whitehot | January 2008, Olivia De Berardinis Interview
Olivia De Bernardinis, Pussy Toes, 2007 courtesy of Olivia
Breaking the Artistic Glass Ceiling
Olivia De Berardinis’s Journey into the World of Pinup
By Juliette Fretté
Olivia was known to me before I met her. Her work has appeared in Playboy, on the covers of mansion party invitations, and also on Holly Madison’s Myspace page where a lovely painted portrait invited my curiosity. How amazing these pinup pieces are – then I thought: what an honour it would be if chosen as the subject of an Olivia De Bernardis painting.
I wondered how I could conceivably interview her: this uniquely renowned artist. Surely the Playboy girls would know her?
With this in mind, I started a conversation with Holly about Olivia at one of the Playboy parties, hoping to meet her – and hey, if she needed a new model for one of her projects, I would be more than willing to assist. Not long after that I met Olivia face to face on a Sunday movie night. Casually approaching her as I surveyed the buffet, there was a chance to tell her how much I appreciated her work. At that point, Holly interjected from the dining room table how I would make a great model for Olivia, to which I added my own enthusiasm in affirming how honored I would be to pose for her.
The conversation was actually rather short and ended with our departure from the buffet table. At this time I did not push the interview, as my other project with Victoria Fuller was already underway. I was slightly shy being in the company of Olivia anyway -- kind of similar to how I feel awkward and inarticulate around Hef, who is also a legendary icon of a different sort.
As it happened, some time passed and I began to see Olivia semi-regularly at other movie nights until finally we got to talking about doing an interview. Or rather, I grew some ovaries and asked her if she would be interested? She was more than happy to be my interview subject for Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.
The following is about a provocative person whose example inspires us both as artist and feminist.
Upon learning about Olivia’s childhood, I had to smile. Kinda fun - kinda kooky – but perhaps you can identify, as I definitely can.
Having been an artist since she was old enough use a pencil, Olivia was an only child who found abundant entertainment in drawing. Regardless of living in a home without siblings, surrounded primarily by adults, she was still privy to youthful antics, courtesy of her rather unique mother who inspired her laughter as well as her artistic inclinations: She was a disgruntled glamourpuss, dancing around the house nude, doing terrible imitations of Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Monroe and a cast of thousands.
Speaking of her muse, Olivia fully acknowledges all of her mother’s talents, which she believed were in many ways wasted due to the cultural confines of her generation. Describing her mother as an artistically frustrated woman, Olivia is grateful for her own artistic fulfillment: I often think that if I wasn't struck by the combination of ambition and being in the right decade, I would not have had a career. But luckily for us, she did and she broke down gender barriers doing it. Since being a pinup artist (or a successful artist in general) has historically been relegated to the sphere of male interest, Olivia is quite an anomaly. She states: People always have strange expectations about me; it seems normal for pinup to be a man's art, but not for a woman.
Indeed, she did fill the shoes of a man, who had come before her, namely with regard to Playboy magazine. Vargas was Playboy’s original pinup artist, one whose work Olivia thoroughly admires: I used to go to the Vargas page first when my dad's Playboys came in, I never thought it was possible to have his page in Playboy, so I didn't entertain that thought. But now, she maintains his pin up throne , as she creates artwork for Playboy magazine every month while Hugh Hefner writes the captions.
But of course, that is the summarized version. How indeed did Olivia make the transition from childhood projects with paper and pencils to her widely celebrated pinups of watercolor, gouache, and acrylic? Well apparently, she has always been inclined to portray sexy voluptuous women. Her career itself began at age 25, when she experienced the most intense year of her life: It felt like a thunderbolt hit me. Huge anxiety propelled me to be ambitious and draw obsessively -- I became focused for the first time; it was the most alive and frightening year I ever had in my life. I felt that this was it: I had to do something -- my life was going nowhere. If I didn't start pushing myself, I would be lost.
But why was her life going nowhere? In the world of fine art, where she had resided theretofore, surviving while pursuing her goals had been very difficult. Moving to New York in 1967 after graduating from what she terms as a restrictive, creatively stifled Catholic school system, Olivia had attended the School of Visual Arts during the expressive renaissance known as the hippie years. Living in SoHo as a struggling painter, she worked as a waitress in Greenwich Village to pay the bills, a pattern she had no intention of continuing indefinitely.
