Is Jenny Saville a feminist artist?

Are her nude paintings of women frightening or empowering?

Jenny Saville is regarded by many as an artist who plays a vital part in advancing feminist ideas through art, namely her portraits of women. These paintings are known for their realism and rawness - she does not idealise the subjects of her pieces to fit the stereotypes of the ‘ideal’ appearance of a woman. Instead, Saville simply depicts ordinary people, including every feature that society instructs women to think of as a ‘flaw’ or something to hide and often distorts these ‘flaws’ to accentuate them.

Regardless of whether or not it was Saville’s aim to support the feminist movement in making these pieces, it is undeniable that she has helped the fight in defying these ideal beauty standards women feel they must conform to. However, I was fascinated to see if this was her intention. During her most recent talk at the Tate, Saville addressed these themes integral in her work and explained her thought process in the creation of these incredible paintings. Saville’s interest in this topic began during her time at university in the USA, where she learnt about the nature of patriarchal systems and the oppression of women in society. She was angered by everything she learnt and needed a method to express her outrage about the restraints of society on women, so she turned to painting. For some time, Saville struggled with the prejudice she observed, describing that being a young, female artist felt as though one was ‘trespassing on the works of ancestors’. For her, art was a means of channelling this anger into something productive that would help the feminist cause. One of her main aims in these paintings was to express the feeling of being a woman, of ‘being looked at’, which explains her subject matter of portraits of women, that people will study and scrutinise.

In some of her paintings, Saville depicts women with lines mapping out plans for plastic surgery procedures across their bodies, which depicts a clear message as to the way in which women are made to feel about their bodies – with their ‘flaws’ needing to be altered. The harsh reality of this Saville depicts is very powerful and undoubtedly highlights this issue, encouraging people to reject these societal norms of body-shaming and criticism of others. Works such as these and the previously mentioned portraits are therefore very powerful mechanisms to express, advance and portray the feminist message. Saville did not necessarily anticipate these effects when making these works as for her it was more of a personal endeavour and expression. However, they undoubtedly were instrumental in portraying feminist ideas and messages through art, making it fair to say Saville is an influential feminist artist of the 21st century.

Alice VII