Saville Sings the Body
I come from a line of women who weep into mirrors. In a topsy-turvy version of Narcissus they can’t stop looking but hate what they see. Needless to say I have long been fascinated by how women look at themselves, and at each other. When I was a young girl I would draw and draw, on paper, cardboard, the backs of other drawings, an endless parade of women. I adorned my goddesses with feathers, flowers, and fantastical objects, ornate costumes replete with abundant skirts beneath which one could hide secret worlds.
As I grew older I began to recognize and critique the ways women were told their bodies should look. I stopped drawing and started internalizing the “negative” and “positive” aspects of my own appearance. This combination of awareness and susceptibility made for a cognitive dissonance that is abating only now, as I begin to understand the importance placed on the shape and size of a woman’s body to be a simultaneously inane and cruel social construct. This is likely why I am drawn to depictions of women that ignite wonder and curiosity, that are absent of signifiers of morality, beauty, and worth - the values our culture’s visual language arbitrarily inscribes on certain kinds of bodies. Jenny Saville makes work that slips outside this narrow frame of representation, so when I have the opportunity to see it in the flesh I pounce.
A windstorm rages through Edinburgh the morning I walk to the Scottish Modern National Art Gallery, scattering branches across the street and showering cars in cherry blossoms. The sun blazes out from behind clouds periodically, illuminating people hunched over, clutching hats and umbrellas under arms as they battle phantoms down the sidewalk. My headphones play a podcast about how reproductive rights legislation in several American states is under threat. The storm feels appropriately apocalyptic.
I have the exhibition to myself due to the inclement weather. Saville’s measured yet hasty strokes of salmon, grey, palest blue, and beige - a palette of dusk, dawn, and broad, dimpled backs - create sensuous, gargantuan portraits. I think of what it might feel like to be in any of the bodies I inspect so intimately. I long to run my fingers across the ridges of paint, as if my touch could unlock the women’s secrets. Memories permeate my absorption in the work, which is filled to burst with waxen flesh bearing indentations from undergarments, angry lines demarcating which part is what.
I am seven years old and my parents have just separated. My second grade teacher’s vast, papery arms wrap around me in a piteous hug, enveloping my narrow shoulders like a cloak made of scratchy polyester and impossibly soft, soap scented skin.
I’m so sorry.
Tears leak from beneath blue mascaraed lashes, making trails down her powdery cheeks - as though the worst thing that could happen to a woman is to leave a man, and the worst thing that could happen to a girl is for her mother to leave her father. My first of many lessons regarding the shame of being a woman, especially an unhappy one, especially an unhappy one trying to change her fate.
My grandmother was also a proponent of blue mascara, and I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world, aside from my mother. I loved inspecting her hands in all their rainbow-veined glory. Gauzy skin, nearly translucent, draped across bony fingers ringed with the trimmings of a long, dismal marriage. The sapphires, emeralds, and rubies set in gold bands marked yet another anniversary, time passing interminably.
People start filtering into the gallery. The storm must be over. I am standing in front of a tangle of distorted limbs overlapping on canvas. Shrouded in a damp trench coat, windswept hair mercifully concealing an unexpected and embarrassing bout of grief, I wonder what it might feel like to forget the images of my mother wiping away tears as she applied lipstick, of my grandmother eating cantaloupe at dinner, spending decades denying herself nourishment and pleasure. Mostly I wonder how different the lives of my strong, sad, beloved women would be if the fabric of their days not been stitched together with self-loathing. It is enough to make me weep, and I do, retreating to the washroom to escape the growing crowd.
I cry in front of a mirror, like my mother, like her mother before her.
As I leave the gallery, bedraggled and spent, I realize that the places in which we are situated, the bodies we are situated in, and the circumstances that make up our lived experience are potent, but that Saville’s dislocation of her figures allows, however momentarily, for one to be unmoored from the weighty compositions of the stories of our lives. With this freedom comes the ability to regard without shame or consternation the banal fact of our bodies, which happens to be a beautiful thing.
Beth Schellenberg is a writer currently living on Treaty 1 land, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She recently completed a Curatorial and Cultural Studies MA and has been spending her time writing anything but academic papers, cuddling her cats, and working in Communications and Marketing. Her work is published in Public Parking, this is tomorrow: Contemporary Art Magazine, Paperwait: Contemporary Art Writing Journal, Briarpatch Magazine, and Dear Journal.
Cover photo by Emiliano Vittoriosi