Jenny Saville. Does the name ring a bell to you? When I asked this question to the audience of the second Touched by Art lecture, it appeared barely anyone had heard about her before. Including myself, I must admit. This needs to change, says philosopher Ronald Hünneman, who gave a talk about her painting ‘Propped’ (1992).
Hünneman is a philosopher, specialised in art who has been lecturing a wide ranch of topics over the past years. One of them, he told, is ice age art. He particularly became intrigued by the so called ‘Venus of Willendorf’ figurine, of which he owns a life-size replica. ‘I do not like the name Venus for it’, Hünneman explained, while holding the sculpture in the palm of his hand. It makes it sound as if she was a goddess, whereas many interpretations are possible.
A way to speculate about the meaning of the Venus of Willendorf is to apply the principle of charity, Hünneman explained. What happens if we assume that the prehistoric makers of the sculpture were just as developed as we are? What, then, could be the reasons for depicting the female body in such a voluminous way? When Hünneman asked these question to himself in the past, he started to google contemporary artworks similar to the Venus of Willendorf. That was how he ended up with the painting ‘Propped’ by Jenny Saville. ‘I was blown away’ Hünneman confessed.
While playing with the thought of buying it, Hünneman discovered the work was already sold. For 12.4 million dollar at Sotheby’s, to be precise. Two years ago. The highest price ever paid at an action for a painting by a living female artist. Why had he never heard of her?
Jenny Saville, a British artist, member of the YBA, dominated the technique of classical painting already at an early age. She further developed her skills at the The Glasgow School of Art and went for a semester abroad to the University of Cincinnati where she took a course on woman’s studies. Back in Glasgow, she could not continue to work the same way. Her studies had made her aware of how much the way women were depicted in painting was determined by the male gaze: women were always thin, passive and looked down upon by the spectator of the painting. This lead, amongst other things, to the painting Propped. It depicts a confident big women on a giant canvas. The only way to approach her, is to look up to her. Her big hands grab her own flesh as if she wants to confront the spectator with her physical presence. As if she says ‘Look at me, a real woman!’. And last but not least: it is a self-portrait.
Understanding the reasons behind Propped, might help us get nearer to the Venus of Willendorf, Hünneman argued. Both can be seen as an exaggeration and celebration of the female body.
Yet, ideas about the ice age sculpture remain speculation, whereas much information can be found about the painting by Saville. One could even try to speak to her directly, as she is still alive. Despite these possibilities, however, it seems that there is one thing keeping us from learning more about her work, which is ironically her being a woman. On the same auction where the historical amount of money was paid for Propped, Banksy’s Girl with a balloon shredded itself and made it to all the front pages. This little girl by the big Bansky was able to keep the giant Jenny Saville out of sight. It is time to change this, Hünneman convincingly showed.