Opening: Jenny Saville Converses w/ Michelangelo in Conceptual New Florence Exhibition

In Daniel Rachel’s recent book Don’t Look Back In Anger: The Rise and Fall of Cool Britannia, Young British Artists Tracey Emin and Matt Collishaw recall the youthful fortitude that went into creating their own scene amongst the disused industrial buildings of East London, whilst living in squats and barely scraping together the rent. Jenny Saville emerged from that very same scene, and the anything-is-possible intensity of that time has always been immediately evident in her work. Thirty years on, she is now counted amongst our greatest living contemporary painters.

In proper tribute to that painterly gravitas, Florence’s Museo Novecento is presenting an ambitious eponymous exhibition, which runs through February 20, 2022. That the museum is housed in the 15th Century former Hospital of San Paolo is certainly appropriate, as Saville has seemed at times to be bridging the wide space between punk and the Renaissance. And placed within the Novecento’s historic halls, which are these days given over to modern art, one gets a greater sense of a kind of religiosity underlying her works.

Conceptually, it aims very high. Saville has always been fascinated by / obsessed with the human body as a vehicle for communicating information, both corporeal and ethereal; and with the exhibition also spreading to other artistically strategic locations around the Tuscan capital, her works are strikingly juxtaposed with masterpieces from the Italian Renaissance, a time when artists had shifted their focus from the divine to the worldly, and were enthusiastically exalting the physical form. For instance, her Rosetta II (2005-2006) is displayed in such a way as to relate to Giotto’s wooden crucifix hanging in the nave of the nearby Basilica Santa Maria Novella.

Of course, given her status, Saville’s influences have long been discussed. Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon were unmistakable; but the visceral rawness of Egon Schiele and even Caravaggio also seemed to often inform her work. But perhaps less examined is her fascination with Michelangelo. And at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, her drawing Study for Pietà (2021) is paired with the Renaissance master’s late-period Bandini Pietà (c. 1547–55). While in the hallowed rooms of the Museo di Casa Buonarroti – a dedicated tribute to Michelangelo’s eternal genius – Saville’s drawings Study for Pietà I (2021) and Mother and Child Study II (2009) pay reverent homage to his Sketches (1517–20).

Cristina Acidini, President of the Museo di Casa Buonarroti, explains, “In this section of the exhibition, the spark of the understanding at a distance between the drawings and sketches of Michelangelo and the works of Saville strikes with full evidence, which – like him – not only places the human figure at the center, but explores physicality up to effort, testing her abilities in reaching the limits of the sustainable with a perennially pregnant artistic material.”

Despite the infrequency of cultural institutions attempting to connect the contemporary with the historical, art is nevertheless often at its most powerful when its origins are viscerally and intelligently explored. And if you’re Jenny Saville, it would surely not be difficult to feel a sense of destiny fulfilled by being considered alongside the likes of Giotto and Michelangelo.

“What Michelangelo sought by carrying out anatomical studies,” observes Acidini, “Saville finds in the ancients and in the moderns from the Etruscans to Bacon, and above all in the living flesh pressed by embraces, modeled by plastic surgery, disfigured by torture. Hers is a contemporary humanism, that is both tender and cruel at the same time.”

And what better place to explore that humanism, than in the very Cradle of the Renaissance?

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