With relatively few women artists finding productive outlets during that time, Olivia decided that a consistent art job would be needed. Being rather adept at portraying women, she thus looked for work in sex magazines where the competition was not as intense. I could see I'd be a very old waitress before I did well in an art world which was very male and very political. Finding success in such venues, she ventured further into no woman’s land – which was ironically defined by striking portrayals of women. Notably, pinup work was one of her many more lucrative strengths in the art world, and she saw this form of painting in particular as a temporary endeavor.
Alas, since she excelled in the realm of pinup and sexual portraiture, Olivia eventually focused her art on this genre more exclusively. In the beginning of this artistic path, she worked to illustrate a female fantasy column for Nancy Friday. Through the proceeding years, she then expanded her art and worked with a number of different styles, some of which can now be viewed in the pages of Playboy magazine.
Having thus established herself as a successful pinup artist, she found the perfect companion: her husband Joel, who both inspires and complements her interests in many ways, as he is an avid collector of erotic photography and pinup art. I was lucky to find a partner who shares the same visions and works with me. Joel is the silent partner with whom I collaborate. Now, he is a force for many of her artistic ideas, namely through his own collection of erotic artworks as well as his photography of her models. In addition, Joel designs and publishes Olivia’s art books. Essentially, He runs the business. Together, they continue to work as a very effective team of artists whose business has grown and evolved over the years. In the midst of it all, Playboy Magazine noticed them.
Olivia De Berardinis in the studio courtesy of the artist Photograph copyright 2007 © by Greg Preston
Marilyn Grabowski, the previous editor of the magazine at Playboy Studio West, had invited Olivia and her husband from New York to Los Angeles to meet Hugh Hefner at the mansion. Marilyn’s original intention was to produce a pictorial of Lillian Mueller dressed and styled in the same fashion as several of Olivia’s paintings. Her work started with Playboy's bi-monthly publishing of her Bettie Page paintings originally created for her book. Her monthly page in Playboy began 5 years ago. During this time she studied the work of pinup masters Enoch Bolles, Petty, Elvgren, and naturally, Vargas. As a result their influence is visible in Olivia's works. To this day, Olivia submits her art while Hef devises the captions. I love that I am in collaboration with the biggest icon of the sexual world, who has created some of the most important sex icons of the last 50 years. Hugh Hefner has always been supportive of pinup art: Playboy is based on the aesthetic of the pinup which inspired Hef when he was a young man.
Now that Olivia works with Playboy, she is redefining a career typically ascribed to men while stirring up feminist controversy at the same time. She reflects on her journey in relation to the feminist movement of the 1960’s: It made me guilty because even though I had thought of myself s a feminist, there seemed to be no slack for me. To them I was working in a male dominated industry -- which catered to mostly men, which was unforgivable at that time in feminist history . . . What they seemed to forget is that there weren't many jobs where that wasn't the case.
In learning about Olivia’s conflicting feelings of guilt, I, as a fellow feminist, feel a bond of sympathy. Women and men applaud her work as beautiful but a pioneering marker of societal advancement. More specifically, her success as a female icon in this important form of art, an art that elevates women in their powerful and sexy curvaceousness, is a major form of women’s progress -- albeit slightly unorthodox.
Especially now when too many women strive to eliminate their curves, Olivia reminds us all to celebrate them. Moreover, she makes another good point: I think some feminists have changed to include Playboy, but do I think it is embraced by them? No.
Some things will never change– Or will they?
Olivia continues to excel in her craft and strive for even greater goals, challenging herself in new ways: There are certain things I'm still reaching for: I am always trying to simplify the image, to make it look effortless, to make the woman powerful, sexy, and dignified. I have to struggle with all of these elements to make a really successful painting. In spite of some of the obstacles in constructing the perfect successful painting, Creating new pieces remains a joyful addiction for her. It is a deceptively simple looking art; the more you know of the surrealism that is needed to make pinup work, the more you respect its craft.
Contrary to the aforementioned statement, however, her renderings are not always difficult to portray. Every once in a while a work of art will come from the back of my brain, all worked out, and happen, without me having to beat it to death. I guess that feeling -- that kind of power -- is the opiate that I am always seeking.
Likewise, her work is the opiate of many male and female fans. Fortunately for all of us addicts she has an upcoming show at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, California's Track 16 Gallery on February 23rd and 24th, 2008. To learn more, visit her website http://www.eolivia.com. Her online gallery is also available at http://www.ozoneproductions.com
Artwork © Olivia All rights reserved
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief