Interview: This is Jenny, and this is her Plan: Men paint female beauty in stereotypes; Jenny Saville paints it the way it is. And Charles Saatchi is paying her to keep doing it

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Jenny Saville is 23 and 'one of the most exciting artists' Charles Saatchi has seen in the last 30 years. In fact she could be the most exciting, but he's not saying. You have to work it out. He's given over his Saatchi Gallery in London to three young British painters - two men in their thirties and young Jenny - and has been reported as saying that one of them is the most exciting he's ever seen, etc.

Bound to be Jenny. Just look at the space on the arts pages. Look at the space in the gallery, dominating the whole exhibition, assaulting the senses the moment you step in. Look at the crowds gathered round her seven gigantic works. Hear them exclaim as they gasp at her female figures.

She doesn't look the artist, more like a lower sixth-former, so young, so small, so conventionally dressed. Most of the admiring visitors looked far more artistic, with their spiky hair, grungey clothes, nose rings. Some of them must have heard Jenny say yes, I used myself for that pose, that face is actually me, and at once there was a crowd round her. Disbelieving at first that such images could spring from this sweet, fresh-faced girl, then they were shaking her hand. 'Wicked attitude,' said a boy with a shaved head. 'All women will want to look fat from now on,' said a girl with green hair.

Jenny was pleased, as she is a painter, making serious points, which they all seemed to be getting, unlike some critics. A bit embarrassed too, with all the fuss, so we retreated to a quiet place. As she described her life so far, I found it even harder to understand where it has all come from. That's in the nature of real talent. You can't explain its source.

She was born in Cambridge in 1970, only passing through, and has never been back. Both parents were teaching there. At the time, her father was a primary school head who then started zooming up the educational ladder to become an Inspector, and eventually a Director of Education. All this meant criss-crossing the country and 15 different schools for Jenny. She has an older brother, Geoff, a pig farmer in Shropshire, and a young brother, Waz, 15, and younger sister, Boo, 14, both still at school. (Waz from Chas, ie Charles. Boo from Becky Boo, ie Rebecca. Easy, really.)

Moving around made her grow up fast, and she is wise for her age. 'By the time I was 13, I could tell when I arrived at each new school which group I would end up with. It was never the ones who took me over and were immediately helpful, but the ones at the back, saying nothing.' At her final school, a comprehensive in Newark, Nottinghamshire, she was made school captain, elected democractically, she stresses.

Her parents presumed she would go to university. She was good at most subjects, and sat four A-levels, but since the age of eight painting had been her passion. 'There were only two of us taking A-level art, so we had the art room to ourselves - I went wild.' Neither parent is artistic, but an uncle is an art teacher and had always encouraged her. It was he who said she should try Glasgow College of Art, where he had been.

Today, Jenny has a distinct Scottish accent, soft, rather Kelvinside-y. She has lived for the past five years in Glasgow, the longest she has been anywhere. She also has a big passion for Glasgow Rangers. She'd followed Ipswich at school, but adopted Rangers when she arrived in Glasgow, thanks partly to her friend Paul McPhail, a fellow art student. Is he your boyfriend, I asked, crassly. 'Partner,' she corrected. They live together in a Glasgow tenement, work together, watch Rangers together. 'My nose is blue,' she said.

During her first three years at Glasgow she worked as a waitress and a temp. 'I didn't get a grant, because my parents' income was too high, but I wanted to be independent, take nothing from them, pay my own way.' In her fourth year, she devoted herself to art, running up large debts in the process.

'Glasgow Art School is very traditional, very romantic. It was built by Mackintosh, as an art college. There're his original studios, the original sinks, and you feel part of a great tradition. It makes your work look far better than it would in a Portakabin, which is what most Southern art schools have.'

Halfway through she won a scholarship to the United States, one term in Cincinatti, a massive, modern art school, run on totally different lines. One of her courses included women in the community. It was this visit which hardened up her nascent feminist feelings. 'I'd always wondered why there had been no women artists in history. I found there had been - but not reported. I realised I'd been affected by male ideas, going through a male-dominated art college.' She started painting nudes, but not luscious Rubens women or sexy Impressionist models, ie the male stereotypes of women down the ages, but women as most women are. .

She entered competitions, won one in Glasgow, and was twice selected for the National Portrait Gallery in London. In her graduate show, in the summer of 1992, she sold almost all her paintings, making herself pounds 4,000 - exactly enough to pay off her debts.

In September 1992, the Times Saturday Review chanced to do a feature on young artists leaving art college, and one of Jenny's paintings ended up on the cover. This was seen by Charles Saatchi. He clutched his brow, shouted 'Eureka] I must have this girl. Track her down at once]' (I just made this up. C Saatchi never talks to the press.) He even contacted the person who had bought the painting he had seen - for which Jenny had been paid pounds 1,200 - and another which had been in a London show, persuading the purchasers to sell to him, price unknown.

He then made her an offer no 22-year-old artist, straight out of college, could possibly refuse. I will pay you a goodly sum of money, he said, enough for you to live well for the next year, and in return you will paint full-time, giving me at the end of the year your paintings, which I promise to show in my gallery. How many do you think you might do? Jenny readily agreed. Not even the slightest trace of cynicism?

'Some people have tried to suggest he might be using me, but how? As an investment? But then all people who buy paintings like to think it's an investment. I am totally grateful to him. Not just the money, but his act of faith. It built my confidence. I still can hardly believe it. He didn't dictate the style I must paint in, or how many. He left it all to me.'

