Interfacing

Detail from Branded, 1992 Artwork © Jenny Saville

Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire first learned about artist Jenny Saville by way of a feature article in a weekend newspaper supplement. Wire told writer Dan Richards in 2010:

“I remember the day vividly because we both bought the Independent on Sunday and in the magazine was a special on Jenny Saville – the first time we’d been exposed to her – and we both phoned each other up and said, ‘Those paintings are amazing.’ It was a sort of psychic thing that me and him had.” [1]

The article, written by critic David Sylvester and published on 20 January 1994, prompted a phone call by Edwards, to enquire about the possibility of using one of Saville’s artworks for the cover of the album. Saville explained to Richards:

“The first time I did the Manics thing, I was living in Glasgow. I’d just done the show at the Saatchi Gallery and Richey Edwards called me up and we had a conversation about anorexia and I wasn’t initially keen on doing an album cover but then, after talking to him, I really wanted to do it because we had a lot of interests that were similar – about technology and the body, writers we liked – and he faxed me the lyrics to ‘4st 7lb’ and I read that and said, ‘I’ll do it. Use the triptych, you can have it.’”

By studying Saville’s work across her career to date, the ways in which her preoccupations and stylistic approach complement The Holy Bible – and especially the themes and aesthetic of Richey Edwards’s writing and art design – becomes all the more apparent. Paying closer attention to Saville’s vast canvases, as well as her insightful commentary on them, can also help to better articulate a number of characteristics that make The Holy Bible such an unusual and enduring work of art.

There is firstly a shared interest in the human figure, and the self, with an emphasis on bodies that are exposed, vulnerable, in a state of transition, oddly positioned or subject to violence. The stripped women, the gunshot victims, those who have undergone gender reassignment and those lying entangled in Jenny Saville’s catalogue. And the images of corpses, the brutalised, the starved and the self-wounded evoked on The Holy Bible. Grounded in reality, these are nevertheless the kinds of bodies still typically obscured in everyday media – where the trade is more often in unrealistic fantasy, where the virtual now predominates – so as to stand out as somewhat alien.

However the impact of centuries of figurative representation, not least the postures and emotional states depicted in religious art are unavoidable. Saville and the Manics offer their own responses to such iconographic commonplaces; a reconsideration of the enduring power, and the limitations, of Christian symbols in particular. There is no simple dismissal of religious concepts but rather a clear-eyed perspective on how long-standing traditions have shaped history, and our conception of the self, and how they resonate today.

There is also a movement between the personal and the impersonal, which writer John Gray has discussed in an essay on Saville, and which not only runs through The Holy Bible, but tends to characterise writing about the record as well – often at one and the same time autobiographical and academic. This shapes both artists’ figurative depictions in complex ways; between embodiment and detachment, autobiography and artifice, alienation and communion, subjection and self-control – or as one lyric would have it, ‘spectator or crucified’.

At the formal level, another key link between the aesthetic of The Holy Bible and Saville’s paintings – more obvious in Saville’s work since 1994 but evident from the beginning – is the use of various combinatory effects, again in unconventional ways. Both Saville and the Manics are adept at repurposing and collaging an array of material – from newspapers, textbooks, literature, art history, and popular culture – to reinvigorate familiar forms.

Ambiguities and paradoxes abound as one begins to scratch beneath the surface and consider any one of these aspects. Expectations are upended. The perspective of the listener or viewer is continually shifting. But even as they represent subjects at a moment of fragility, confusion, or at the brink of extinction, the works themselves appear to be inexhaustible, monolithic, standing up to repeated scrutiny.

Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face), 1993-94 Artwork © Jenny Saville (Image © The Broad Art Foundation)

The figure of the obese woman who features in Saville’s triptych Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face), which was selected as the cover image of The Holy Bible, forms a counterpoint to the recurring images of skinniness throughout album: the anorexic, the catwalk model and the concentration camp prisoner – the ‘Belsenated body’ that dominated Richey Edwards’s lyrics by 1994. [2] As such, it might not be immediately obvious how Strategy encapsulates the album visually.

