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Niki de Saint Phalle, "Autoportrait" ("Self-Portrait") (c. 1958–59) (© 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foundation; all rights reserved; photo by Laurent Condominas)

Niki de Saint Phalle, “Autoportrait” (“Self-Portrait”) (c. 1958–59) (© 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foundation; all rights reserved; photo by Laurent Condominas)

PARIS — Niki de Saint Phalle was half French, half American, and bilingual, but who was she? Certainly not merely the sculptor who made those fat girls, the Nanas, though they remain her most famous works. The greatest surprise of her retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris is how different those works look alongside the rest of her creations, and how strikingly varied yet coherent her large body of work is.

Camille Morineau, the show’s curator, is best known for her startling exhibition at the Centre Pompidou five years ago, elles@centrepompidou, for which she rehung the museum’s permanent collection with only women artists. Now she dazzles us with this thorough exploration of de Saint Phalle’s unfettered imagination.

Niki de Saint Phalle, “Heads of State (Study for King Kong)” (spring 1963) (© BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Michael Herling/Benedikt Werner)

The show opens with collages and paintings in earnest dialogue with Pollock, Dubuffet, and Rauschenberg that the self-taught artist made between the ages of 28 and 31. From 1960 to 1963 she executed her famous Tirs (Shoot) pieces, which drip like Pollocks but which de Saint Phalle produced by shooting a rifle at balloons of colorful paint mounted on white canvases. In the early 1960s, this aristocratic Catholic woman who’d been brought up in a strict household attacked the church with sculptures in the shape of altars strewn with crucifixes. In the mid-‘60s she constructed giant, heavy-hearted bride-ghosts and modern Venus of Willendorfs squeezing out babies. In perfectly calibrated formal choices, de Saint Phalle disfigured long-held articles of faith — high art, the family, the church.

Niki de Saint Phalle, “Les Trois Grâces” (“The Three Graces”) (1995–2003) (photo by Veronique Bidinger) (click to enlarge)

But then, seemingly out of nowhere, came the Nanas, those girls as heart-stoppingly different from de Saint Phalle’s previous work as Cézanne’s “The Eternal Feminine” is from any of his still lifes or Mondrian’s grids are from his early writhing trees. These Nanas — rotund, ebullient, hungry girls dressed in bold primary colors — twirl on tippy toes and look like they’re having a grand old time. They glance back at French art history to Matisse’s jubilant dancers and the sturdy females of Gaston Lachaise and Aristide Maillol, and even, surprisingly, to Rodin.

The Nanas’ forms may be French, but their attitudes are American. Think Stuart Davis, Red Grooms, Roy Lichtenstein, comic strips, and gumball machines. They seem to say: break all the rules, be confident, be arrogant, and throw your weight around. De Saint Phalle makes her audience enter “Hon” (1966), a house-sized Nana, through her vagina.

There’s another side to the story, though. In 1968, de Saint Phalle wrote on a drawing, “I had to take my diet pills … gained five pounds around the hips.” On another drawing of a Nana she asks, “will you still love me when I look like this?” The artist was a slim woman who modeled for Life magazine when she was 19, Vogue when she was 22. Following a conventional trajectory, she married at 19, had her first child at 21, and her second at 25. At 23 she had a nervous breakdown and was treated with electroshock therapy and insulin for what was diagnosed as schizophrenia.

When she was 62 de Saint Phalle published Mon Secret. She revealed that her father sexually abused her for several years beginning when she was 11 years old. Knowing this, all her works take on new meanings and what seemed like contradictory urges — the guns, the sad and sullen wives and mothers, the enormous, rollicking Nanas — take their places in a cohesive narrative. The raging critiques of the early works transform into the reveling forms of the fat Nanas, and later into de Saint Phalle’s jubilant, sometimes macabre parks all over the world. Their size and colors resemble a kind of voodoo against malevolent spirits.

Niki de Saint Phalle, “Cheval et la Mariée” (“Horse and the Bride”) (1964) (© BPK, Berlin, dist. Rmn-Grand Palais/Michael Herling/Aline Gwose)

De Saint Phalle’s work is close to the American feminist artists of the ‘70s and ‘80s, especially Anita Steckel, Carolee Schneemann, Joan Semmel, Joyce Kozloff, and Miriam Schapiro. Her discourse in newly uncovered film clips from 1965 featured at the Grand Palais is entirely consistent with contemporaneous American feminism — direct, acerbic, critical, and demanding. Between 1942 and 1944 Saint Phalle went to the Brearley School, a girls’ prep school in New York. It was there, she said later, “[that] I became a feminist. They inculcated in us that women can and must accomplish great things.” However, there was no feminist art movement in France in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Without a women’s community and the writing and curatorial practices that were produced by it, de Saint Phalle never got the sure footing in France she might have found in the US.

