Published on January 13th, 2015 | by Julie Chaizemartin1
Niki de Saint Phalle, a French-American Heroine
The great exhibition of the Parisian autumn-winter is the one dedicated to Niki de Saint Phalle at the Grand Palais. There are those that emerge from the experience delighted and then there are those who do not want to go on the pretext that they already know all of Niki’s art, referring to her large colorful Nanas papier-mâché. The latter couldn’t be more mistaken, for if they would take the time to browse the Paris exhibition, they would discover much more than an eccentric artist existing beyond the Stravinsky fountain in front of the Pompidou Center or the great Cyclops created conjointly with Jean Tinguely in the middle of the forest of Milly, a small town in Essonne, south of Paris. Niki’s art has evolved throughout her life, presenting itself as a liberation of pre-established rules, an act of resistance, a visceral need to exist through grand and striking creations. It is an art that comes out from her core, easily seen with her series of “Shots.” With a rifle before the audience, colors drip into the frame. She aims, strikes the plaster and the colors below gush and flow, as if the paint were tears. Niki is deconstructing, dismantling, seeming to avenge something, and creating here the first happenings of the twentieth century. A woman who pulls a .22 rifle is also a subversive female artist; she was both at the same time. Decidedly feminist.
With the sound of her voice accompanying the visitor throughout the course of the exhibition, we listen as her emotions reveal an injured woman who lives for art, a woman who transformed her art into her manifesto of the reign of a matriarchal society embodied by her large plump and friendly Nanas and The Devouring Mother. But even before these works she had also created a series of Brides, Goddesses and Deliveries. The female body is the focus of Niki’s work and we understand why. When viewing the her film entitled Daddy, and the staged killing of her father, the man who had abused her young daughter, Niki remarked, “In 1961, I shot: on dad, all men, the small, the large, the important, the big, my brother, on society… I shot because I was fascinated to see the canvas bleed and die. On your marks! Ready! Fire!” The girl with the pretty face and seductive allure who had made the cover of Vogue became a young woman, a wife and a mother, and she was challenging everything. As a woman, she was accepted into the men’s group the New Realists. The Swiss Jean Tinguely became her lover and the man of her life. Niki was by this time a part of the Parisian avant-garde but continued to make trips to the United States to which she remained loyal, having spent her childhood and adolescence there.
Of all of her sculptures, paintings, installations, and even parks, the best known is the Tarot Garden in Tuscany, made in Italy. Niki says she was inspired by Gaudi, surprised by his creativity and colorful, joyful work. We also retain her immense Hon (which means, “it”) in Stockholm, Sweden. This large sculpture of a buxom woman is entered through the sex, true to the quintessence of her mythology, her world and the message she wants project – that of the place of women in society. Niki managed to tame her demons through her art. She channeled her energy into her many creations for children, especially her colorful parks which include the models seen in the exhibition, particularly those of the Golem in Jerusalem, conceived as a gigantic monster from which emerge three tongues that serve as slides, the Tarot Garden in Tuscany and Queen Califa’s Magic Circle in Escondido, California, designed as an amusement park.
Born in France into an aristocratic family soon to be impoverished, Niki de Saint Phalle spent her childhood in America. There, her career and her life would reach their ends in La Jolla, California. This double culture, French-American, will mark her art in many ways, similar to that of her contemporaries Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. She had an American audacity, an embodiment of a culture of doing, of action, and incorporated it into her creations of American multiculturalism, in particular by making references to Mexican art. The major retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris is the perfect opportunity to discover the many different artistic angles of Niki de Saint Phalle, who remains first a woman, and second a great artist.