She was “the most beautiful woman in the world,” according to fashion photographer Richard Avedon. Vogue heralded her as “one of the great wonders of our time” and ran her on its cover 11 times, and Michelangelo Antonioni cast her in a famous and erotic scene in his 1967 film Blow-Up. But the 1960s beauty Veruschka, who has used her given name, Vera Lehndorff, since she gave up modeling in 1975, now makes disappearance her special, private art.
Though she still stands—and sits and lies down—before a camera, Lehndorff’s profession has changed greatly. On a typical day, she poses naked for up to nine hours in a dusty Italian rag warehouse while German artist Holger Trülzsch kneels before her covering her body with theatrical paint. Meanwhile Lehndorff, glancing often at a mirror, uses ambidextrous coordination to daub more markings on herself. Every once in a while Trülzsch scrutinizes her through his camera lens. When her body paint exactly matches the rag heaps around her, he begins snapping.
In much this way, the team has spent the past 16 years converting her body into a living canvas that merges with sometimes hideous, sometimes pastoral surroundings. Unlike most of her fashion poses, these photos show Lehndorff’s odd creative sensibilities: They are vivid optical illusions that blur the line between painting and reality. “As a painter, you live very much by the myth of Pygmalion, who created a sculpture that became alive,” says Trülzsch, 47. “Vera and I have the opposite process. We sacrifice the body, which disappears into the painting.”
Lehndorff, now in her mid-40s, did her first body painting for a 1966 Vogue layout that showed her splashed with a leopard’s spots. “I always thought it was a little boring to just be the shape of a human,” she says, “so I started to transform myself into different things.” On a photo shoot in Africa, she covered her skin with black shoe polish to create a startling—but not realistic—native look. In 1969 she painted her head to look like a stone and had herself photographed amid a group of real stones. She and Trülzsch met in 1970 and began experimenting with the style. They covered her naked body with paintings of a gangster’s clothes and decorated her to resemble a snake and an insect. They overlaid her body with moss and made her flesh appear to have been pierced by corroded metal rivets. Sometimes the disguise is so effective that even Lehndorff can’t find her own image: “I said once to Holger, ‘I think you have done one without me.’ ” Their portfolio, gathered in Veruschka: Trans-figurations (Little, Brown, $35), released last November, has enthralled the art world. “The work she’s doing now is quite brilliant,” says Irving Penn.
Wash off the paint and Lehndorff emerges with a life story as exotic as her appearance. The second of four daughters born to Count Heinrich von Lehndorff, Vera spent her early years at the family castle near what is now Kaliningrad, U.S.S.R. During World War II, when the region was part of East Prussia, the Count became a German army reserve officer. So horrified was he by Nazi atrocities that he helped stage the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. When it failed, he was executed and his family forced to wander, staying with friends and relatives in Germany. The hardships of Vera’s teen years were heightened when she reached her current 6′ at 14. “I was quite ugly,” she says. “I fell all the time because I had no control over my body.” Her passion for mimicry developed around that time. “My mother would see me going into the woods and embracing the trees. I thought if I held one very strongly I would merge into it.”
During her late teens Lehndorff studied art for three years in Hamburg, then in Florence, where she was stopped on the street by a fashion photographer who asked her to model. In 1963, after only a few assignments, she decided to try the big time in New York. Unable to get a job, she returned to Europe briefly, then hit New York again, this time with the name Veruschka and a more striking wardrobe of leotards, miniskirts and high boots. “I invented a whole story about this person Veruschka who comes from Russia,” she says. “Veruschka in Russian ironically means ‘little Vera.’ ”
The make-over worked. She instantly impressed Diana Vreeland, then editor-in-chief of Vogue. “She was charming and had a great presence,” Vreeland recalls. “Her looks, of course, were superb.” Lehndorff’s poses were stark and dramatic; her assignments were sometimes odd. She once rode in a limo to Japan’s remote Snow Country to pose in silver fox and honey lynx next to a sumo wrestler. “I walked in a special way, very slow motion, like I was an animal,” she says. “Fashion isn’t about being beautiful. It’s about never being forgotten once a photographer has seen you.”
Lehndorff has also appeared in a half dozen movies, few of them successful, and still dabbles in acting. She had a cameo as a countess in the 1983 bomb The Bride, starring Sting. Otherwise she and her mother share a rambling, 13th-century rectory in rural West Germany, and her life is sedate. Although she’s a countess, Lehndorff rarely uses her title. “It’s very good for getting dentist appointments,” she says, “but for nothing else.” She and Trülzsch, with whom she says she has never been romantically involved, work together several months a year on location around Europe. During their off-months, Trülzsch pursues other art projects in Paris (where he lives) and composes electronic music; Lehndorff reads philosophy and draws still lifes of the stones she collects.
Despite the uninhibited nudity in their photos, the artists guard their privacy. But they endured with finesse a New York gallery opening of their recent works, priced at $1,800 to $9,500. Dressed in black with little makeup, Lehndorff blended easily and anonymously into the crowd, and it was only on close scrutiny that her jutting cheekbones and sky-blue eyes revealed her uncommon beauty. The gawky girl who once tried to turn herself into a tree was at it again.