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Saville uses her own body for most of her paintings

This week we heard painter Jenny Saville speak at Boston University. Thirty minutes before the lecture was scheduled to begin at Morse Auditorium, 500 people were already in a line snaking down Commonwealth Avenue. My initial reaction was, how cool. How often do you find people waiting in a long line to hear a painter talk?

Sure, Saville is an international art star of the first order. Her work sells at astronomical prices. And as one of Saatchi’s early finds (he purchased her entire graduate exhibit) and part of the juggernaut of successful artists known as YBAs (Young British Artists), she hit the big time in her early twenties. Now she has a lottery winner’s life, living in a magnificent but tastefully dishabille 18th-century palazzo in Palermo, Sicily. She has 22 rooms that each house a painting she is working on. OK, it does sounds like the ultimate painter’s dream.

But this was no lifestyle evening. Saville stood up and launched immediately, talking for 90 minutes straight. Using double screens, she showed examples of her own work alongside images that have inspired her. Her source material was a steady stream: Photographs of distended, obese bodies; medical textbooks for plastic surgery; burn victims; murder scenes; slaughterhouses; autopsies. But there were also lots of paintings—Soutine, Degas, de Kooning, Velasquez, Warhol, Pollack. Clicking through hundreds of slides, her energy and passion for the power of these images never flagged.

Spending time sketching and photographing in a slaughterhouse was, according to Saville, one of the most beautiful experiences of her life

Saville isn’t slick or particularly polished. She seems to struggle to capture in language what her eye sees with such alacrity. Her description of her struggle as a woman artist who must, as she put it, get out from under the “burden” of the painting canon was delivered haltingly. It isn’t her content or her narrative that compel me; it is rather a dauntingly brilliant hand. There’s so much love and respect in her for wet pigment on a surface. Her mastery is in understanding how plasticity becomes an artifact with its own eminence.

Saville’s work is a cacophonous celebration of paint. Her immense canvases, when encountered close up, are complex, lush and juicy. Stepping back from the abstraction of the microview to perceive her larger than life figurative imagery—exploring the vicissitudes of flesh has been her primary project since art school—offers up a completely different encounter with her art. Both are valid means of experiencing the potency of a Saville painting.

Many times she referred to the “violence” she sees in a painting or an image. She sees it in dead bodies and mutilated limbs. But she also sees it in the streak of red paint in a de Kooning, in a young girl’s hair being combed in a Degas, in photographs of derelict buildings and crumbling ruins. That is Saville’s lens on the world, and it leads to paintings of subject matter that speak to that view. While that is not my lens, I am inspired by her relentlessness.

Saville speaks about her work without self-regard or arrogance. She has an unbridled intensity and humility (“This painting was supposed to be about the different tones of flesh, but I think I failed miserably”) that is palpable. She seems at ease opening her kimono to an auditorium full of strangers and exposing her peculiar and extraordinary mindset. I was not expecting that level of candor. I’m too quick to assume celebritism kills what was once authentic in a person who has achieved that level of success. How wrong I was.

At one point she described herself as having a “vicious” eye at collecting imagery. Well put. When I think of Saville now, I envision her as a giant cosmic eyeball that never stops scanning and absorbing everything in its domain. And doing so with intense heat. A hot, provocative, relentless eyeball.

She was, and is, unforgettable.

One panel from a commissioned triptych Saville is painting for a church in Rome



Rosanna Warren was the featured poet on Thursday night at the Luce Program in Scripture and Literary Arts at Boston University. Well known as a much-loved teacher and award-winning writer and translator (and the daughter of Robert Penn Warren), Rosanna cast a spell on me. Her work is carefully incised, with richly drawn streaks of imaginal flight.

She cycles in and out of many of the same themes that attract me as well. I wasn’t surprised to learn that she began her early adulthood as a painter rather than a poet. Her proclivities draw her to transcendence, to the earth, to the power of art and language to alter everything.

I was particularly moved by some of her most recent pieces. Three poems from a series called “Mistral” felt like a significant departure from her previous work and abandon the armature of a classical, more structured poetic approach. These poems have a mysterious and unnamed force coursing through a haunted hallowing of the past, so they are well named.

She also read several poems that were written about the recent death of her dear friend Deborah Tall, author of From Where We Stand and A Family of Strangers. This poem, dedicated to her friend, appeared in The New Yorker earlier this month.

A Kosmos

You lay in your last sleep, not-sleep,
head tilted stiffly to the right on the pillow
at a sharper angle than when you bent over poems,
year after year, and we plucked at each other’s lines,

as if now you considered some even starker question.
Your I.V. tubes were gone. Your arms were bruised.
A blue cloth cap enfolded your pale, bald head.
It was too late to give you the lavender shawl I’d imagined

more for my sake than for yours.
Your mouth was suddenly tender, the mouth of a girl.
You had come very far, to come here.
Never one not to look at things squarely,

now you looked inward. Who knows what you saw.
And when, weeks later, we gathered
again at the house to say those formal farewells,
I went up to your study looking for “Leaves of Grass”

and found, instead, your orderly desk, unused,
your manuscripts neatly stacked, the framed
photographs of your girls, and, like a private message
from Whitman, who saw things whole, the small

dried body of a mouse. A kosmos, he, too. He, too, luckier.

Publications by Rosanna Warren: Verse translation, Euripides, Suppliant Women (with Stephen Scully) (1995); poetry: Departure (2003), Stained Glass (1993), Each Leaf Shines Separate (1984), Snow Day (1981); ed., The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field (1989); “Sappho: Translation as Elegy,” in The Art of Translation; “La fontana e la pietra: Petrarca contemporaneo,” Studi e problemi di critica testuale (2006); “The Contradictory Classicist: the Poetry of Frank Bidart,” The Threepenny Review (2002); “Orpheus the Painter: Apollinaire and Robert Delaunay,” Criticism (1988); “Selected Prose of Gérard de Nerval” (Transl. with commentary), Georgia Review (1983).