Ask Morgana 096: Olivia de Berardinis

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When I think about the late, lovely Bettie Page I question all our assumptions about pornography. True, her heyday was in a time of all-American soft porn, when Brad, Tad, Chip, Don, and Doug used to pick up their pulp fiction and pin-up magazines from the newsstand, along with their Kools or Marlboro, and have a lunchtime fantasy over a liverwurst sandwich. True it was the age of sportscoats, Robert Mitchum or John Wayne winning the war retrospectively and single-handed, fins on automobiles, McCarthyism, and men. Also true, however, that Bettie Page used to show such utter joie-de-vivre that there was almost something innocent about her posing – she seemed childlike, but at the same time mature, confident, and sure of herself, of who she was.

odb2 sidebarYet the old argument raises its head – what we see is not Bettie Page, it is an object, a sex object. The thing about ‘objectification’ is this: any semiotician worthy of his or her salt will tell you that any representation, whether in word, picture, symbol, or whatever, is not the same as the thing it represents. It stands for it. Any photograph, drawing, or painting is, whether we admit it or not, merely an object; this is so of a landscape, a sober portrait, or an erotic picture. “It’s not the same thing!” I hear the objection; and yes, when we talk about a real woman being turned into an object for the male gaze, there is an argument that must be heard. But we do need to keep that basic semiotic principle in our minds, or our view of things is not analysis but prejudice.

All of this seems a long-winded way of introducing Olivia de Berardinis (1948-), but that’s the way it came out this morning. A graduate of the New York School of Visual Arts, she started producing ‘cheesecake’ art, including many representations of Bettie Page, when she was short of money. “Necessity shaped my career,” she said. “I thought illustrating for sex magazines might be a fun temporary job until my ‘real’ career started. In the back of my mind I believed I would go back to the fine arts. It wasn’t clear to me then, but this work became my art.” An original painting by her now appears in every issue of Playboy.

I love her draughtsmanship and her imagination, and I love her women. There are hints in her work of something more than simply vanilla cheesecake, and I wonder whether we ought to move beyond making a distinction between ‘fine’ and ‘popular’ art.

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Images reproduced under ‘fair use’ provisions.

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