The Life and Art of Vanessa Beecroft by Susan Wallace

Vanessa Beecroft was born in Genoa, Italy in 1969. She spent the first four years of her life living in London with her brother, British father, and Italian mother. Her father lived decadently and sold classic cars to support his lavish lifestyle. Vanessa's mother, a professor of Italian literature, lived a chaotic, eccentric existence. The marriage eventually ended, and Vanessa went to live with her mother in an olive-tree forest on Lake Garda, in Northern Italy. Vanessa's brother was sent to live with their grandparents in Genoa. Vanessa was fourteen years old before she saw her brother again, and thirty before she saw her father.   In Italy, Vanessa fell in love with Renaissance painting. Her mother, who was very interested in her daughter's education, took her to Italian churches, museums, and films. Although Vanessa was free to come and go as she pleased, there was no TV or telephone, no Coke, no chips, no bubble gum or chocolate, no cars and no pasta. Vanessa was raised as a macrobiotic vegetarian, a regimen she still adheres to. To this day, she never eats lunch, and can't stand the smell of anything cooking in her apartment except boiled vegetables. It's no wonder that eating disorders, such as anorexia, have plagued Vanessa since adolescence.   When Vanessa was fourteen, she and her mother moved back to Genoa. Vanessa entered art school, studying Renaissance painting technique, architecture, and stage design. She also drew nude models for four hours every day. By the time she was seventeen, Vanessa was on her own attending the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan. She quit painting because she was "never fond of objects and surfaces," and began to study performance art, body art, and conceptual movement. The speed of these ideas fascinated Vanessa.

She so impressed one of her professors in Milan that he got her a show at the Inga Pin Gallery in Milan in 1993. Vanessa displayed pages from a food diary she had been keeping since she was thirteen; vivid watercolors of featureless girls with eating disorders; and 30 girls she found on the street.


Vanessa dressed the girls in her own brightly hued thrift shop clothes, and left them to mill about the gallery, talking and laughing. By the end of the show, some of the girls had acted in ways that freaked out some of the viewers. Vanessa Beecroft titled this first show VB1. For her next show, VB2, Vanessa asked the girls not to speak so that the effect was more visual, like a portrait. She found three girls, and put them in red wigs and red shoes. This show made the cover of the art magazine Purple Prose, and jump-started Vanessa's meteoric career.  

Vanessa Beecroft's art has evolved substantially over the past nine years. In the early performance pieces, the subjects were ordinary girls found on the street. The clothes Vanessa put on the girls were cheap and awkward, the wigs didn't fit, and the shoes were clunky. The first shows had a childlike, dress-up quality, and Vanessa often borrowed pieces from her own shabby wardrobe. Gradually, she started to reveal more and more of the girls' skin, and the clothes Vanessa chose began to have designer labels. In addition to asking the girls not to speak as in earlier performances, Vanessa also asked them not to make eye contact, and to be as still as possible.


By 1998, Vanessa was showing VB35 in the Guggenheim after being discovered by Jeffrey Deitch, a dealer who has a reputation for discovering radical new artists. In VB35, Beecroft featured 20 tall, slender, flawless models. Fifteen of the girls wore red, rhinestone-studded bikinis, the other five were nude, and all 20 wore spike heels. The girls stared off into space, crouched, or walked around slowly sometimes speaking quietly to each other. Of the show Beecroft says, "I wasn't particularly fond of the Gucci outfits, because I wanted all the girls to be nude. I wanted to see the reaction of the people coming in, all dressed up. I'm ashamed of the nude body myself, and so I throw it in the face of people. This is naked, so what! Take it! I never felt like I was objectifying them."
  art show composed of live models


close up of Gagosian show
In May of 2000, Vanessa Beecroft was invited to open Larry Gagosian's new London gallery.
VB43 featured pale-skinned models wearing nothing but red wigs and high heels.


To date, Vanessa Beecroft has put on 48 performances in 25 different countries. There were four shows in 2001, VB45 through VB48. In Vienna, Austria, VB45 was chosen to inaugurate the opening of the Kunsthalle Wien. The show featured 45 tall blondes in Helmut Lang thigh-high black boots, and nothing else. VB46, at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, featured tiny, flat, boyish, nude girls in high heels. The models were powdered to the point of having an alabaster quality to their skin and hair. Of the show Beecroft said, "They think breasts mean sex, OK, lets get rid of breasts. Hips mean sex; let's get rid of them. I want to see if the picture still works. I am imagining this bleached image, overexposed - blonde, platinum, albino." This was Ms. Beecroft's challenge to the Hollywood feminine ideal.

VB47, in Venice, Italy, was perhaps Ms. Beecroft's most haunting show to date. As a part of the Guggenheim collection, 15 very slender, faceless nude girls were shown in spiked lace-up heels. The girls are arranged, faces covered, in a picture gallery. Some of the girls are standing; others are sitting.
Venice show
Initially, the facelessness of the girls is disturbing. After you look at the models for a while they seem to take on a sculptural form, and the spike heels become their pedestals. In VB48, Vanessa Beecroft returns to her birthplace Genoa, Italy, Staged at the Palazzo Ducale, Beecroft uses thirty women of color in very small, gold, Grecian bikinis. The effect is a dramatic contrast to her alabaster shows of earlier 2001.

Because Vanessa Beecroft's performances are one-day only events, the most accessible place to view her collection of work is on the Web. The web site provides a complete retrospective of the VB shows, with several pictures of each performance, as well as some of Ms. Beecroft's paintings, photography, and drawings. Vanessa Beecroft's one-of-a-kind performances make no money. Photographs of the shows are sold in editions of six as Beecroft's artworks. In early 2000, one photograph was sold at auction for $35,000. Beecroft keeps journals of her performances as well as select concept drawings and Polaroids.


  In so many ways Beecroft's performances represent modern popular culture; the "here today, gone tomorrow" mentality of modern artistic mediums. Our popular obsession with beauty, youth, fashion, and external appearances is clearly a theme in Ms. Beecroft's art. There is also an examination of the female figure and the relationship the physical self has to the mental and emotional feminine identity. Beecroft gives people a chance to take an extended glance at the female form, and examine their own feelings of nakedness and vulnerability. It seems that she's saying, "If you want to look, look. Here is appropriate time and place."   The reactions to Vanessa Beecroft's performances have been mixed. "Hooters for intellectuals" was how one skeptical art critic characterized the performances. Others contend that Vanessa Beecroft is "redefining the nude," "setting back feminism 20 years," "putting on sex shows," or "extending the boundaries of radical performance art." Dodie Kazanjian, a writer for Vogue, said about the performances, "The events I've seen have impressed me in all sorts of contradictory ways - I've felt mesmerized, bored, baffled, aesthetically moved, and overwhelmingly embarrassed." There is something about seeing girls in various stages of undress that makes the viewer evaluate her own body image anxieties. Regardless of how her work makes you feel, you won't want to turn away, which is exactly the reaction Vanessa Beecroft wants.

Beecroft, A Blackout, a Ceramics Biennial, and the G8 Summit. Artforum. Retrieved 4/19/02
"Standing and Staring; Yet Aiming for Empowerment" Critics Notebook by Roberta Smith. Retrieved 1/25/02
Vanessa Beecroft, at the London Gagosian gallery. Designboom. Retrieved 4/19/02.
Vanessa Beecroft does Tokyo. Monty DoPietro. Retrieved 1/25/02.
Vanessa Beecroft. Play. Galerie Analix, Geneva, 1995. Retrieved 1/25/02