Escape Artist

By Charles TaylorApril 23, 2014

Escape Artist

Veruschka by Johnny Moncada

ONE OF THE FEW genuinely cool moments amid the slack moralistic sightseeing of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up comes toward the end, when photographer David Hemmings runs into the model Veruschka at a party and, a bit puzzled, says, “I thought you were supposed to be in Paris.” To which Veruschka coolly answers, “I am in Paris.”

It’s a great moment, maybe the thing for which the Prussian-born Countess Vera Gottliebe Anna Gräfin von Lehndorff-Steinort is best known. It’s also, perhaps, the key to her art, a clue as to why the photos of her at the peak of her modeling career (from roughly the early to the late 1960s) still seem so striking and contemporary, or, rather, why Veruschka seems so striking in them. Even great models — like Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy — can seem forever contained in their moment, the moment they first connected with the public consciousness. Fonssagrives-Penn remains emblematic of the relative formality that still ruled fashion in the 1950s, Shrimpton created a tension between the settled maturity of that look and the focus on youth that was about to dominate pop culture, and Twiggy stands for the moment when the domination of youth became total. They are their moments.

You could say Veruschka, with her cool, appraising mien, stands for a certain austerity, for the high-art strain of fashion, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But that rather austere affect refuses to be defined by any specific time. The 1960s may have made her famous, but she has escaped the decade in a way that the decade’s other famous models have not, escaped the decade just as that famous line from Blow-Up — delivered with the offhand confidence of someone stating the self-evident — makes a claim to have escaped the temporal laws of time and space. The context in which the scolding Antonioni presents the line — a scene in which an agitated Hemmings is trying to convince some unconcerned partygoing associates that a murder has taken place — leaves no doubt that the director regards Veruschka’s proclamation as part of the self-absorbed decadence he’s clucking over. Veruschka’s delivery makes it neither self-deception nor boast but fact. I am, she is saying, where I choose to be, what I choose to make of myself. You will not define me.

That would seem to make her almost lethally unsuited to being a model. Not because models are, as some would have it, no more than walking, breathing mannequins. The best models are performers whose medium of expression is visual. In a lyrical essay on Marilyn Monroe as photographer’s subject that ran in the December 2012 issue of Playboy, the writer Kim Morgan noted that many of the great photographers who worked with Monroe talked of her less as a subject than as a collaborator, someone who played the camera with a virtuosity equal to the photographers themselves. What is expected of a model is a certain pliancy, but that does not mean passivity: it is the ability to embody a variety of roles and of moods as the clothes being modeled or the editorial tone of the piece demands.

Veruschka might be said to have achieved something like that in “Veruschka”: Trans-figurations, her 1986 trompe l’oeil collaboration with photographer and painter Holger Trülzsch. In Trans-figurations, Veruschka is body-painted to blend into a series of backgrounds, from blue sky and whitewashed wall to, more disturbingly, rocky coastline and rusting, rotting abandoned industrial settings. These were not the decorative nudes produced by photographer Franco Rubartelli for the 1971 Playboy feature “Stalking the Wild Veruschka,” a matter of body-painting a naked Veruschka in tiger stripes and so on. The title of this volume, credited to Trülzsch and Vera Lehndorff, and with Veruschka set off in quotation marks, suggests that the subject of the photos will be identity as a construct, and the trompe l’oeil method a kind of annihilation of the self, a self-willed act of disappearance. Instead the photos record a series of concrete examples of the astral projection (“I am in Paris”) Veruschka claimed in Blow-Up: “I am a splintered wooden door”; “I am a black sky split by lightning”; “I am a scabbed steel beam.” The eroticism of the photos is disturbing, obsessed as they are with rot and decay, and with melding the biological with the industrial. The sight of Elephant Man–like protuberances sprouting from Veruschka’s head as she lies among mossy rocks makes her skull seem, next to them, exceedingly fragile. Finally, though, the photos are neither about fragility nor about some erasure of self. In their subtle, elusive way, demanding that the viewer come to them rather than proclaim their own meaning, they are about the model’s mastery over both the natural and the manmade. Her eyes closed in most of the photos, Veruschka is like some presiding deity who has briefly materialized to give mortals a glimpse of her in the realms she rules, a deity who exists on a serene plane, unaware of us.

