Jenny Saville’s Propped fetches record result at Sotheby’s

POSTED: Friday, October 5, 2018

On the 5th of October 2018, Jenny Saville’s Propped sold for £9.5 million ($12.4 million) the greatest amount ever paid for a piece by a living female artist. Eight bidders battled for ten minutes to secure this record-breaking result. But the self-portrait’s significance is not tied solely to this phenomenal result. It encapsulates a modern, female and human struggle to exist in our own skin. It is also an act of rebellion, a bid to traverse beauty standards and to critique centuries of portraiture governed by the male gaze. It is empowering both to the painter, and the viewer. So, it is all the more glorious that this powerful depiction of a woman’s pride and pain has made art history in this sale, not for conformity, but difference.


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Propped was spotted by Saatchi in 1992 while on display at Saville’s degree show in Edinburgh. He swiftly went on to purchase Saville’s entire collection. It was then exhibited as a star piece in the groundbreaking exhibition Sensation in 1997, contributing to the exhibitions controversial reputation and provocative allure. The exhibition attracted 28,000 paying visitors and its scandalous nature propelled London to the fore of the Avant-Garde in art. Its recent sale was part of a similarly attention-grabbing exhibition, with the Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale attracting enormous interest thanks to Banksy’s most recent stunt.


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Saville and Banksy are similar in their ability to communicate a complex social commentary through art. Her paintings, glistening with thickly smeared oil paint, are a celebration of the truth of femininity in all its forms. Her work engages with a societal aversion to bodies that do not conform, and she boldly confronts the taboo of imperfection. In the artist’s words, “I’m interested in the power a large female body has” while simultaneously “acutely aware that our contemporary culture encourages her to disguise her bulk and look as small as possible”.


Saville paints women, so often confined, smoothed and shrunk as unapologetically expansive, often dwarfing the viewer while contemplating them with an unwavering gaze. “I’m not painting disgusting, big women. I'm painting women who've been made to think they're big and disgusting." Her subject’s defiance is at once bold and fearful, as in Propped, where the solidity of the form is tempered by an intense vulnerability. Her bold defiance of social rules empowers her viewers and subjects alike, by seeking amore expansive and complex definition of beauty. 


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'If we continue to speak in this sameness, speak as men have spoken for centuries we will fail each other, words will pass through our bodies, above our heads, disappear, make us disappear' - Luce Irigaray paraphrased by Jenny Saville in Propped 



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Saville’s sophisticated feminist theory is encapsulated in Propped. Here her self-portrait gazes into a distorted mirror with an apparently illegible quote carved across the canvas. She paints from her own perspective, looking inwards in an act of self-reflection and contemplation. This is in direct contravention of the age-old tradition of a male artist painting a naked woman: where her airbrushed-external form is celebrated for consumption by the viewer. Here the very opposite is achieved: the artist paints an uncensored version of herself, considering text legible not to the viewer, but to the subject.


The text itself is a quote from an essay by the French feminist Luce Irigaray which investigates male-female interaction. Irigaray’s essay posits that men use women as mirrors to serve their own narcissism, thus losing themselves by speaking as men have spoken. It seems that Saville is, therefore, calling on the viewer to follow her lead and to speak, not as society demands, but in her own voice, for herself. By celebrating and exploring the million different ways to be a feminine, and the beauty of imperfection Saville aids the viewer to sit more comfortably in their own skin.