Last weekend, Sotheby's London made an important statement in the history of auctions (and feminism). After an excited competition between eight bidders, the painting Propped by Jenny Saville sold for $12.4 million: a record number that makes Jenny Saville the most expensive living woman artist in the world.

propped female nude Propped, Jenny Saville. (Courtesy Sotheby's)

Propped, a self-portrait of the 48-year-old British painter, challenges the traditional depiction of the female nude, which is why it has been in the spotlight for decades. The painting was completed in 1992 and was first purchased by galley owner Charles Saatchi. The painting came to prominence as part of the provocative exhibition "Sensation: Young British Artists" held in 1997 at London's Saatchi Gallery where it was flanked by thought-provoking works by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Chris Ofili. Most recently, the painting was in the collection of David Teiger, the late collector, patron and historical director of MoMA in New York.

propped Sothebys London The sale of Propped at Sotheby's London (Courtesy Sotheby's)

As in the case of Propped, all the early works of the British painter are of the artist herself, who paints almost exclusively female subjects. The artist was a teenager in the 1980s, a time when the rules of the "beautiful" female body were rigid. In response to this, Saville in Propped is voluptuous and fleshy, sitting on an uncomfortable stool not suited to her build and clutching at her thighs. She is intent on observing her reflection in a misty mirror, on which is written a quote from the French feminist Luce Irigaray that reads: “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”. The writing is inverted, facing the painted figure, and therefore illegible for a spectator, putting the entire focus on the female subject.

propped art Propped on view (Courtesy Sotheby's)

"Propped is the artist's most important painting ever to be auctioned," said Alex Branczik, Head of the Department of Contemporary Art in Sotheby's Europe. Indeed, through Propped, Jenny Saville has questioned the strict canons of beauty in contemporary society and illustrates an important perspective on the female nude form, which has been famously dominated by male artists like Titian, Gustave Courbet, Pablo Picasso and Willem de Kooning. The record-breaking sale for Jenny Saville is a victory for all women: on the wave of the #MeToo movement, the art world and the auction market are finally making a statement on gender inequality.

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