Speaking on Swedish television in 1994, Edwards explained that The Holy Bible, as with the holy book in any religion, should be about truth, the way the world is. At the time, Saville was making her name as a visual artist who trained her eye keenly on the way of the flesh, capturing the character of real women’s bodies; their pubic hair, their flab and cellulite. Her focus on the nude was at the time a source of contention at her art school in Glasgow, conflicting with feminist concerns, or “dealing with forbidden territory,” as she has said. Yet Saville was fascinated by the details typically erased in the photoshopped false reality of glossy magazines, or ‘corrected’ so as to achieve a perfected geometry of musculature, as in certain classical paintings. Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection was a primary influence, being the subject of Saville’s dissertation. Explaining what motivated her in an Observer interview in 1994, she said:

“I’m painting these kinds of figures because I think it’s important to challenge traditional representations of the female nude. The fleshiness of women’s bodies is something that is never put on display in the 20th century – it’s always airbrushed or suppressed. I’m trying to do it with a certain sympathy and emotion, and also put it in the context of feminist thought.” [3]

Two months later, in a March 1994 interview with the Independent, Saville expanded on what she was going for:

“The history of art has been dominated by men, living in ivory towers, seeing women as sexual objects. I paint women as most women see themselves. I try to catch their identity, their skin, their hair, their heat, their leakiness. I do have this sense with female flesh that things are leaking out. A lot of our flesh is blue, like butcher’s meat. In history, pubic hair has always been perfect, painted by men. In real life, it moves around, up your stomach, or down your legs.” [4]

Yet contrasting so strongly with the fantasies and horrors of the ‘skeletal’ that feature on The Holy Bible, Saville’s Strategy also suggests a subjective point of view. As direct an acceptance of reality as it appears to offer, the image might also represent to the listener the delusional self-perception of a person suffering from anorexia nervosa, or otherwise uncomfortable in their own skin, in keeping with the narrative perspectives of songs like ‘4st 7lb’ and ‘Die in the Summertime’.

Unrealistic images of the body such as those reinforced by commercial advertising are not absent from Saville’s work and that of Manic Street Preachers. The band certainly embraced the glamour of pin-ups like Marilyn Monroe early on. But emphasis is given by Edwards and Saville to the personal experiences of those who live lost among the shadows of such powerful images; whether desperate to transform themselves, creatively or destructively, or else face up to the truth of their own condition. We find in David Sylvester’s early interview with Saville a consideration of the negative effects of ‘agony aunt’ columns, or ‘lifestyle’ advice, the same sort that informs Edwards’s lyric ‘4st 7lb’:

“Women seem to think their legs extend forever. I’ve got a thing in my studio that I found, it was about ‘how you can have great legs, too,’ or something. And it had the perfect leg and ankle measurement. Jerry Hall was fine, but Fiona, who used to do GMTV, her knees were far too big. It went through all these celebrities. ‘Lulu’s Thigh Battle’ and all this stuff you could do to make your legs better. You see, if the majority of women have legs in a certain way, then that’s the way legs are. But this is like the minority of people telling the majority that they are wrong.” [5]

Source material, detail from Jenny Saville (Gagosian and Rizzoli, 2018)

There is on the part of both artists an unflinching attention to trauma as well as beauty, a simultaneous expression of pressure and serenity, a transformation of the conflicting qualities of lived experience into art. This makes Saville’s paintings and The Holy Bible stand apart from the majority of work within the traditions of figurative painting and rock music that have taken on similar, subversive, or ‘ugly’ subject matter – where shock and sacrilege are often seen as ends in themselves; where there is little or no evidence of the type of empathetic engagement with those at the margins, or the simultaneous clinical detachment that creates a heightened tension in these artists’ works – and a degree of hyperreality which would seem to be a necessary effect of existing in an all-enveloping media environment.

Presumably one of the writers Saville and Edwards discussed during their phone conversation was JG Ballard, who explored the intersection of the body and technology, the effects of televisual media, the violent instincts of humankind and the unstable frameworks of civilisation. One of Saville’s most arresting paintings, Witness, was created especially for a 2010 exhibition celebrating Ballard. A long-time admirer of the writer, Saville exchanged correspondence with him before his death in 2009 with the hope of commissioning a catalogue essay.

