The Art of Niki de Saint Phalle: A Rebel Through and Through

07/11/2016 08:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017


Niki de Saint Phalle, Serpent et Déesses. Courtesy Omer Tiroche Contemporary Art.

Lively, chromatic, female: Niki de Saint Phalle's works are instantly recognizable. The French-born, American-raised artist is one of the most significant female and feminist artists of the 20th century, and one of the few to receive recognition in the male-dominated art world during her lifetime. Interest in Saint Phalle has been reignited of late, not only as part of a vigorous return to women artists in the 21st century at museums and institutions around the world, but due to more nuanced explorations of her motives and work, heterogeneous in form and materially complex, from her early painting works executed with a shotgun, to her monumental public sculptures.

Saint Phalle, who passed away in California in 2002, received her largest survey to date last year at the Guggenheim Bilbao. The exhibition--organized under the guidance of Saint Phalle's granddaughter--was a gateway to new readings of Saint Phalle's works, and to a clearer understanding of her place within art history. Viewed today, her works--such as her large-scale interactive sculptures, sometimes with interactive and inhabitable elements, such as slides or beds-- scintillate with naivety. The beguiling optimism in their characteristic zesty colors and dynamic, amorphous surfaces has been misaligned with Pop Art, but recent exhibitions demonstrate the darker and more critical aspects to be unearthed in her oeuvre.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Anneau (Last Night I had a Dream). Courtesy Omer Tiroche Contemporary Art.

At a new exhibition at Omer Tiroche Contemporary Art, London, Je Suis Une Vache Suisse, the key shifts through Saint Phalle's work are brought to bear in closer detail, examining domestic-scaled sculptural works and paintings, including works that have never been seen in public before. Curated by Dr Helen Pheby, the exhibition gives a distilled perspective on the major personal and professional breakthroughs Saint Phalle made in her tumultuous life. At age 11, Saint Phalle was raped by her father. Yet even early on Saint Phalle found a way to exorcize her trauma through art. According to Pheby, "her early, rebellious, spirit is evident in her being expelled from Brearly School, New York, for painting a statue's fig leaf bright red. This of course could also be interpreted as a defiant protest against the hypocritical values of a society that would shield young girls' eyes from male anatomy whilst she herself was sexually abused."

Saint Phalle eloped aged 18, becoming a mother to a daughter soon after. At the time, she was a successful model, appearing on the cover of Life and French Vogue. Her career in fashion, though away from her rigidly conservative and bourgeois family, brought its own pressures, and ultimately, Pheby says, "contributed toward Niki's nervous breakdown--it was through art that she reclaimed her body, identity and self worth." Encouraged to experiment by the artist Hugh Weiss, whom Saint Phalle met while on a modeling job in Paris, "she began making art seriously, as form of catharsis, in 1953.

Niki de Saint Phalle, L'Ermite. Courtesy Omer Tiroche Contemporary Art.

How to celebrate being a woman in the public realm, when one is already so exposed and vulnerable in the private day to day? The inherent conflicts in Saint Phalle's life, drawn out in her work, became much bigger than her personal experiences. In many ways, her works, with their affront between adulation and perversion, and tensions between self-love and self-hatred, prefigure discussions on female imagery that concern feminism today. Indeed, she was perhaps the first female artist to approach the body in this way, interrogating the way status and the body impact on the emancipation of women in society.

Art was much more than a therapy. It was a bold act of defiance, a reclamation of space for herself, and for women. Throughout the 1960s, Saint Phalle began to articulate these collective ideas, and their intersection with other social and political issues--amidst an atmosphere of radical ideas, from civil rights, anti-war and anti-violence protests to campaigns for women's rights and sexual liberation across the West. In the 1960s, Saint Phalle rose to fame for her "shooting" paintings: She fired a 22-caliber rifle at canvasses embedded with bags of paint that exploded beneath a plaster surface. Pheby points to de Saint Phalle's own commentary of this period in her work: "In 1960 I was a very angry young woman. Angry at men and their power. I felt that they had robbed me of my own free space in which I could develop myself. I wanted to conquer their world, to earn my own money. Angry with my parents who I felt had raised me for the marriage market. I wanted to show them that I was somebody, that I existed and that my voice and my scream of protest as a woman was important. I was ready to kill."

Niki de Saint Phalle, All Over, 1959-60. Courtesy Omer Tiroche Contemporary Art.

From motifs of violence--guns, knives, other manmade instruments--in the early 60s, Saint Phalle began to address the feminist impulse in her work more directly later in the decade, turning her attention to the portrayal of women in archetypal roles as wives, brides and mothers. Her famous Nanas from the mid sixties are characteristic of this transformation from personal struggle to the profound and far-reaching aspects of womanhood. "It's clear through her practice," Pheby says, "that Niki reconciled these strong emotions and moved toward more celebratory work, with great sense of joy and appreciation of the natural world and her place in it." Her Nanas were her all-female army, totems of an indomitable feminine energy.

Niki de Saint Phalle, L'Oiseau Amoureux or Bird in Love, 1972. Courtesy Omer Tiroche Contemporary Art.

References to feminine symbolism in prehistoric art, and in nature and mythology quite naturally became a core part of Saint Phalle's work thereafter. At Omer Tiroche, this is presented in examples of animal sculptures and works on paper including Monkey with Child (1995) and Gorilla (undated). Pheby explains: "Birds are a subject that thread throughout her career and in fact the history of art itself, from prehistoric Oceanic objects through to work by modernist artists such as Picasso, Brancusi and Miró. The snake might be understood as a celebration of the female spirit and sexuality, referencing the biblical myth of course of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden."

Niki de Saint Phalle, Obélisque aux coeurs (Obelisk with hearts), 1987. Courtesy Omer Tiroche Contemporary Art.

The spiritual scope of Saint Phalle's later work brings her metamorphoses to a jubilant climax. Hanging on the wall at Omer Tiroche is a large digital photograph of Saint Phalle's sculpture, Buddha (1999), currently displayed at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Completed three years before the artist's death, the surface of the giant serene Buddha, seated in lotus position, surrounded by nature, glitters with a mosaic made up of fragments of glass, mirror, ceramic tile and polished stone, (termed "m&ms" by the artist). It perfectly captures the Saint Phalle power dichotomy between quiet acceptance and exuberant visibility.

As Pheby elucidates, "the way in which Niki overcame her childhood trauma through creative expression is really an inspiration and affirmation of the power of art not only to heal, but communicate her vivacious resilience."

Niki de Saint Phalle, Buddha, 2000. Courtesy Omer Tiroche Contemporary Art.

 

--Charlotte Jansen