One of the first portraits we see in Veruschka: From Vera to Veruschka, a collection of newly discovered photos of Veruschka taken by the Italian photographer Johnny Moncada in the early 1960s, shows a casual, relaxed Veruschka holding a lit cigarette, a box of Muratti Ambassadors near her elbow. The smallest wisp of smoke is coming from the tip of the cigarette, and the model is not exhaling, while a seemingly disembodied puff of smoke hovers around her like a familiar, vapors of whatever world this creature has emerged from.

It’s tempting to see From Vera to Veruschka as an early example of the mastery over circumstance that finds such epic expression in Trans-figurations. Moncada’s method isn’t consciously avant-garde or intended to subvert the photos’ editorial purpose; these are straightforward fashion shots. Seen now, the photos, the majority in soft-hued black and white, chart 1960s fashion in a state of uncertain transition, having thrown off the classical formality of the preceding decades but not yet having reached the mod, casual freedom that would blossom in a few years. In many of the pictures Veruschka is saddled with disfiguring hairdos (French braids and topknots adorning twin waterfalls of hair that frame her face — not a look that flatters her high forehead) and clothes that, for their attempts to function as variation on classic style, can seem a bit formless. (This is particularly true of one white suit, three-quartered sleeved, soft-shouldered, boat-necked, which is a lovely thing but also an attempt at deconstruction that leaves it somewhat reminiscent of a Chanel suit in embryo.) Moncada’s use of rural or natural settings — a village’s cobblestone streets or stone walls; a rocky shore; a field — reads as a kind of yearning to achieve the ease that the clothes he is photographing don’t yet have, and the sophistication of those outfits would seem to contradict the naturalness of the bucolic settings. At times, though, Moncada’s photos suggest something like a pastoral version of what the pioneering British fashion photographer Norman Parkinson was aiming for when he posed models in London streets and alleys, with buses or passersby looming in the back of shots. And at his best, Moncada frees himself completely from formality. In one of the several essays and remembrances that begin the book, Veruschka recalls getting into the photographer’s car and the two of them driving a few hours from Rome to where the mountains still afforded a view of the sea. They wandered and took pictures. Veruschka seems to remember that she did her own hair and makeup. Nothing was forced. Any woman who has been instructed by some man she doesn’t know to smile will appreciate Veruschka’s summation of Moncada’s method: “If I was sad, it didn’t matter. He never said, ‘Don’t look sad. Smile. Look happy.’”

In the volume’s opening studio shots, taken against stark white backgrounds, Moncada emphasizes the geometric eccentricities of hairdo and couture. After pages of these pictures we turn to a portrait of Veruschka, printed opposite a blank page to emphasize that this is a break. It’s a color shot in which the model’s shoulders are bare and a drape of white silk with black zigzags is turbaned loosely around her hair. As placed by editor Antonio Monfreda, the shot signifies disrobing (and the loss of those tortured hairdos), coming clean (the turban lending a post-shower touch), the relaxation that comes with the end of a workday. The country settings of the shots that follow, even with the occasional artifice, like blown-up playing cards placed in a windy field, come to the viewer as an almost palpable relief. The book starts. At times, the attempt at naturalness is strained, as in the shots where Veruschka in a Louise Brooks wig leans against a barn door with a bunny in her lap. (The forced gentleness does not come naturally to her.) It’s only a momentary misstep. In the mountain villages and countryside, Moncada finds the locations that suit him, and his model begins to work her transfiguring magic.