The themes of urban malaise, sexual experimentation and imagery evocative of the crucifixion and resurrection in his Crash serves as one template for The Holy Bible’s hallucinatory scenes drawn from contemporary life. Compare, too, the way in which Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition involves the collaging of texts and images, celebrity figures, history, horrific violence and personal searching – it also featured on a list of Richey Edwards’s favourite books in 1994. [6] And of course the voice of Ballard himself appears on the track ‘Mausoleum’, delivering the unforgettable author statement: ‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror.’ Visceral immersion and philosophical reflection.

Witness, 2009 Artwork © Jenny Saville

The borders of the personal and the impersonal are worth considering further here, in the light of John Gray’s comments about the relationship between Saville and Ballard’s work:

“All Ballard’s work is a war against memory, but the intent is not to forget. It is to turn the debris of personal time – such as memories of his childhood in Shanghai – into images that are impersonal and emptied of time. The aim is to short-circuit the normal mechanisms of perception, and the dissolution of the personality that results from this process is imagined as a kind of freedom.” [7]

Gray might just as well be talking about the sort of conflicts that define The Holy Bible; its juxtaposition of history and the present; the desire to forget, to escape pain, as well as the attempt to look with open eyes, and to assert one’s existence in the world.

As Gray points out, Saville is clearly interested in the attempt to seize control of one’s identity through bodily modification and surgery, as articulated especially in her transgender models. At the same time, there is a sense that the crossing of boundaries – not only between one gender and another but between the body and technology, and life and death – makes the contours of the individual, the defining line of identity all the more blurry – and perhaps ultimately leaves only vulnerabilities exposed to the viewer. Speaking with Simon Groom at National Galleries Scotland in 2018, Saville explained:

“I think that on the border of things [has] been a fascination for me all the way through really. I think before I would make a painting of a transgender subject. Now I think the work itself is transgender. So I’ll layer female and male bodies all on top of each other. So the work itself is transgender rather than a depiction of a transgender body…” [8]

There are uncertainties as regards gender, identity and control throughout The Holy Bible, from the prostitute and the offer of sexual mutilation on ‘Yes’, through the anorexic girl whose ‘sex is gone’ on ‘4st 7lb’, to the somewhat ungraspable identity of the narrators of ‘Faster’ and ‘Die in the Summertime’ – typically assumed to be Richey Edwards.

Edwards expressed his own attraction to such ideas concerning the body, nature, technology, sexual desire and desirability, and the crossing of assumed boundaries. He told Select magazine about standout works of culture that had already reflected these interests, again confirming his enthusiasm for Ballard:

“JG Ballard’s ‘Crash’ – which is very sexual all the way through. He dreams of being in a car crash with Elizabeth Taylor: auto-imagery, just piling into Elizabeth Taylor and the tail lights meshing into each other, the bonnet being ripped out. It’s very violent. There’s a Japanese film called ‘Tetsuo, The Iron Man’, I love that film. All it is is a man turning into a machine, and in his mind he’s got a girlfriend and a potential male lover. I find it really sexy. I think people are becoming more machine-like and that’s the imagery I like. Also sex and death are closely linked. Sado-masochistic imagery, bleeding…” [9]

Still from Tetsuo: The Iron Man (dir. Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989). Kaijyu Theatre

Beyond these edges there is death. The event of death is looked squarely in the face. Deaths drawn from real life, and from past representations both factor. Where Saville refers to medical encyclopedias and to scenes from earlier paintings, such as Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas for inspiration, Wire and Edwards give us snapshots from twentieth-century political history, in the form of Mussolini’s hanging corpse and Lenin’s body lying in state, while also referring to the millions dead of the Second World War, and the victims of more recent crimes.

