A long awaited exhibition in Edinburgh sees Jenny Saville return to the city where she trained, and the gallery where she dreamed she’d one day see her work.

Jenny Saville could be forgiven for forgetting which continent she’s on. A few days before we speak, she was in Athens for the opening of a new showing of her work at the George Economou Collection. Not long before that, she was putting the finishing touches to a major exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery over in New York.

Then there’s the little matter of her retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, another 17 works, which she installed earlier in the spring.

“I’ll be honest, it’s been brutally hard,” Saville says. “I’m not sure where the last six months have gone. I really want to go back to Scotland to visit the show in the summer light. It’ll be like seeing it all over again.”

Jenny Saville

Though Saville is far from an unknown figure – her breakthrough happened back in the 1990s, when she was one of the fêted Young British Artists – success came gradually. For a start, she was something of an oddball, a figurative painter in an art world in thrall to conceptualism. She also worked painfully slowly, taking many months to craft the fleshy, monumental nudes she spread over vast canvases.

The SNGMA exhibition is only her third museum show, and her first solo exhibition ever in Scotland. Jenny Saville is too polite to say so, but recognition in the country where she trained has been a while coming.

Serendipity plays a role, it turns out. In 2016, Jenny Saville found herself in Edinburgh on the way back from a family holiday, and popped into the SNGMA for the first time in years. “I thought, ‘if I ever have a show in Scotland, this is where I’d like it to be.’” Two weeks later, she got the invitation letter.

Jenny Saville

Technically this is a group exhibition, with Saville’s work shown alongside that of other living artists who share her obsession with the body, but Saville is very much the star. The Scotsman’s awestruck reviewer compared her not just to Lucien Freud – understandable enough, given their fascination with voluptuous naked skin – but to Picasso.

A more revealing reference might be Titian, another artist who made it his life’s work to render the sensual luxuriance of flesh in oil paint. In Edinburgh, the connection is made palpable: while the bulk of Saville’s work hangs at the Modern Art museum, a substantial new canvas, ‘Aleppo’, has been given pride of place at the National Gallery on the Mound, flanked by the Venetian master’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and ‘Diana and Callisto’. It’s a pairing she has dreamed of since visiting Venice as a teenager and spending hour after hour in front of Titian altarpieces.

“He’s been the artist for me, in many ways,” she says. “I thought, I can’t pass up that opportunity. And if the work doesn’t measure up, then I’ll still learn.”

Saville denies that she is unduly self-critical, but it’s hard to think of how else to describe it: talk to her for even a few minutes and you sense her zeal to push her technique further than ever before. “I just want to improve, it’s as simple as that,” she says. “I’ve always done it, made critiques of my work, gone back to it: ‘this worked’, ‘that didn’t’. I can’t imagine operating any other way.”

Some have detected a change in her output in recent years. Where once she portrayed single bodies, filling the canvas with their architectural heft, these days her work has more fluidity. Multiple figures dance or writhe, viewpoints are skewed or collide. The sense is not of the body’s solidity, but its elusiveness.

How does she think her work has evolved over the years? “I’ve become more open, more mysterious and poetic, I hope. But you also lose something too; you have to lose things in order to develop in another area.”

One thing she is satisfied by is the visibility of female artists in this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival: in addition to Saville’s show, Tacita Dean has an exhibition at the Fruitmarket, and the sculptors Phyllida Barlow and Lucy Skaer are also showing new work. The art world is catching up with reality, she believes. “Why would you not want the whole of society represented, rather than just half? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.” 

For herself, right now she is desperate to do what she loves most: get back into the studio and start again. Having completed such a large run of paintings, she might draw for a bit, and see how that goes. “There’ll be something new to discover,” she says. “There always is.”

WHERE & WHEN

From now: Jenny Saville, Sara Barker, Christine Borland, Robin Rhode, Markus Schinwald, Catherine Street, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One), until 16 September

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