New York

Jenny Saville, The Mothers, 2011, oil on canvas, 106 3/8 x 86 5/8".

Jenny Saville, The Mothers, 2011, oil on canvas, 106 3/8 x 86 5/8".

Jenny Saville

Jenny Saville, The Mothers, 2011, oil on canvas, 106 3/8 x 86 5/8".

Jenny Saville’s “Continuum,” a presentation of eight drawings and five paintings, demonstrates the pull and power of the past—indeed, the inescapability of art history. The inclusion of the word pentimenti in several titles makes the point clearly: Pentimenti are compositional elements that an artist has painted over, yet still remain visible—they are the return of the repressed. From Saville’s The Mothers, 2011—a depiction of a seated mother holding two children—emerges Leonardo’s drawing The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John, ca. 1499–1500, owned by the National Gallery in London. The Michelangelo work that forms the basis for Study for Pentimenti IV (After Michelangelo’s Virgin and Child), 2011, is probably The Virgin Child with the Infant Saint John, ca. 1504–1506, in London’s Royal Academy of Arts. That work, like Saville’s paintings and drawings, is unfinished, its parts in various states of completion, some of its strokes “coarse” but nonetheless conveying what Frederick Hartt called “the breathing, pulsating surface”—a lively surface worthy of what he described as the “passionate grouping.”

Here, the subject of Saville’s images is the mother and child. Saville claims to be interested in flesh, but I think she’s more interested in the psychology of the mother-child relationship—specifically, between the female mother and male child. In her images, their bond is precarious and uncertain. The expression on the mother’s face in Pentimenti IV, for example, is by no means loving—it even seems angry, or at least irritated and troubled. And if the blood-red face of a boy in the “Red Stare Head” series, 2004–, with its ambiguously sullen, truculent expression, is any clue, his mother was not particularly good at raising him. Saville’s images raise the question of whether the mother is a “facilitating environment” for the child, to use the British object-relational psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s term for a “good-enough mother.” (In this regard, Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534–40, may exert a stronger influence on her work than those sources she acknowledges; in that painting, the child appears to be about to slip off the mother’s lap, and she certainly doesn’t seem interested in attending to him, let alone preventing his fall.)

Just as Saville’s mothers may not be good enough, Saville is uncertain that her art is good enough—at least in comparison to the masters she evokes. This uncertainty is evident in the way that her handling of paint repeatedly shifts, and in the works’ provisional look. They appear continuously in process, worked and reworked, with no end in sight—approaching no easy resolution. Unconscious self-doubt often drives reparative creativity and here it also conveys the struggles, certainly the emotional difficulty, of the demanding mother-child relationship.

The psychoanalyst George Hagman argues that the relationship between mother and child is an aesthetic one. It “grants high value to the gestures, shapes, sounds, colors, and rhythms that characterize the interaction of parent and child.” That Saville’s aesthetics of flesh, are, as she says, “ugly, beautiful, repulsive, compelling, anxious, neurotic, dead, alive” further indicates that the mothers in her paintings have profound ambivalence toward their children; because of that, they represent a failure of parenting, and of Saville’s labored impulsiveness.

Donald Kuspit