Though the subject of the autopsy has featured in such notable masterpieces as Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, Saville’s art is somewhat untypical in the way in which it draws upon source imagery from manuals of plastic surgery – images of the body considered unsightly, the distortions of nature, the corruptions of health, the devastations of assault, the invasive processes of reconstruction. Birthmarks, elephantiasis, disease – of which Saville makes remarkable modern exhibition pieces. On The Holy Bible the memorable character portraits of ‘Yes’, ‘4st 7lb’ and ‘Faster’ in particular are developed by incorporating unglamorous details, many of which undoubtedly draw on Richey Edwards’s own experiences – his mental health worsening, compounded by an eating disorder and alcoholism. The reality of ‘puking’, ‘acne’, ‘foul breath’, ‘fat’ and ‘bone’ he describes intensify the effect of the music on the listener.

Everything bodies forth. The physical precision and energy required to realise these artistic ideas at all – the variety of fine movement, skill and patient labour reflected in Saville’s brushwork, the exertion required to complete her canvases, and the complex instrumental and vocal performances demanded of James Dean Bradfield, and the rest of the band when presenting The Holy Bible in a live setting – amount to a fully embodied response to what the artists have seen, read, heard and felt. [10]

“The danger is that the text or music will lose what physics calls its ‘critical mass’, its implosive powers within the echo chambers of the self.” George Steiner

The significance of language is also crucial. The potential of the voice, and words to transform an audience, reflect error, reconceptualise. Influenced early in her career by French Écriture féminine theorists Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva – writers in whom Edwards was also likely to be interested – Saville was undaunted by the male-dominated art culture. One of her earliest and most famous pieces, Propped, includes a quote by Irigaray, in mirror reverse across the canvas, calling for a pushback against the masculine dominance of language: ‘If we continue to speak in this sameness – speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other. Again words will pass through our bodies, above our heads – disappear, make us disappear…’

Detail from Branded, 1992 Artwork © Jenny Saville

The extreme presentation of bodies in the lyrics and images of The Holy Bible might also be considered as a kind of somatic manifestation of the partisan politics explored in Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire’s lyrics: the perilous states of starvation and excessive consumption as body-doubles for righteous extremes of left and right wing ideologies. James Dean Bradfield has explained the ‘Janus head’ politics which underwrites The Holy Bible; the confusion of left- and right-wing notions that has arisen post-war. [11] A movable metaphor, then. As well as a document of present realities. This makes Strategy all the more fitting – a trinity, its left and right panels almost mirror opposites.

†††

“I pillage information from anywhere. I really don’t care where I get it from.”

Saville develops her figurative paintings using life models and pictures found in miscellaneous publications. People known to her, strangers photographed in textbooks, magazines and newspapers, characters in films whose expressions catch her eye, serve as tonal and compositional inspiration – she also regularly experiments with transposing her own body and face into images. In building her “composites”, Saville has taken cues from classical paintings, notably the Self-Portrait with Two Circles by Rembrandt. At the same time, the brushwork, textural variation and colour combinations of twentieth-century abstract painters further enliven her ostensibly traditional figurative studies.

The Holy Bible, often simply judged to be a thinly veiled portrait of Richey Edwards, draws on the personal testimonies of countless others in its lyrics and in the audio samples included. Anonymous and famous voices, the living and the dead, are compiled into a new archive of a ravaged century. Across the album, snippets of newspaper and journal editorials are mixed with slang from the streets, lines from novels and comics, and first person reflections based on what the band had witnessed on tour promoting Gold Against the Soul – visiting sites of mass killing, seeing the Reeperbahn red light district in Hamburg. Historical personages feature alongside fictional characters, as the band convey their own perspective on reality through the songs. Likewise, the album’s sonic templates are drawn from an array of 1970s post-punk and contemporary music sources, as James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore have openly acknowledged, from Magazine and PiL, to Faith No More and Girls Against Boys. (Jenny Saville’s single-word titles readily conjure up post-punk music too: ‘Plan’, ‘Trace’, ‘Juncture’, ‘Hybrid’, ‘Hyphen’, ‘Still’, ‘Suspension’, ‘Passage’…)

High and low art, past and present, the ephemeral and the iconographic, the journalistic and biographical, are transmuted both lyrically and musically. Both Saville’s pictures of people and the Manics’ rock songs are a mass of references and influences neatly framed for the viewer/listener. A depth of detail, information and vitality responsive to endless interaction.

