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September 30, 2002

Every Picture Tells a Story redux


I know, I know, I swore I would never look at another of Gil Elvgren’s paintings—they are simply too deeply felt, too eloquent on the human condition for a sensitive soul such as myself. But I couldn’t help it. Apparently, in art, all roads lead to Elvgren!

I was minding my own business, leafing through a book I own, called “Art at the Turn of the Millenium.” (It’s one of those books you can tell is ultra-hip because it’s in both French and English—although, oddly, the editors are both German.) Suddenly, I came across some documentation of Vanessa Beecroft’s installation pieces. I got really excited because Ms. Beecroft’s work is totally cutting edge, in the sense that like most performance pieces you have to be there to really get it—the perfect mechanism for separating the hipsters who go to art openings from the unwashed masses who, er, don’t.

Vanessa does Tokyo!

I decided to research the insider line on Ms. Beecroft in case some sophisticate started throwing her name around at a party. On the website, which is apparently too hip even for capitalization, I found this penetrating commentary on one of her performance pieces:

the one evening event (09.05.2000) is the first solo project by beecroft in the uk. it's art; it's fashion. it's good; it's bad. it's sexist; it's not. it's vanessa beecroft's performance art. the primary material in her work is the live figure, which remains ephemeral, separate and unmediated by any device we normally accept as artform, such as painting or photography.

I don’t know about you, but I am just knocked out by any writer who can work ephemeral, separate and unmediated in one sentence—without even beginning it with a capital letter! I could tell I was out of my depth. I retreated back to my book “Art at the Turn of the Millenium,” pausing to marvel at the way it had a whole second title: “L’ART AU TOURNANT DE L’AN 2000.” There I picked up some more prosaic background info (in both English and French):

Since the mid-1990s, Vanessa Beecroft has been parading before us a succession of scantily clad girls. Recently, they’ve been appearing with nothing on at all. In Beecroft’s performances and exhibition openings they silently take up their positions, moving very little, standing before the public like living pictures.

Standing Like Living Pictures--Early Version, Late Version

Before I could control myself, I remembered that Elvgren too had painted pictures of scantily-clad girls (and some apparently wearing nothing at all!) Was it possible that the Elvgren, uber-artist that he was, had successfully anticipated performance art 50 years or more in the future? I manfully suppressed the thought and went on:

Wholly in keeping with the late 20th century happening culture, Beecroft is offering something that obviously cannot be conveyed through the media. And yet she is playing in her mind with the very images communicated by the media.

Elvgren & Beecroft: Master & Disciple?

This was simply too much. I had to open my book of Elvgren paintings and verify for myself that his subject matter was exactly as described: “something that cannot be conveyed through the media” and yet “playing…with the very images communicated by the media.” Could there be more to this apparent relationship between Vanessa Beecroft and Gil Elvgren? I returned to “Art at the Turn of the Milennium.”

In one performance [the women] may appear vulnerable, in another, impressively strong. There is a charged and yet restrained atmosphere created by the tension between broken taboos and ancient ideals of beauty, between eroticism and the charm of naked shop-window dummies.

Elvgren's Women: Vulnerable and Strong!

My god, but it was true. Beecroft had obviously worshipped at the shrine of Elvgren's incredibly avant-garde work. For the ultimate test, I returned to and checked out an actual quote from Ms. Beecroft:

"...I want women on heels because that’s powerful, that’s not natural nudity or pureness," she explains.

Well, I immediately went back to my Elvgren book and was stupified to find it was full of naked women wearing heels! As early as the 1940s, Elvgren's mysteriously powerful artisitic antenna had picked up on this footwear conundrum that would vex us at the end of the century!

Elvgren understood the power of naked women in heels 60 years ago

It appears that no artist, no matter how contemporary, can escape the overwhelming influence of Elvgren. Apparently art is doomed to walk, ineffectually, in his giant shadow for the rest of time.



posted by Friedrich at September 30, 2002


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