Vanessa Beecroft: Tableaux Vivants

Performance and the female body

By La Galleria Nazionale

Tine (1996) by Beecroft VanessaLa Galleria Nazionale

Obsessions

Beauty and torment, aesthetic perfectionism and raw realism merge in Vanessa Beecroft's work. Her central theme was the female body, which she staged through complex choreographed performances in which female bodies made up complex tableaux vivants.

A restless adolescence

Vanessa Beecroft was born in Genoa, but spent a problematic childhood between England - where her father was born - and Italy, her mother's country. Tormented by eating disorders during her adolescence, Beecroft kept a diary, The Book of Food, in which she noted down her every meal over a ten-year period (1983-1993).

In Genoa, she studied at the Accademia Ligustica Di Belle Arti (from 1987 to 1988) and then moved to the Accademia Di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan (from 1988 to 1993). In 1996, she moved to the United States, first to New York and then, in 2019, to Los Angeles.

Susannee (1996) by Vanessa BeecroftLa Galleria Nazionale

VB01, 1993

Beecroft's courageous debut in the art world took place in 1993 with the staging of her The Book of Food during a collective exhibition at the Inga-Pin Gallery in Milan. The work was titled VB01. From that moment on, all her performances bore her initials "VB" in the title, followed by a sequential number corresponding to the performance.

Placed in the centre of a large room, the book was surrounded by "living sculptures": 30 girls, some moving, others standing or sitting, dressed in the artist's yellow or red smocks. Many of the girls were chosen for their resemblance to Beecroft.

On the walls of the room there were sketches and watercolours of stylised figures of girls represented as thin sticks in bright colours – a further reference to the distorted perception of those suffering from eating disorders. The drawings were titled VBDW01, VBDW02, VBDW03, an acronym that stands for "Vanessa Beecroft Drawings and Watercolours".

The staging of the tableau vivant

The first performance of 1993 established Beecroft as a conceptual artist. In particular, it made clear to her the power of the presence of living bodies in space: the "tableaux vivants".

Beecroft generally started from a sketch, an idea, from where the search began for an adherence between this idea and the staging of the performance: “I summarise the idea in a proposal and pass it to the production manager, who transforms it into a project. The project involves several collaborators: a photographer, a cameraman, a make-up artist, a costume designer and the casting, which I accompany from a distance. (…) There are no rehearsals: the day I meet everyone for the first time is usually the day of the performance".

This "transfer" would take place through strict rules of behaviour that the models had to follow during the performances, which allowed them to achieve the total "estrangement" of their presence. Instructed not to interact with the audience, they would often wear uniforms – clothes, accessories, wigs, makeup, all identical – were naked or hardly dressed, and made to stand or remain in the same position for hours.

Susanne, Tine (1996) by Vanessa BeecroftLa Galleria Nazionale

“Provoking, pushing forward the limits of society or seeing what happens if certain taboos are touched, are stimuli for my artistic creation. But the primary motivation for my work still remains poetic, introspective, psychoanalytic, social, formal, chromatic, compositional.”

Senza titolo (1994) by Beecroft VanessaLa Galleria Nazionale

The ideal body

Beecroft would almost always use young, tall and thin models, whom she called "girls" regardless of their age. Her intention was to represent a mass ritual, appearing without modesty, towards that form-limit which - through total control of the body - proceeded in the direction of an ideal, ethereal, shimmering model.

Female beauty is investigated in its many facets, in its physicality, power and charm, in the relationship with the art of the past, with cinema and with the great women of history. Everything starts from the relationship between the decay of the body and the eternal appearance of the models, between physics and metaphysics.

Themes

Beecroft's early works were mainly focused on gender identity (female), often autobiographical, as in the performances VB02, VB03, VB04 and VB08 (all from 1994), in which all the models wore red wigs (exaggerating the colour of Beecroft's own hair) and white underwear. In VB51 (2002), the first filmed performance installed at Schloss Vinsebeck in Stenheim, Germany, the models were more mature for the first time, almost all around 60 years of age, and included Beecroft's mother.

Her themes subsequently became more politicised, moving to themes that mainly focused on racism, as in VB61 Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf? (2007), one of Beecroft's most politically engaged performances, which was presented at the 52nd Venice Biennale and involved “30 Sudanese women with painted skin, lying face down on the ground on a white cloth, simulating dead bodies piled one on top of another", representing the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

Art and fashion

Since VB01, Beecroft has created over 60 performances all over the world (Guggenheim in New York, Gagosian Gallery, Moma P.S. 1 in New York, Wacoal Art Center in Tokyo, the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, the Lia Rumma Gallery in Naples and Milan). She has also collaborated with major designers such as Miuccia Prada, Tom Ford and, more recently, with the singer Kanye West.

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