Left: Source material, detail from Jenny Saville (Gagosian and Rizzoli, 2018). Right: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Bernini

There is a similar forensic attention, manic activity and even amnesia evident in this sort of creative process. A consciousness about certain reference points, as well as a sense that much else has been absorbed ambiently, and subconsciously transformed. Saville has spoken plainly about the influence that Cy Twombly, Titian, Rembrandt, Bacon and de Kooning (the subject of a later Manics song) among others have had on her meticulous, expressive techniques, happily referring the viewer to specific zones of her canvases that show the influence of these artists’ innovations clearly. But she has also explained:

“I’m not very good at, kind of, acknowledging my sources… I love Google Images… it’s collapsed history… I live in Oxford, so I know quite a few academics and they hate Google Images because it takes away their authority… The scale of everything as well becomes the same, so you might see a fertility goddess, you might see a Jeff Koons sculpture: everything’s the same scale. So that you’ve got these thumbnail scales and you don’t know which period in history they’re all from. So time and location and authority has gone. And that, I find that really exciting. So I can, like, print things off, I keep them in my studio, and I actually don’t know where they come from. After a while they’re part of this big sea of imagery that I work from. And that’s exhilarating, you know, because all things get mixed up and they just become kind of human. Just things that are human that I can work with.” [12]

Photos of Saville’s studio spaces over the years confirm this. The walls and floors covered in clippings and postcards, reference books, printouts and colour tests. Photographs of war atrocities, ancient statuary, weekly magazine spreads, reference manuals, modern artistic masterpieces and movie stills. Amongst these, the basis for certain paintings can be glimpsed. Likewise The Holy Bible is made of a glut of source materials, both acknowledged and unacknowledged, from a variety of media. (Edwards and Wire are also known for collaging their work spaces with inspirational pictures and quotes.) And the more attention one pays to the words and illustrations of The Holy Bible – the more one refers to the books, newspapers and other literature that the band were reading at the time of the album’s writing – the more phrases and images can be cited. The intertextual mode predominates.

It is oddly fitting, in the light of Saville’s comment about infidelities of scale, that her Strategy canvas, which measures 9 x 21 ft (the sort of measurement that matters when discussing an album that pays obsessive attention to size) is shrunken down to fit the standardising mechanisms of the commercial music industry – the dimensions of the CD jewel case, 12-inch vinyl sleeve and the cassette. But this trespass on the intrinsic shape and quality of something for the purposes of commercial exchange is already assumed in the writing of The Holy Bible (‘Everything’s for sale’). And it only mirrors, in a way, the magnification of the thumbnail picture to gallery wall proportions that Saville has achieved. Arresting images continue to circulate in different contexts. The tremendous value of discovering masterpieces through the medium of popular culture, which has been a function of the Manic Street Preachers’ art since their beginnings, remains. Saville has said that wherever she is presenting her exhibitions in the world, to this day, she is usually met by someone asking her to sign a copy of The Holy Bible. [13]

In her more recent work, Saville has made prominent use of ancient religious images, and thought about the ways in which such highly symbolic material might be re-viewed in the light of contemporary events. Her self-portraits based on Leonardo’s drawings of The Virgin and Child with St Anne and John the Baptist followed her own experience of childbirth and motherhood; and in the wake of the civil war in Syria and the subsequent refugee crisis, Saville has reminded us of the emotional significance of the pietà – in the form of a grieving father carrying his child from the rubble of a collapsed building. Creation, suffering and attempted transcendence in the everyday figured in new ways. Similarly, in writing The Holy Bible, Manic Street Preachers aimed to provide a response to the Ten Commandments for the modern age, paying scrupulous attention to the impact of the Second World War and to events transpiring in the world in 1993-94, not least the high number of religious wars raging then. Both resist the impulse to simply denounce the religious past and reject present spiritual notions. Saville has said that she is interested in exploring the unknown in her own way, speaking for instance of the influence of George Steiner’s text, Real Presences, in which the question is posed: Is making art a wager on the existence of God?

†††

It seems impossible now to imagine The Holy Bible without Saville’s artwork. The band used another of her paintings, Stare, for the cover of Journal For Plague Lovers (2009), maintaining the link to Richey Edwards’s writing and aesthetic. And the capacity to provoke strong reactions has not diminished. Upon the release of Journal, Saville’s cover was the subject of a much-publicised supermarket ban, her design covered by a cardboard slipcase at the same time that she was further confirming her reputation in the gallery and art collectors’ world. Lost in the supermarket, yet commanding prestige alongside history’s most renowned artists. Wire described the almost Ballardian bleakness of the situation:

“You go into a supermarket and can buy computer games with car crashes, death and guns. You can buy porn magazines. But you can’t buy a beautiful piece of art.” [14]

Ironically, Saville has recollected attending surgical demonstrations on cadavers as a member of the Pathology Society in London, part of the first-hand research into her extraordinary work, and finding, “each head was wrapped in a plastic bag, a Sainsbury’s bag or a Tesco bag”. [15]

Saville’s art has only become more prominent and respected since 1994, now fetching record sums. Seeing each new piece unveiled is another reminder for fans of The Holy Bible and Manic Street Preachers of the artist’s connection with the band. By means of visual expression and songwriting, Saville’s paintings and The Holy Bible confront certain difficult themes, and pose urgent questions about human existence, desire, suffering and memory that only seem to resonate more deeply over time – just as these individual works intensify the effect of one another. As Saville explains, speaking about her continual experiments with paint and the human form and trying to achieve new types of representation: “It’s like composing – painting is like playing music, I think”. [16]

Notes:

[1] Richards, Dan The Beechwood Airship Interviews (The Friday Project, 2015)

[2] Gass, William H The Tunnel (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012 – first published 1995)

[3] Kane, Pat ‘A Full Body of Work’, The Observer, 23 January 1994

[4] Davies, Hunter ‘This is Jenny and this is her plan’, Independent, 1 March 1994. Accessed online at https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/interview-this-is-jenny-and-this-is-her-plan-men-paint-female-beauty-in-stereotypes-jenny-saville-1426296.html (5 June 2020)

[5] Sylvester, David original Independent on Sunday article (1994) reprinted as ‘Areas of Flesh’ in Linda Nochlin (ed) Jenny Saville (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 2005)

[6] The Atrocity Exhibition also served as inspiration for one of The Holy Bible’s musical forebears, Joy Division.

[7] Gray, John ‘The Landscape of the Body: Ballard, Bacon, and Saville’ in Jenny Saville

[8] ‘Talks & Lectures: Jenny Saville’ (2018), video available to view online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2NQZ5ggYJQ (accessed 30 May 2020)

[9] Sawyer, Miranda ‘Sexy?’, Select, September 1994. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=Sexy%3F_-_Select,_September_1994 (5 June 2020)

[10] Discussing Bradfield’s vocal interpretation of Edwards and Wire’s lyrics, Larissa Wodtke describes how, ‘[t]he awkward enjambements reveal a contorted straddling, a posture of evident discomfort for both performer and listener.’ See Wodtke, Larissa ‘Architecture of Memory: The Holy Bible and the Archive’ in Triptych (Repeater Books, 2017)

[11] ‘James Dean Bradfield 1995 US interview’. This interview can be heard online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIuTV8xesjg.

[12] ‘The Un-Private Collection: Jenny Saville + Jennifer Doyle’ (2019), video available to view online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bmp1ILOJFFI (accessed 5 June 2020)

[13] See Richards, The Beechwood Airship Interviews

[14] Hillis, Aaron ‘The Inquisition: Manic Street Preachers’, Spin, November 2009. Accessed online at http://www.foreverdelayed.org.uk/msppedia/index.php?title=The_Inquisition:_Manic_Street_Preachers_-_Spin,_November_2009 (5 June 2020)

[15] Richards, The Beechwood Airship Interviews

[16] ibid.

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