The Grand Palais show belatedly gives her the platform she lacked in her lifetime. The exhibition sprawls across 21,500 square feet and is organized neither chronologically nor thematically. Morineau complicates viewers’ narrow, Nanas-focused vision of de Saint Phalle and contextualizes those works within the artist’s other passions. She begins by enticing visitors with unexpectedly confident and little-known early works in a gallery that leads up to giant precursors of the Nanas. A crescendo builds from that first space to an even larger one crowded with Nanas everywhere: huge, painted, covered in mosaics of mirror and colored glass, with some sculptures standing on the ground and other, inflatable Nanas climbing up a wall and onto the ceiling. On the exhibition’s lower level, the violence of the Tirs paintings troubles the exuberance of the Nanas. The exhibition’s final galleries feature fanciful elements from her vast garden projects alongside vivid video evocations of walking in these outdoor environments. Throughout the exhibition, in intimate corners and passages between larger spaces, video interviews, Life and Vogue magazine covers, documentary photographs, and walls of frolicking figure drawings with speech bubbles of witty and biting commentary provide more biographical background and contextual material for the big, bold works on view nearby.

Niki de Saint Phalle, “Tea Party, or the Tea at Angelina’s” (1971) (photo by Mike Marron)

Despite the exhibition’s aesthetic power and intellectual rigor, no major Anglophone newspaper or magazine has published a serious piece about it, and it is not scheduled to travel to any English-speaking countries. One wonders why the Anglo-American art world is so uninterested. Is the work too upbeat, too much fun, too decorative? Too feminine? It worked out so much better for that other French-American artist, Louise Bourgeois, whose work by contrast is so dark and serious, so modernist and masculine.

If ever there was a chance to see the irrepressible de Saint Phalle in all her glory, this show at the Grand Palais (and, soon, the Guggenheim Bilbao) is it. She once said, “I always admired people who went all out.” As this exhibition makes abundantly clear, she did just that.

Niki de Saint Phalle, “Dolorès”
(1966–95) (© 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved)

Niki de Saint Phalle, “Leto ou La Crucifixion” (“Leto or the Crucifixion”) (1965) (© Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Georges Meguerditchian)

Niki de Saint Phalle, “La Mort du Patriarche” (“The Death of the Patriarch”) (1972) (© 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foundation; all rights reserved; photo by Laurent Condominas)

Peter Whiteread, “Niki de Saint Phalle en train de viser” (“Niki de Saint Phalle Taking Aim”) (1972) (© Peter Whitehead)

Niki de Saint Phalle continues at the Grand Palais (3 avenue du Général Eisenhower, Paris) through February 2. It will run February 27–June 11 at the Guggenheim Bilbao.

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Eunice Lipton

Eunice Lipton, a memoirist, cultural critic and art historian, lives in Paris and New York. Her best known books are Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire,...

18 replies on “The Darkness Behind Niki de Saint Phalle’s Colorful Beauties”

  1. She was a wonderful artist and I love her work. Underneath the bright color and wonderful design is a sense of darkness and foreboding, and yet it can still put a smile on your face.
    I’d love to visit the Tarot Garden and since I’m now living in California I’ll be visiting the park she made in Escondido.
    It’s a shame that this show won’t be seen in the US.

  2. ‘Despite the exhibition’s aesthetic power and intellectual rigor, no major Anglophone newspaper or magazine has published a serious piece about it, and it is not scheduled to travel to any English-speaking countries. One wonders why the Anglo-American art world is so uninterested…’ The Anglo-American art world is uninterested
    in de Saint Phalle’s practice for the same reasons the work of Marisol has been ignored for so long before the recent retrospective…

  3. I love her work…In 1972, my husband gave me the gift of a beautiful book made by her. It is called THE DEVOURING MOTHERS. It was published by Gimpel Fils, printed in Milan by Sergio Tosi, November 1972. One of the drawings in the book is titled MUMMY CRUCIFYS DADDY. Not a word about daddy raping her from the age of 11. There is a hint though, one of the illustrations is daddy as a snake slithering from the left corner of the page towards a prone pink and naked child lying on her belly. Another illustration says: MUMMY EATS DADDY. I don’t know how many copies of her book were printed, but I’m sure many of you would like to own one.