She told no one. Not the Glasgow press. Not even her art school teachers. Just Paul, plus her parents. They didn't really understand. They said Saatchi's something to do with advertising, isn't he? 'I wanted it kept secret so there would be no pressure on me. One or two people did ask me, having heard rumours, but I wouldn't confirm it. I wanted to be calm.'

For eight months, she practically withdrew from real life, no parties, no social life, managing on three hours' sleep. 'I worked through the night till six in the morning, going to bed when GMTV came on, and the first bap van came down the street. I'd sleep till about 11 or 12, then start work again. I worked in a sort of frenzy. I'd been offered what could be my chance of a lifetime. I didn't want to turn out crap work.'

Paul also worked the same hours, painting away in his room, she in hers. Was there, is there, any rivalry or jealousy? 'None at all. He nearly died during the eight months, which is a bit worse than any possible jealousy. He got peritonitis and was very, very ill.'

Their only relaxation was watching Rangers at home. 'The Euro matches were wonderful, especially against Marseilles. I keep away from Celtic games. I find the bigotry disturbing, listening to three generations of the same family singing the same bigoted songs.' Away matches they would listen to on the radio, then play back only the Rangers' goals during the week, over and over again, to cheer themselves up. 'That way Rangers never got beaten.'

Jenny's paintings are huge. Plan is 9ft high, as are the three paintings in her triptych. She never saw this complete until it was transported to London and hung at the Saatchi Gallery. 'I only ever managed to see two of them at once, and I had to do that by leaving my room and peering through the doorway.' She worked from scaffolding, being only 5ft 2in, sometimes nude, often using mirrors to help get the flesh right, the pubic hairs

exact.

It is her face in Plan, and also her body, though you might not think so, as the perspective makes it look enormous. 'Women have usually only taken the role of model. I'm both, artist and model. I'm also the viewer, so I have three roles.'

The woman in Plan has target marks on her body, areas mapped out with lines, where she's about to have liposuction to get rid of her fat.

'A lot of women out there look and feel like that, made to fear their own excess, taken in by the cult of exercise, the great quest to be thin. The rhetoric used against obesity makes it sound far worse than alcohol or smoking, yet they can do you far more damage. I'm not painting disgusting, big women. I'm painting women who've been made to think they're big and disgusting, who imagine their thighs go on for ever.

'The history of art has been dominated by men, living in ivory towers, seeing women as sexual objects. I paint women as most women see themselves. I try to catch their identity, their skin, their hair, their heat, their leakiness. I do have this sense with female flesh that things are leaking out. A lot of our flesh is blue, like butcher's meat. In history, pubic hair has always been perfect, painted by men. In real life, it moves around, up your stomach, or down your legs.'

Shades of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud? 'Yeah, other people have said that. If you do figurative painting today you are bound to have been influenced by Freud, but he hasn't been as influential as some people make out. I don't give my figures a setting. They are never in a room. There is no narrative. It's flesh, and the paint itself is the body, but the theory behind each one is essential, as important as the painting. I'm not trying to teach, just make people discuss, look at how women have been made by man. What is beauty? Beauty is usually the male image of the female body. My women are beautiful in their individuality.

'I've been influenced by tabloid newspapers and the diet industry. Friends send me examples and stories from magazines. Did you know that in America, in the big, slick corporations, a woman executive can get a nose job, if she thinks she has a massive nose, as part of her contract? God. Isn't that incredibly disturbing?

'My mother cut out a piece in Cosmo magazine, which is where I first saw the targets on a woman's stomach. I've visited clinics where they do that sort of stuff, suction, electric probes, body wraps, promising to make women thin. I don't reveal I'm a painter. They might think I'm going to expose them, but I'm not.

'I haven't had liposuction myself but I did fall for that body wrap thing where they promise four inches off, or your money back. I actually lost six inches - but what you don't realise is that it's made up of a quarter-inch off each ankle, a centimetre off your wrist. You think it'll all come off your tum. I put it all on again in two days. I'd like to observe plastic surgery, women actually on the operating table, that's my ambition.'

But isn't she in some sense doing women a disservice by making them look so horrible? 'No. Men might well think they look gross, but other people, such as women, will think, that's how we are.'

Don't many people find them a bit disturbing? 'Yes, people say they're good but they couldn't live with them. They're not meant for that. I want them hung in public, all together, so they relate to each other, not be tucked away in people's homes. Mr Saatchi has offered me a contract for another three years. I can't tell you how much. We're discussing it. No, I haven't got an agent. Why do I need one?'

Next month, she and Paul are off to New York. 'There's a group of people who collect British painters. They're supplying us with a house, food, car, materials, everything we need for six months. All we have to do is paint. Everything is looked after.

'When we get back, we'll probably move to London. The problem is, what team will we follow? My uncle's an Arsenal fan and won't forgive me if I go elsewhere. We'll also have to buy a car. I've passed my test, but haven't been able to afford one till now. The future? To keep painting, keep showing, keep the debate going. I think I'll stick to women. I couldn't paint nude men. I don't know what I see. The female body is what I'm knowledgeable about.'

'Young British Artists III', Saatchi Gallery, 98a Boundary Road, London, NW8 ORH (071-624 8299), until end August, Friday- Sunday, noon to 6pm. Fri free, Sat and Sun, pounds 2.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments