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Meet the Woman Behind America’s Most Legendary Pinup Art

We talked to the reigning queen of pinup art herself, Olivia de Berardinis, a.k.a., Olivia.

From its modern origins in traditional French erotic postcards, antebellum American mail-order catalogs, and glamor photos of early Hollywood starlets, the “pinup” grew into an art form by World War II, when images of women were often painted onto planes and making their way into men’s magazines like Playboy. The legacy of the unmistakably American genre today lives on through the art of one woman: Olivia De Berardinis, a.k.a., Olivia.

At first glance, American pinup photographs and paintings of the late 30s through World War II seem like benign, quaint relics of Americana, items that are usually appreciated for their sweet, apple-cheeked, all-American female subjects—and little else. Although the pinup often evokes a viewer’s sense of nostalgia as well as appealing to individual aesthetics and sexual appetites, the importance of the American pinup exceeds its originally ephemeral nature. American pinups tell a larger story of changing dynamics in fine art: a new kind of popular culture in the US, one that created a space for commercial artists to paint the female form.

Long before Olivia, one of the most prolific pinup artists was also a woman. Zoë Mozert, the only female World War II artist to have contributed as many pinups as her male counterparts, studied under figure painting instructor Rolf Armstrong. Mozert gained some inspiration for her pinups after working as a portraitist for Hollywood starlets. Through painting the female form, Mozert and her colleagues contributed to an emerging pocket of popular culture, the erotic imagery also known as “cheesecake” and “borderline material.” By doing so, pinup artists revived a more traditional interpretation of the female form as defined by earlier European artists, while appealing to the libidos of American soldiers and raising morale during WWII. In the case of Mozert, pinups allowed a woman to participate in combat not only through sex appeal, but through artistic talent as well.

Nevertheless, pinup painting has always remained a predominantly male profession, one that seemed to reach its apotheosis with the art of Joaquin Albertos Vargas y Chavez, who created the pinup which came to be known as the “Varga Girl.” Following the war, his art began to appear in the pages of Playboy—that’s where Olivia came in.

Just like Vargas, Olivia’s work with the famed men’s magazine helped solidify her reputation as one of the most prolific and collectible artists working in the genre to-date. For three decades, Olivia’s artwork was used in various projects for Playboy, including dozens of invitations to parties at the Playboy Mansion. Beginning in 2003, she had a page in Playboy nearly every month, with captions by Hefner himself. Though she stopped creating for the magazine a few years ago, she’s still the most exhibited and sought-after pinup artist working today.

But Olivia’s career began long before her work regularly appeared in Playboy. After art school in the early 70s, Olivia was making minimalist works while living in SoHo and waiting tables in the Village. In 1975, frustrated over not being able to have her art shown in galleries, she began to support herself by doing illustrations, thinking she’d come back to making her fine art later. She began making explicit drawings for adult magazines such as ClubHustler, and Penthouse, relocating from New York to Los Angeles in 1987.

Since then, she’s had numerous international one-woman shows. “When the fine art world was too hard to maneuver, my contrarian streak took over and [I] decided to do erotic work for men’s magazines in the sexually ‘liberated’ world of the 70s,” Olivia tells The Creators Project. “When I started working for the men’s mags, I was titillated by being in a man’s world. I just wasn’t supposed to be there, since women weren’t supposed to have a sexual appetite or express it. I was supposed to be married and be home with kids. I liked drawing aggressive, dominant women, everything that I wasn’t. This was my personal rebellion. I thought I would play at this and then go back to my ‘real’ art. But I quickly learned it’s tough to make a living as an artist and without realizing it, my path was being cemented.”

Because of her gender, it’s reasonable to question if this means the artist believes she’s better suited at capturing the female form. “Not to diminish the breathtaking pinups that men do, it’s just logical that I have a different viewpoint,” Olivia responds. “Men rent; I own. Pinup is all about the wink and the nod—how’s a guy gonna know exactly how that feels?”

When asked why the pinup has become such an enduring genre, Olivia answers, “The body will always be fascinating to portray. Views of what constitutes beauty constantly change, so there will always be a need for some form of pinup.”

After painting professionally for 40 years, Olivia says that her favorite creations are the ones that take on lives of their own. “I see it reflected in women who walk toward me at my openings; I see it in their fashion, and as tattoos worn on their skin,” Olivia explains. “The best paintings, the ones that most resonate with my fans, live on in popular culture, in movies, on ephemeral objects. I see military people hang on to these objects as symbols of life and love. People tell me they’ve had fun through the fantasies I portray in their sexual lives, and some had enough fun to say they made babies—a few named Olivia.”

As to whether she’ll ever return to making fine arts, Olivia says. “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.”

Olivia’s artwork will be featured in a show at the Oceanside Museum of Art from October 28 to November 19, 2016.  In the meantime, see more of her artwork here.