“Pinups, sirens, seductresses, strippers, warriors, burlesque queens, tarts and Martians….” Olivia De Berardinis, one of the most important artists of all time, is tallying up her subjects, the ones for which she’s known. “I have painted all kinds of women, all ages, all colors and sizes,” she adds. Indeed she has, but there’s one thing all of the ladies drawn by Olivia (who signs her work with just the one name) have in common — a sensuality that’s both playful and powerful.
Her signature style has been copied by many over the years, but no one draws the female form quite like she does. Arguably, her pinups surpass even Vargas’ in capturing a woman’s true erotic essence. As she approaches her 70th birthday this month, De Berardinis hasn’t slowed down, evolving and expanding the scope of her work with newer pop culture–driven creations that continue to redefine what is beautiful and sexy. She has always been attracted to drawing women, and when she was a little girl she even drew a Barbie-like character based on her mother (though Barbies didn’t actually exist yet).
De Berardinis’ fluid lines, soft hues and bold details make for beguiling portraiture that not only captures a woman’s likeness but evokes her sensuality and strength. As she tells it, this gift was always there but it would be years after childhood, and into young adulthood, that her exquisite skill would find its perfect expression in pinup.
Going to art school in the early 1970s, De Berardinis focused on making minimalist works while living in SoHo and waiting on tables in Greenwich Village. In 1975, frustrated at not being able to get her work shown in galleries, she began to support herself by doing illustrations, hoping to come back to making fine art later on. “I created a portfolio of black-and-white Aubrey Beardsley–inspired women,” she recalls. “They emerged from this female character I’d drawn all my life, but now she was sexually amplified by the liberated ’60s, and inspired by choreographer Bob Fosse, master of jazz burlesque choreography.”
Television commercials for Fosse’s Broadway hit Pippin were on TV constantly, De Berardinis remembers, and she found the loop of two women dancing with star Ben Vereen hypnotic. The movie Cabaret was in theaters at the same time, and the masterpiece of dance and direction by Fosse fascinated the artist on a visceral level. “This was the most erotically charged choreography I had ever seen,” De Berardinis tells L.A. Weekly by phone. (A scheduled in-person interview became difficult after the fires in Malibu, where she lives and had to be evacuated for several days, putting a lot of her archives and work at risk. Luckily her building was saved from burning.)
“I was fascinated by the bizarre, exaggerated moves, the bawdy comedy of it,” De Berardinis says of the Fosse influence. “My characters were mentally animated by his dancers, as I drew women in black-and-white, like the notes on a sheet of music.”
She decided her provocative pieces might help pay the bills, so she went to a newsstand and wrote down the addresses of adult magazines, many in New York. She made appointments to see the art directors, noticed there was a shortage of talented illustrators at their publications, and sought to fill the void, honing her illustration chops.
“I worked obsessively for several years in my Greenwich Village apartment,” she remembers. “I was learning subject and style on the job, and was given considerable freedom by my art directors, [so] my creativity blossomed. The work was fun and I was making a living. I was titillated by being in a man’s world, as I just wasn’t supposed to be there. ”
De Berardinis’ story has feminist undertones in terms of her ability to infiltrate a male-dominated industry, but her talent and drive broke through any boundaries that might have held her back. She took a medium driven by objectification and made it about celebration — celebration of female sexuality, of self-expression through seductive clothing, hair and makeup — and highlighted the appeal of female seduction, for both men and women. The artist enjoyed drawing assertive, dominant women, everything she thought she wasn’t at the time. Her women were — and are — as she describes them, “sexually aware, in control of themselves and their sexuality,” with “eyes directed at you [the viewer] knowingly.”
Though she was perfecting the come-hither aesthetic of what was then called “cheesecake” art, De Berardinis soon stretched her wings (and started drawing them, too), soaring into subject matter with a more fantasy-driven feel. Heavy Metal had been a “hard-core, in-your-face creativity vortex for sex and fantasy art,” she says of the magazine where her warriors and goddesses graced the cover 14 times, starting in the mid-’80s.
“There are some artists that have a definitive moment, but for most artists notoriety arrives slowly, and that’s true for me,” says De Berardinis, who is bold in conversation but never boastful, and even humble considering all that she’s accomplished in the art world and for women’s sexuality. “I think my one-woman art gallery shows and monograph books contributed [to my success]. And Playboy and Heavy Metal were happening all at the same time. … It all contributed.”
“Joel [her husband] would go to the NYC offices to show my most recent art, and they would often use them for their covers,” she explains. “Later, when we moved to California, Heavy Metal‘s publisher, Kevin Eastman, would pick from my shows and past work. The ones of Julie Strain were commissioned by Kevin and one of them in particular, The Banshee, was my favorite.”
