When I was a young boy, around 13 years old, I would sneak a look at my father’s Playboy Magazines. I was no different than any other boy when it came to what excited me. Then again I was different. The famous 60s supermodel, Veruschka, showed me that with these photos from Playboy that I first saw when I was perhaps 16.
Seeing a naked woman in art and photography was not that big a deal to me, having grown up around the nude in artworks of all types in my grandparent’s and parent’s homes. But this was not a naked woman, this was a woman transformed into something other than herself while at the same time expressing an even greater sense of who she was. It was a revelation.
In that and other pictorials she also became men, Marilyn Monroe, unzipped herself and transformed from animal to vegetable among other things. No other woman transfixed my imagination as a youth like she did. All the rest came and went, but Veruschka stayed in my mind as a woman apart. Not a model only, not a muse only, but an artist.
Veruschka started out as Vera Lehndorff but was unsuccessful as a model under that name and so reinvented herself as the mysterious Russian, Veruschka. She actually was born in Prussia (Poland) before WWII and was a very tall and gawky 6’1″ by the time she was 14 years old. She was teased and made fun of for her looks and skinny angularity. She stopped growing at 6’4″. She, along with Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, were the first supermodels, dominating the covers and editorials of Vogue and every other fashion magazine of the 60s and early 70s.
One of the most amazing things about Veruschka was that she did almost all the creative work on her fashion shoots. She did her own hair and makeup, as well as have creative control over the editorial scheme of the shoots in many cases. If you look close at her early fashion images you can see the roots of her later artwork.
Notice the ‘Flower Power’ body painting work from the late 60s.
Notice how she creates a visual image in which she completely blends in to her background. It’s a life long obsession to blend into the background that you will see reach it’s apex in her artwork.
Early on in her modeling career she worked to incorporate herself as animal into her shoots.
Fast forward to the 1980s and I find a book by Vera Lehndorff called ‘Veruschka | Trans-Figurations’. It documents a 16 year collaborative art project between herself and the photographer Holgar Trulsch. During those 16 years Veruschka painting herself to match various surroundings, from oxidized metal in abandon factories to boulders to weathered wood to the sky itself. Finding the book was like finding a dear friend after many years and seeing the amazing things she had done with her life. It’s one of my most treasured books because it is that perfect combination of visual beauty, conceptual brilliance, individual creative drive and surprise that I love.
Here are some examples from that book.
If you are thinking you’ve seen this sort of thing done many times before, you are right. Body painting has become a big thing over the past 2 decades in art and media culture around the world. You can see it among celebrities, in sports and in fine art. There are whole groups dedicated to it now with annual conferences and events. Take a look below to see some of the influence Veruschka has had.
And finally here are some contemporary fine artists at work using the technique Veruschka developed.
If you are interested in learning more about Veruschka or the evolution of the use of the body as a canvas start in google images and just type in Veruschka body painting and you will find plenty to investigate. Search under Qui Zhijie and Desiree Palmen to find out more about their art.
- Week #5 – Francisco Goya
- Week #4 – Robert Irwin
- Week #3 – Veruschka
- Week #2 – Albrecht Durer
- Week #1 – Roger Brown
- Week #10 – Coco Larrain
- Week #9 – Nina Levy
- Week #8 – Andy Goldsworthy
- Week #7 – Wayne Thiebaud
- Week #6 – Richard Diebenkorn
- Week #5 – Roy Lichtenstein
- Week #4 – Thomas Hart Benton
- Week #3 – Edward Hopper
- Week #2 – Henri Matisse
- Week #1 – Rembrandt