Critics’ Picks

Jenny Saville, Odysseus I, 2020–21, oil, oil stick, and acrylic on canvas, 59 1/2 x 47 1/4''.

Jenny Saville, Odysseus I, 2020–21, oil, oil stick, and acrylic on canvas, 59 1/2 x 47 1/4''.


Jenny Saville

Museo Novecento
Piazza Santa Maria Novella 10
September 30, 2021–February 20, 2022

Jenny Saville has invaded Florence with a sprawling multi-institutional survey, curated by Sergio Risaliti, that places her work in dialogue with the masters of the Italian Renaissance. At the Palazzo Vecchio, for example, the bombastic vortex of armored men and pawing horses in Vasari’s frescoes looks down on her celebrated painting Fulcrum, 1999, here serving as a reminder of the fragility of the body as laid siege to by Covid-19. Then there are Saville’s encounters with Michelangelo, one of her most significant influences, at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and the Casa Buonarroti. The spirited chisel marks of the unfinished Pietà Bandini, ca. 1547–55, and the tender strokes of the Madonna col Bambino, ca. 1525, seem to come alive in Saville’s drawings, transported across the centuries by a female hand. Her thunderous studies of pregnant women and children are informed by the her intimate physical, psychological, and emotional experience of motherhood, while her modern-day pietàs, inspired by war photographs, insert the bodies of refugee children in place of the deposed of Christ.

At the Museo del Novecento, there is a focus on Saville’s most recent series of paintings, in which we see her fleshy palette refreshed with bursts of Pop and acidic color. In the portraits of her young subjects, peers of Greta Thunberg or X González, perhaps, gestural skeins of paint dramatize the innocence, dreams, and existential dramas of adolescence. The facture is loose and expressive save for the sitters’ eyes, rendered so exactingly that, in some of the pupils, we glimpse the artist’s reflection, captured in the photographs she shot and used as source material. In these canvases, Saville pays tribute to a new generation coming to consciousness; their inclusion in an exhibition otherwise concerned with her rapport with the past lends them a particular poignancy, especially in this time of creeping nihilism and despair. Some faces are crossed by rainbows, some gaze into the distance, and some look into the camera—suggesting both real people in the here and now and mythic allegories of the future.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.