrections as he developed the paintings. During this time Sickert also began to experiment with his subject matter, clearly influenced by Degas’ concentration on cafĂ© life, music hall and domestic subjects. The “painting of modern life”.

As Sickert painted more of modern life, he was drawn to the grim reality of that life, his paintings became darker, his interiors became oppressive his style of painting more impressionistic. His figures went from interior working class domesticity Ennui (fig 8) to vulnerable nudes, The Rose Shoe (fig 9) and women of suggested easy virtue, Two Women on a Sofa - Le Tose (fig 10) In this move towards the seamier, less acceptable part of society, Sickert’s work became more interesting, stronger and much more important. At the same time it became, and remains controversial.

Fig 8

Fig 9

Fig 10

In conclusion, I consider the connection between Sickert and Saville to be more than a matter of vaguely similar subjects, both looking at and illustrating the unpopular, ugly truth of the reality of marginalised people’s lives. Both are painters influenced by great artists, but not slaves to that influence, artists who have developed their own styles and techniques and have created a tension within their works that forces the observer to create narrative to resolve these tensions, but do not supply the narrative themselves. Sickert and Saville have challenged our view of the validity of subjects and in doing so have created works which have opened us to understanding, empathising and the humanising those society usually considered to be beneath us.