The clothes become less important than Veruschka’s body language. The simple blouse-and-skirt ensembles, the relatively unadorned dresses, are subject to the contours of her body, whether she’s resting on a worn set of stone stairs or against a wall on the edge of a thicket of branches, or standing on a mountain’s gentle slope. In other words, she is wearing the clothes instead of being worn by them. A series of shots of Veruschka in a black sheath dress, the hem and boat neck ringed by dark spangles, are so offhand and free, the model simply being instead of posing, that it takes us a while to recognize she’s helmeted by one of those questionable hairdos.

What follows through the book is a kind of stripping down. Even the couture gets simpler — the white suit previously described; a black ensemble consisting of a long-waisted halter top and harem pants. When Veruschka dons eveningwear, a black Grecian gown or a white one with lace cap sleeves, Moncada has her barefoot or posed on rocks sitting in water a few feet from shore, bathers visible behind her. In one lovely shot, Veruschka looks over her shoulder and up at the camera while, ignoring both her and the camera, a little girl gathers water from a spigot. Moncada is drawn to details — the elegant long arc of Veruschka’s neck, or her hand resting gracefully at her side — and he will move the camera in to focus on these. By the time we get to the swimwear portfolios that close the book, Moncada has more or less abandoned interest in the clothes. The emphasis here is the model surrendering to the natural world, aligning her long frame along the top of a rock jutting from the sea or in the shallow waters near shore, her body half-submerged in the water as if she were either emerging from or dreaming of returning to an amniotic state. Her mood is one of contentment. In a bandana and cape coverup worn over a bikini, the whitecaps of the sea behind her and the suggestion of wind blowing the ends of her bandana, Veruschka looks to the sky, as if expecting the gods to send down storms — and at the same time, she seems so unfazed by the elements that she could withstand whatever is coming, her chin up, her gaze pointed at the horizon.

For all of the ways in which Moncada situates Veruschka among recognizable life in these pictures, whether people or nature, stray cats or chickens, his aim is not to normalize her, which would be a betrayal of her command as a performer, a mealy-mouthed capitulation to self-esteem and “the real,” that which we currently allow to rule our appreciation of beauty. Veruschka rules the settings of these photos as surely as she will, shortly later, the settings for the Trans-figurations. Moncada’s aim is to allow his model a level of relaxation in which nothing will interfere with her mastery. When you see a shot of her in a skirt and dolman-sleeved pullover posing against an arch at the windy base of a mountain, you can easily imagine Jean Shrimpton in the same outfit, perhaps in some bit of the English countryside. But Shrimpton’s doe-eyed stare, a kind of admission of vulnerability, is miles from the sidelong assurance of Veruschka — not inferior, just different. The tilt of Veruschka’s head, the confidence of her expression, is that of someone ready to meet whatever is coming; the simultaneous casualness, arms behind her back, hips to the side, belongs to someone to whom the regal and commanding comes naturally, even in moments of repose.

My favorite of Moncada’s shots shows Veruschka’s eyes meeting the camera as she peers out from a hood adorning a plush, t-shaped coat. Her head is tilted down as her eyes look up, a simple trick that denotes appraisal, consolidated power that may or may not be unleashed at whomever passes in front of that cool, piercing, unflinching gaze. The cowl-like hood adds a note of camouflage, a suggestion of the hiding-as-a-form-of-command that will come to the fore in Trans-figurations. It’s mysterious, and at the same time neither photographer nor subject makes any attempt to hide the force of that subject’s personality, to deny the indomitability the picture suggests she possesses. It’s an image that is both supple and of almost leonine command.

As I write this Veruschka is a few weeks shy of 75 and has clearly resisted the predilection for disfiguring surgery. She appears in public allowing her famous face to show the marks of age, as she did on the catwalk for the designer Giles Deacon in the fall of 2010 and, four years earlier, as one of the poker players in the centerpiece of Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s launching as the new James Bond. Her presence in this new incarnation of a 1960s icon is a witty testament to her perseverance. It may take six Bonds to keep the series going, but there is still only one Veruschka.


Become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books!


Charles Taylor is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and teaches writing at New York University.

LARB Contributor

Charles Taylor is the author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s. He lives in New York.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!