In 1985 Playboy came calling. “Playboy editor Marilyn Grabowski asked me to work with her on a pictorial and cover for the magazine,” De Berardinis recalls. “Playmate Lillian Müller would pose for photographic re-creations of my artwork. Playboy paid for us to come out and help with the shoot, and Marilyn brought us up to the Playboy Mansion. We eventually became regular visitors at the mansion, which continued for 30 years.”
A friendship with Hugh Hefner developed. “Hef was wonderful to us — he respected my art, and used it for 35 of his famed party invitations,” De Berardinis says “In ’99, at Hef’s behest, I re-created my version of the Vargas page for the magazine. I would submit my artwork and Hef would pick and choose, writing his own captions.”
She continues wistfully, “Hugh Hefner, the man who created an empire based on his aesthetic of the pinup, trusted me with this page and I was honored. I had the perfect forum to learn this seemingly simple but in actuality incredibly difficult discipline. It was the best place in the world to learn ‘pinup.'”
While Heavy Metal and Playboy were a huge part of de Berardinis’ evolution as an artist, she credits husband Joel’s curation of books featuring her art as the biggest factor in her pop culture standing. The first one, Let Them Eat Cheesecake, sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide. “So far Joel has published five of these monographs, and they are our attempts to put our creative life into print,” she adds. Married since 1979, she says of her husband, “We are partners in life.” Their lives and work are so intertwined they often can’t remember who did what. “Joel is stuck with the business end, but he also gets to photograph my models, often in the nude, so he cannot complain,” she says good-naturedly. “I direct these shoots and the results become my photo reference for my paintings.
“Joel collects vintage erotica,” she continues. “French postcards, Weimar ephemera, fetish art by John Willy and Eric Stanton, pre-WWII erotic stereoscopic photos, etchings by Norman Lindsay and Von Bayros, and golden-age pinup magazines. Joel’s penchant for these collectibles, passion for flea marketing and antique bookstores, has added texture and context to my art and life. We grew up dreaming of an unconventional life, and we certainly did reach that goal.”
Perhaps her most famous subject, Bettie Page, embodies the complex allure of not only woman-driven art but the female gender as a whole, her lovely face, curvaceous body and fetishy getups making for a seductive contrast that evokes nostalgic naughtiness like nothing and no one before or since. De Berardinis’ renditions of the cult icon bring out the qualities that made Page a star, only in more sublime and vivid detail. And no wonder. She has been drawing Page for a very long time, since 1975.
“We knew the publisher of Private Peeks and he would loan me photographs of her,” De Berardinis recalls. “We also frequented the Paula Klaw photography shop on 14th Street, called Movie Star News. There was just so much graphically interesting in Bettie’s fetishwear and so many expressive poses. She was the action hero of pinup, the strong-bodied bad girl. Her fetish pictures posited a sexual independence decades ahead of the era when she posed.”
The artist recalls how she met the black-haired beauty, “She was in her 70s, dressed in a red flannel shirt, her voice deep, sexy Southern, like Kathleen Turner’s,” she says. “I was pretty excited when I finally met her since I had been painting her for decades. It was very early one night at a Playboy party in the ’90s. Hef came up to us and told us that Bettie was there, and asked, ‘Wanna meet her?'”
De Berardinis and her husband ended up befriending Page and stayed in touch until the pinup died at 85. “Calls to our house where she would announce herself, like we wouldn’t know her voice, ‘Hello, this is Bettie Page,’ always floored us,” de Berardinis shares.
From pinups to superheroes, the latter has been De Berardinis’ focus the past few years, and it’s “not as big a leap as one might suppose,” she says. A few years back she began working with Sideshow Collectibles, one of the biggest manufacturers of movie, film, television and pop culture–driven collectibles, and a company that always has a huge presence at comic conventions, as does Olivia these days. “This new direction has shifted me toward superhero and fantasy characters, women who are strong symbols in popular culture. I have opened myself to new muses,” she says.
For De Berardinis, art goes beyond what is reflected on the paper or in print. Her creations, especially the stuff of a sexual nature, takes on a life of its own, which is fitting because it is where life begins. This affirmation of humanity and how it has connected with others over her long career is what she’s most proud of.
“I see it reflected in the men and women who walk toward me at my openings; I see it in their fashion, and as tattoos worn on their skin,” she proclaims. “The best paintings, the ones that most resonate with my fans, live on in popular culture, in movies, on ephemeral objects. I see military men and women hang on to these objects as symbols of life, passion and love. People tell me they’ve had fun through the fantasies I’ve painted in their sexual lives, and say they’ve met their life partners and made babies!”
As we end of our conversation and the artist goes back to her office, mercifully spared from fire, she reflects once more. “I am turning 70 this month and the old cliches arise about how fast it’s going and that there’s not that much time left. I have dreams like everyone else to be able to make relevant art. I keep working with hopes that some great revelation will happen. But, as many seasoned artists have found, you have to work, constantly work, for inspiration to find you. And ultimately, the process of working becomes an end in itself.”