This Artwork Changed My Life: Jenny Saville’s “Strategy”

Emily Kirkpatrick
Jul 7, 2020 12:00PM

Jenny Saville, Strategy, 1994. Oil on canvas, 3 panels, 108 x 250 1/2 inches (274.3 x 636.3 cm). © Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.

Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.

Out today on Elephant is Rebecca May on Judy Chicagos The Dinner Party.

Throughout my life, I’ve felt as though my body has betrayed me.

This sensation began around kindergarten, when warts inexplicably marred my hands. To my five-year-old mind, this was a plight belonging to the toads and trolls that populated my bedtime stories, not the affliction of a well-behaved little kid from New Hampshire.

Then came the acne. Long before the profound embarrassment of puberty claimed my body, the pimples arrived with a vengeance. But this was no average breakout—blackheads seemed to cover every square inch of my face, shoulders, and back. Self-consciousness and insecurity devastated my psyche in ways I’m still not sure I’ve fully contended with.

And then there was the issue of my height. By seventh grade, I was quickly approaching six feet tall—a fact endlessly pointed out to me by both classmates and adults. As an already deeply shy, cerebral child, attention, for me, became something inherently negative; a critique of a body increasingly out of my control. In order to escape, I began the process of divorcing my intellectual from my physical self. I turned inward entirely. I hid.

And in hiding, the weight gain began.

The paradox of weight gain is that it is often a response to wanting to become invisible but perversely ends up making you more visible than ever (especially when that excess weight is distributed across a six-foot-tall frame). By my junior year of high school, I was both at my heaviest and most psychologically detached. What they don’t tell you about being fat is that you never really feel fat. The feelings of shame and disgust I came to associate with my body were an entirely learned behavior.

The private high school I attended in rural southern Maine was composed almost exclusively of petite WASPs. While I may have been the weight and pant size of the average American woman, at school I was taught that I was an aberration. So I adopted the identity of the class clown as yet another coping mechanism and form of self-protection. If you’re funny, being fat becomes permissible again. The lesson—as it was conveyed to me through critical looks, snide remarks said in passing, through the parties I wasn’t invited to, and the dates I never went on—being that it’s okay to be the butt of the joke, but never the protagonist of your own story. I internalized this opinion and held it as truth long before I ever realized it was there.

But it was also around this time that my mom, an artist herself, introduced me to the work of British painter Jenny Saville. I remember poring over the glossy pages of that eponymous coffee table book: the brutal reds and pinks of her oil paint delivered in thick brushstrokes, the undulating rolls of flesh becoming their own vast landscape, the bodies pressing against the confines of the canvas. But what I remember most, aside from those big, brutalist forms, were the faces—unapologetic, defiant, daring you to deny their majesty.

The impact of finding Saville’s work at that precise moment in my life didn’t occur to me until years later when I was able to see her triptych painting Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face) (1993–94) in person. Standing 9 feet tall and 21 feet wide, the work is a force of nature. A presence that demands your undivided attention, and not merely because of its scale.

The obese figure in this painting is undeniably beautiful. She is quite literally a work of art put on display so as to be praised and admired. Through the mere act of depiction, Saville underscores the worthiness of this form and its right to occupy this vast space. In a 1994 interview with The Independent, Saville said of her work, “It’s flesh, and the paint itself is the body, but the theory behind each one is essential, as important as the painting. I’m not trying to teach, just make people discuss, look at how women have been made by man. What is beauty? Beauty is usually the male image of the female body. My women are beautiful in their individuality.”

The underwear-clad figure in Strategy is the epitome of that message, showing off her physique from every angle while looking the viewer dead in the eye with the same stoic, unimpressed expression. A look that seems to say, “So?” The work forces the viewer to reckon with their own preconceptions, projections, and insecurities of what it means to be a fat woman by refusing to engage with any of them. This painting is not meant to shock or disgust or make some kind of statement on body positivity. In the liminal state of Saville’s work, this woman is permitted to be exactly as she is. She exists as a pure, unadulterated version of herself. Perhaps for the first time in her life.

And if this painting has the power to set her free, why can’t it do the same for me? Looking at Saville’s bodies, I finally see my own body stripped of the fear and shame I felt so acutely growing up. The fear and shame I still struggle with today no matter how much I weigh or how much praise I receive. Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face) suggested to me then, as it does now, a new mode of living: a world where my body is not a betrayal, but rather a matter of fact; a world where my body is a figure that is perfect in its imperfections.

Jenny Saville’s paintings have helped me realize that only I get to determine my intrinsic value, only I get to decide my truth. And now, I can finally see myself for what I really am—a towering masterpiece allowing an audience to revel in my beauty.

Head to Elephant to read the latest story in its series, Rebecca May on Judy Chicagos The Dinner Party.

Emily Kirkpatrick