  4. Well, perhaps I am somewhat of a traditionalist, but I prefer the works often seen at John Bluebottle Fine Art.

  5. The show of my mother-in-law’s work is better than others, but a lot of the “myth” surrounding her father and her role as a heroine are part of the marketing that Niki was so good at and one should view them skeptically. As a family member, I knew Niki well and she was very good at taking other peoples stories and using them for her career. Not to diminish her pain or efforts to become an artist – but she was hardly a grand heroine the show makes her out to be. She had an undiagnosed thyroid disease from early in life. But Niki did well for herself and married twice- rich men. Tinguely her second husband who was crucial in her career is hardly mentioned. Niki was a successful business woman who made a fortune from her art and lived well- hardly ever paying a dime of taxes her whole life- she changed and collected citizenship like men to suit her fiscal advantage. The show tries too hard to make her an activist- which she really wasn’t her black figures of the 60s were black face – Nana’s were whores, hardly Rosa Parks. In the late 90s she did black heroes in response to her great grandchildren being 1/4 black. Noteworthy, but hardly revolutionary. The French have made her in the Grand Palais show into a kind of Icon- a contemporary Jean D’Arc figure that is appears very nationalistic in nature. There is a commercial aspect to the show that is also annoying and the efforts to Americanize her is part of the marketing effort- to attract American collectors and to raise her prices to that equal to her female American counterparts. The problem is that there is too much of her work on the market and her foundation has produced large editions and not primarily donated her works to museums like the artist wanted but instead seem primarily concerned with selling her collection. Niki did some nice work- but it should stand on its own- the need for all the propaganda and mythologizing surrounding her is a shame.

      1. Not a tirade at all – just looking for the truth and not mythologizing. Sorry you are not open to discussion. You must have an “interest”. Have no reason to be bitter either, I had a long and loving relationship with Niki as a family member. Lots of good memories.

      2. Unfortunately, a lot of journalism is just public relations and fails to be critical or seek out the truth.

  6. Let me add that most of Niki’s career transpired in Europe- not the United States- that is why she resonates with that public. She also renounced her USA citizenship (mostly for tax purposes in the early 60’s) but applied for it again in the 90s to avoid the French after Tinguely died and she lost her Swiss residency. Though she never lived there.

  7. Paris, February 1. I very much appreciated the reference to Matisse’s La Danse, and maybe Niki de Saint Phalle went a step further, with a bias towards grotesque to break free
    from any estheticism. The title Nanas (which means hot girls) evokes
    attractive, gorgeous girls –Emile Zola created the name Nana to designate a
    pretty prostitute-. Niki de Saint Phalle represents exactly the opposite in her
    works.

    Catherine Chatanay-Machet

    1. haha! do you mean ugly prostitute? is black rosy a grotesque? niki was terrified of her mother – so maybe they are jacqueline ? niki’s son always thought jacqueline had killed andre – her father. yes- niki referenced matisse in her later nanas of the late 80s-90s when they became tamer- more commercial. always a great money maker for her, though she told me they were not her best works, and not what she thought she should be remembered by.

      1. i don’t remember by her Nanas. I remember her by her Tarot Garden, her Grotto, her Queen Califa’s Magic Circle Garden. Those are the works that, to me, should have made her an icon – and to me, she is.

  8. I can’t understand why Nikki de St. Phalle is not known or recognized in the U.S. for the great artist and mosaicist she was. I would love nothing more than to see her Tarot Garden and other European works – including this show – in person. I remember her art as mosaic, as sculpture. I’ve seen the 2-d stuff and appreciate knowing a little bit more about her story. I hope to make it to Escondido someday, at least, to see Queen Califa’s Magic Circle garden. If anyone needs a tax write-off, I’ll gladly take donations of free air miles to go and see this show, and her Tarot Garden and Grotto. 🙂

    1. I hope you make it to see Nikis works The Tarot Garden and the Queen Califa’s Magic Circle. They are outdoors where her work should be. unfortunately the Califa’s Circle was placed in a very remote part of Kit Carson Park in Escondido and was subject to much vandalism until it was fenced off. Now it is only open every second Saturday of the month from 9-12. Just like her life–sad .
      Few really knew her and like her life much of her work is hidden –even misunderstood.

      On a brighter note there are many of her works in San Diego’s Balboa Park to be enjoyed near the Mingei International Museum which usually has ones or more of her works on display.

      It would not be cheap or perhaps even politically possible—but no matter the cost Queen Califa’s Magic Circle should be placed in Balboa Park where it will be enjoyed by thousands–not just a very few.
      I wish as a gift to Niki I knew how to make it happen.

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