Jenny Saville’s nude self-portrait Propped (1992) sold for an impressive £9.5 million at Sotheby’s ‘Frieze Week’ sale of contemporary art. This sets a landmark record for a work by a living female artist and significantly exceeds the painting’s estimated worth of £3-4 million. The painting was originally purchased by Charles Saatchi and given international prominence at the ‘Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Gallery’ exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1997.
Propped (pictured), in displaying a colossal nude figure placed on a phallic-like stand, is typical of Saville’s interest in the female body; particularly her fascination with larger, blemished forms, erring away from the classical image of a smooth skinned and perfectly moulded womanly figure. Propped defies idealised images of femininity and gives a sense of power to the nude pictured through its sheer enormity, almost escaping the picture frame and asserting itself upon the viewer. The words etched across the painting are those of French feminist writer Luce Irigaray, asserting: ‘If we continue to speak in this sameness, speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other. Again, words will pass through our bodies, above our heads, disappear, make us disappear’.
Yet, it would be naïve to see the struggle for equality in the art world as a fait accompli. While the success of Saville’s feminist masterpiece undoubtedly signals changes within the market and an increased appetite for works by women and other subjugated groups, men still take precedence. Even on the auction day, Saville’s success was usurped by the actions of a male artist, Banksy. Banksy’s shredding stunt performatively enacts how the male continues to take centre-stage in the arts, with this incident entirely dominating media coverage. Also, must we not query why Saville’s title must be prefaced with female? Her achievement is still categorised by her gender, while in her own right as an artist she should be celebrated. Indeed, this is a consequence of the fact that the price commanded for the record sale of a work by a male living artist is far, far higher than that gained from Saville’s work; Jeff Koons’s ‘Balloon Dog’ sculpture sold for $58.4 million at Christie’s (New York) in 2013.
This said, it does seem that the zeitgeist is changing; in May, a painting by Kerry James Marshall sold for $21.1 million at Sotheby’s, a record auction sale for any living African-American artist. This coupled with Saville’s recent success does demonstrate how tastes are shifting and black and female artists are becoming increasingly desirable subjects for collectors. The art world does seem to be finally responding to the trend of public opinion in slowly widening its elitist and narrow sphere.
In this way, Saville’s success is so poignant exactly because of the unapologetically feminist nature of Propped. She refuses to ‘speak as men have spoken’ in this work and her oeuvre as a whole by redefining historic traditions and putting female agency and power at the forefront of her work. There is a sense of sisterly solidarity to Propped; women must not ‘disappear’ in the words of Irigaray, but must continue to flourish and create.
Header Image Courtesy of A. Saville/Gagosian Gallery.