AAD011 Final Essay

Aine McGlinchey

               “Propped” Jenny Saville 1992

     Throughout the years of oppression, women have had to escape from the typical, conventionalized image of obedient homemakers and continuously climb to reach the same platform as our male competitors. Saville has made a distinct impression on the feminist community throughout recent years, challenging female beauty standards through her art and cleverly dissembling the socially constructed idea of how we as women are expected to look and how we have been taught that our physical appearance is something we should strive to maintain; belittling our chances to speak the loudest.

Jenny Saville, the British artist, has long been recognized as a key figure in modern art. Her portraiture has drawn references to celebrities such as Peter Paul Rubens, Francis Bacon, and Marlene Dumas. With her focus on bulbous feminine shapes and a fan base that includes feminist critics and art royalty alike, she is perhaps one of the most influential female artists in the contemporary world.

Saville’s drawings depict the surfaces of a female fleshy body by precise studies of bodily surfaces and excretions such as breasts dangling, hands gripping, and belly falling and pushing against itself. “Propped” disingenuously celebrates female empowerment by creating such a loudly spoken piece of work; The model sits nude on a raised stool in front of a mirror, her white heels placed around the slim bottom of the platform to stabilize her broad form. Her enlarged breasts drape to her middle. Her head is holstered, her eyes are closed, and her hands are grasping at the flesh of her fairly large thighs. In the background of the painting, Saville has inscribed text that comes from a Belgium feminist writer Lucy Irigary stating; “If we continue to speak in this sameness – speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other.”

Saville’s sizeable paintings are created using dense layers of oil paint which are then added to canvases with evocative slurs, lines, and scratches. Her impressionistic style makes her nudists and paintings seem almost gruesome, which is emphasized by intense illumination that captures every nook and cranny of the woman’s skin. The painting displays a range of discomfort and anxiousness, with Saville creating an eerie ambiance using the natural and almost grey colour scheme.

The fight for equality in the world of art extends beyond appreciation and galleries to auction houses. Nonetheless, Jenny Saville’s Propped (1992) sold for an unprecedented £9.5 million at Sotheby’s London on October 5, holding the record for the costliest artwork by a living artist. The financial contrast between Saville’s record-breaking sale and Jeff Koons’ male predecessor’s revenue is £35.9 million. While the sale price of “Propped” is a success for independent female artists, the scarcity of female artwork in auctions, as well as the resulting price reductions of the few female masterpieces who do go to purchase, demonstrate the implicit sexism in the art industry and our cultural society toward women and their artwork.

In my own perspective, Saville has cleverly captured the outlook on the oppression of the female gender through her unique perspective of the female body and challenges the male viewpoint of how a woman show looks, thus highlighting gender inequality through artwork.

     “The Dinner Party” Judy Chicago 1974

“The Dinner Party” by Judy Chicago is a very important installation piece of 1970’s feminist art. The Dinner Party, presented in The Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre for Feminist Art, is a large formal event mounted on a triangular table of thirty-nine table settings, each honouring a significant woman in history.

Embellished runners, gold goblets and cutlery, and china-painted porcelain plates with elevated central motifs centered on vulvar and butterfly shapes and made in designs suitable to the actual women being honoured to comprise the environments. On the white tile floor below the triangular bench, the names of another 999 women are written in gold. This permanent installation is supplemented by revolving Herstory Gallery exhibitions about the 1,038 women who have been honoured at the table.

The Dinner Party acknowledges traditional female achievements such as textile arts (weaving, embroidery, sewing) and china painting, which have been framed as craft or domestic art rather than the more culturally respected, male-dominated fine arts. The Dinner Party is a monument to the strength of feminine vision and creative collaboration, having taken five years to create (1974-1979) and relying on the volunteer labour of over 400 individuals.

Although some admired the table runners, they dismissed or disparaged the dishes. These ceramic pieces, which resemble flowers and butterflies as they progress from prehistory to the present to depict women emerging, resemble blossoms and butterflies. They also have a disturbing resemblance to female genitalia. Lolette Kuby, writing for the feminist journal

Frontiers in 1981, was so impressed with the types of the plates that she suggested that Playboy and Penthouse had done more to encourage the attractiveness of female anatomy than The Dinner Party might.

Chicago has artfully distinguished each place at the table taking ideas and suggestions from their previous work and their significant place in history as a way to commemorate their great success and achievements. As previously stated, when talking about Jenny Saville’s work, Chicago has cleverly called attention to how the female gender is constantly seen as an object and with their genitalia being the male’s main achievement.

The painted sculptural plates were meant to be symbols rather than concrete depictions. Consider the last position setting on the table: the one for Georgia O’Keeffe. This plate is the installation’s most sculptural element. Pink and greenish-grey swirls and folds out from a circular center surrounded by bulbous folds that seem to have been purposefully stretched apart to expose what

seems to be a hidden passage. The plate’s composition is reminiscent of female genitalia, but it also resembles the outline of a butterfly and flower reproductive organs. O’Keeffe was renowned for her abstract flower paintings, and thus the plate is a tribute to some of her more well-known works, such as “Grey Lines with Black, Blue, and Yellow” (1923) and “Black Iris III” (1926), all of which have a central opening surrounded by folds, or “Two Calla Lillies on Pink” (1928), which has a comparable colour scheme to the O’Keeffe plate.

I personally feel as if the use of genital symbolism in Chicago has proven to be effective. Since enduring ridicule, critical exclusion, and political posturing, The Dinner Party is now regarded as a pivotal piece in modern art and is indefinitely housed in a dedicated gallery at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre for Feminist Art.


Meagher, M., 2003. Jenny Saville and a feminist aesthetics of disgust. Hypatia, 18(4), pp.23-42.

Colls, R., 2012. BodiesTouchingBodies: Jenny Saville’s over-life-sized paintings and the ‘morpho-logics’ of fat, female bodies. Gender, Place & Culture, 19(2), pp.175-192.

Paterson, M. and Dodge, M. eds., 2016. Touching space, placing touch. Routledge.

Robinson, H., 2006. Reading art, reading Irigaray: The politics of art by women. Ib tauris.

Kuby, L., 1981. The Hoodwinking of the Women’s Movement: Judy Chicago’s” Dinner Party”. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, pp.127-129.

Image, O.N., 1979. The Dinner Party’. Demeter.

Party, D., 1999. What is feminist art history?. Gender and Art, p.20.

Gerhard, J.F., 2013. The Dinner Party: Judy Chicago and the power of popular feminism, 1970-2007. University of Georgia Press.

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