The passage below is another piece I wrote for Art Critique yesterday. This article explores the connections between Jenny Saville’s record-breaking sale of her painting Propped and the glass ceiling women face in the art world.
Throughout art history, women have struggled to break the shackles of the muse and gain the same footing as male artists. The battle for equality in the art world goes beyond recognition or exhibitions and asserts itself in auction houses. Yet, on October 5, Jenny Saville’s Propped (1992) sold for an astounding £9.5 million at Sotheby’s London, breaking the record for the most expensive painting by a living artist. The large-scale self-portrait portrays the nude artist seated and staring down at the viewer.
Saville paints her flesh using strokes of subtle blues, yellows, and pinks to highlight her “imperfections” and, more importantly, to challenge preconceptions of beauty. The monetary difference between Saville’s record-breaking sale and that of her Although the selling price of Propped is a victory for working women artists, the lack of female artwork in auction houses and the subsequent price discounts of the few female artworks that do go to auction, highlights the inherent bias in the art market and in our collective culture against women and their work.
Born in 1970, Jenny Saville studied art at the Glasgow School of Art from 1988 to 1992 and is a member of the Young British Artists (a loose group of artists who began exhibiting together in 1988). The artist is represented by Gagosian, a global art gallery established in 1980. Throughout her oeuvre, Saville explores the fragility, rejuvenation, and decay of flesh informed by the extension of her study beyond the classroom and into the operating theaters of surgeons and morticians.
Saville creates her large-scale artwork with thick layers of oil paint that are then applied to canvases using expressionistic smears, strokes, and scrapes. Her impasto style renders her nudes and portraits as almost grotesque, which is underscored by dramatic lighting that illuminates every crevice and flaw of the human body.
Her self-portrait, Propped, was brought to the international art stage at the 1997 exhibition, “Sensation: Young British Artists,” at the Saatchi Gallery of the Royal Academy in London. This same exhibition featured several works of artist Damien Hirst, whose Lullaby Spring sold for over £9.6 million in 2007. SHIFT, another of Saville’s artworks comparable to Propped in terms of size and year of sale, sold at Sotheby’s London in 2016 for £6.8 million.