‘A unifying celebration of female form’

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"Bettie Page's Eyes" will be among the work by Olivia De Berardinis on display this weekend at the Bergamot Station in Santa Monica in the exhibition titled "California Cheesecake." Artwork Copyright (c) Olivia De Berardinis

The work of pinup artist Olivia De Berardinis will be on display this weekend at the Bergamot Station in Santa Monica in the exhibition titled, “California Cheesecake.”

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Olivia De Berardinis’ sun-dappled studio in the hills above Malibu is filled with the usual drafting tables, paintbrushes and easels found in any serious artist’s workplace. But the walls, floor and desktops are also adorned with portraits of women posing with feather boas and little else, tossing their hair, teetering on high heels, luxuriating on bearskin rugs and always with that knowing smile that says they know … “Ain’t I the cat’s pajamas?”

Dark wavy hair framing her small, bespectacled face, De Berardinis has been painting beautiful women “since I was a kid,” she said. But the New York fine art community of the ’70s was not welcoming to yet another serious young artist, so she looked elsewhere to ply her trade.

“I turned to the sex magazines,” De Berardinis said. “I had to eat.”

Her meticulous skill as a draftswoman was well served in her illustrations for magazines such as Swank and Hustler, and eventually attracted the attention of Hugh Hefner. She has illustrated Playboy magazine’s Vargas page for more 20 years.

“I got my original inspiration for painting women as pinups from magazine covers published in the early 20th century,” De Berardinis said.

Indeed, 1928 and 1932 covers of Film Fun magazine are pinned to her studio walls.

“These women are sexy, sure, but they’re having fun,” she explained. “There is nothing demeaning or shameful about them at all. I see these women as being empowered.”

As well as using 100-year-old photos of girls for pinup inspiration, De Berardinis is known for taking shots of Hollywood’s most alluring stars, from Bettie Page to Mamie Van Doren, and turning them into delicately painted fantasies.

“Sometimes I use a paint that has little flecks of gold in it,” De Berardinis said.

The resulting skin tones are a subtle sheen of porcelain and peach voluptuousness.

As her fame grew, De Berardinis began to work with models synonymous with the term cheesecake, like Dita Von Teese and Pamela Anderson, but the poses and backgrounds lent an exotic flair to the portraits, as if capturing them in their most intimate, yet brazen, moments.

De Berardinis’ father was an aeronautics engineer and her mother a fiery extrovert with few inhibitions.

“Mom was sort of a disgruntled glamour-puss who danced around the house naked,” De Berardinis said. “She would do these horrible imitations of Mae West and Dietrich, and was a cross between Lucille Ball and Rosie the Riveter.”

She was also De Berardinis’ first model.

In New York, De Berardinis met her husband of 30 years, Joel Beren, who quickly became her collaborator and greatest supporter. Symbiotically, he shoots the photos his wife uses as studies for her paintings.

“Olivia frequently ends up using the same model over and over,” Beren said. “Not every model can do this kind of posing.”

“You have to be an actor with attitude,” De Berardinis interjected. “It’s like Dita Von Teese says, there’s an art to the tease.”

Playboy magazine’s senior art editor, Rob Wilson, said, “Olivia’s work embodies … what makes a woman sexy, primarily confidence. The pinups are exquisitely playful, with a touch of fantasy and warmth, and her line work is so deft that even the curve in a high heel shoe seems to dance on the page … something of a unifying celebration of the female form. What could be more Playboy than that?”

De Berardinis’ work follows in the footsteps of the greatest erotic artists of the past century such as John Held Jr., Norman Lindsay, Gil Elvgren, George Petty and Alberto Vargas, the last two being namesakes for her two pugs snuffling around the studio.

“I have lots of sources of feminine beauty for inspiration,” De Berardinis said, pointing out vintage illustrations around her home. “French post cards, Josephine Baker in the ’20s, even photos by Alfred Cheney Johnston, the guy who shot the Ziegfeld Follies girls.”

De Berardinis and Beren also have a collection of “fetish” shoes, starting with 19th century examples of doll-size slippers worn by foot-bound Chinese aristocrats and ending with Bettie Page’s ridiculously high stilettos.

“Women have used body modification for centuries,” De Berardinis said. “Corsets, high heels … even red lipstick is a form of body modification used to attract men.”

In her first local exhibition in four years, De Berardinis is offering original paintings, drawings and limited edition prints at a show titled “California Cheesecake,” Feb. 23-24.

“Last time I saw Christina Aguilera, she took six paintings off my wall,” the artist said. “I see this Playboy cheesecake stuff as my ‘soft’ phase. There are so many places to go in the sex world.”

“California Cheesecake” views February 23, 7-11 p.m., with a book signing on Feb. 24, 1 p.m. -5 p.m. at Track 16 Gallery, Bldg. C-1, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica.