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Niki De Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle shooting

Niki de Saint Phalle: lock 'n' load

Champion of the feminist aesthetic, Phalle’s sculptures and paintings have made her one of art's most important outsiders

Taken from the March 2008 issue of Dazed: 

You’ve seen them before. Those colourful stylised ladies with tiny heads and plenty of ass, but many wouldn’t know that these bright, pop characters found in gift shops around the world were created by one of the most inventive female artists of the 20th century.

Niki de Saint Phalle was a self-taught outsider who won over the art world with work that was big, loud and uncompromising. As curator Aaron Rose of Alleged Gallery, Beautiful Losers and ANP Quarterly fame recalls, “The first piece of hers that really caught my interest was a giant sculpture of a woman, spread eagle, with an entrance through the vagina. The photo I saw showed people pouring out of it! Needless to say, I was hooked.” Saint Phalle always created art that was a slap in the face of the modernist asethetic.

Saint Phalle was born in 1930 in France, the daughter of a French aristocratic banker who had lost the family fortune in the 1929 stock market crash. She grew up in New York and Connecticut, often in convent schools, where she gained a rebellious reputation. At 14, she was expelled for painting the fig leaves on school statues red. After graduating (from another school), she worked as a model, appearing on the covers of Life and Vogue, and in the pages of Harpers Bazaar. By the age of 18, she had eloped with an affluent youth and moved to Paris. After a nervous breakdown in 1953, she decided to focus all of her energy on art. She became fascinated by outsider and naïve art. For Saint Phalle, it provided a way to make something outside the narrow confines of the Modernist abstraction that was dominating the avant-garde. Instead, she looked at people like Joseph Ferdinand Cheval, a postman who created a fantastical outsider art palace in the village of Drome, and the champion of Art Brut, Jean Dubuffet.

After splitting from her first husband, Saint Phalle met, and began to collaborate with, the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. He had made his name creating crazy kinetic sculptures out of metal detritus – and inspired her move into sculpture. Within the year he had split from his wife and was living with Saint Phalle. He later became her second husband and it was during this early period that she began to create violent, textured assemblages. She embedded axes, razors and other found objects into white-plastered canvases, later incorporating toys, guns and religious ephemera.

The reliefs were thick with objects and dripping with paint. Around this time, she also became part of the Nouveau Réaliste group of artists who were deliberately resisting the heavy, serious Modernism that was dominating the art world. Instead, like their American counterparts Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, they looked to Dada and Duchamp. In fact, Johns and Rauschenberg helped to install Saint Phalle’s very first solo show.

Saint Phalle really made her name in 1961 with her shooting paintings. She would attach containers of coloured liquid paint into her sculptural paintings that would burst when hit by bullets. People would line up to shoot the art at openings, watching as blasts of colour splattered like blood over the work. It was a hugely brave and innovative thing to do. Other people have used guns in art in her wake – but she was the first. “Ever since Surrealist godfather André Breton stated that the simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, firing blindly, visual art has forged an immanent engagement with the gunshot as a spontaneous, violent and shocking moment of creativity,” enthuses Seventeen gallery curator Paul Pieroni. “Saint Phalle predates a whole line of trigger-happy creators, from the ultra-extreme American performance artist Chris Burden having himself shot in the arm in the name of experimental performance in 1971, to Burroughs’s buckshot and spray-paint shotgun sculptures of the late 80s.”

“I was shooting at myself – I was shooting my own violence and the violence of the times” – Niki de Saint Phalle

Saint Phalle organised no less than 12 shootings between 1961 and 1963, often dressed in a white all-in-one bodysuit and black, shiny boots. “I was shooting at myself, at society with its injustices,” she wrote. “I was shooting my own violence and the violence of the times.”

Creation emerged from destruction. She shot a plaster cast of the Venus de Milo while dressed as a Napoleonic army officer – metaphorically killing culture and the myth of feminine beauty. Some shootings were overtly political. 1963’s King Kong was a giant assemblage of the heads of politicians – including Kennedy, Castro and De Gaulle – with Santa Claus and Donald Duck thrown in. This humorous work was also a brilliant comment on the creators of the Cold War and the tension of military (masculine) aggression. In 1964, she moved to NYC, taking a room in the Chelsea Hotel. Her work had increasingly begun to focus on women and female identity. Inspired by her friend Clarice Rivers’s pregnancy, she made a rough papier mâché figure of an overtly fertile woman with oversized hips and a tiny head. These plump, stylised women dominated the rest of her career. She called them Nana – after the infamous prostitute invented by writer Emile Zola, French slang for a “broad”. These pop goddesses with bulging curves were partly a metaphor for the cliché of women as mindless baby machines, but there was more to them – these curved creatures became iconic, powerful. They represented a powerful new matriarchal future. “I love the round, the curves, the undulation, the world is round, the world is a breast,” wrote Saint Phalle. She began to cover the plaster cast sculptures with polyester resin and to decorate them with vibrant stripes and colours. The fumes she inhaled were exceptionally toxic but Saint Phalle refused to stop using the materials – although they would eventually kill her. Her most infamous Nana was a giant architectural piece for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1966. The work was a cathedral sculpture consisting of an enormous woman, legs spread with a giant gaping vagina. It was 90ft long and entitled Hon (“she” in Swedish). People would walk into her genitals and inside the figure, where they found a movie theatre, an aquarium and a gallery full of fake famous artworks. Over 10,000 people flocked to see the work.

“I love the round, the curves, the undulation, the world is round, the world is a breast” – Niki de Saint Phalle

Through the coming years, she prolifi cally created sculptures, drawings and architectural pieces filled with leaping ladies, animals, devils, totemic creatures and a touch of the mystical. The 1970s, nonetheless, were a tough decade for the artist. The polyester fumes began to have a serious effect on Saint Phalle, making her so ill that she had to leave Paris for the countryside. She married Jean Tinguely in 1971, though he left her two years later. By 1974, she had an abcess on her lung and it was during this period that she conceived her largest scale art project – The Tarot Garden. Friends gave her some land in Tuscany where she could create a giant sculpture park filled with architectural sculptures. Saint Phalle was hugely influenced by Gaudi’s Parc Güell in Barcelona, which she had seen in 1955. “I met both my master and my destiny,” she recalled. “I trembled all over. I knew that I was meant one day to build my own garden of joy. A little corner of Paradise. A meeting of man and nature.”

The Tarot Garden consisted of 22 houses, each based on cards from the major arcana of the Tarot deck. Inside the different sculptures was a kitchen, a living space and a place of meditation. In the centre was a tree scrawled with the words, “Life is a game of cards whose rules we do not know.” She made most of the project herself, despite suffering from crippling arthritis and tortured lungs. Only when she was hospitalised did she delegate the work to others. The Tarot Garden finally opened to the general public in 1998.

The project was entirely self-financed – which was, inadvertently, why her artistic reputation became tarnished. Towards the end of her life she launched a perfume, created furniture, a jewellery line and an array of products emblazoned with leaping, colourful Nanas. Her work began to appear kitsch and almost too sweet. There was too much colour. It began to date. But since her death in 2002, Niki de Saint Phalle has become an interesting influence on a younger generation of leftfield artists. The Dutch artist Parra’s graphic bodies echo the colourful curved Nanas. She’s there in the vibrant palette of Chris Johanson’s paintings, or Paper Rad’s psychedelic animation and she’s in the attitude of outsider artists like Miss Van and Fafi .

British artist Ben Sansbury, who grew out of the UK skate scene, was heavily influenced by her timeless primitivism. “There’s something really brave, immediate and intuitive about her work. It’s aesthetically challenging and unavoidable, like the Venus of Willendorf crossed with Toys “R” Us,” he observes. “It skirts constantly on the edge of a good-bad, bad-good aesthetic.” There was also something about her unusual approach to creating pieces that attracted him. “I discovered her drawings and particularly liked the relationship between them and the sculpture work. For me they are the same thing. It’s like she had a massive three-dimensional colour copying enlarger machine that blows up her fantastical drawings and renders them in situ. And vice versa.”

Curator Aaron Rose is Saint Phalle’s self-confessed greatest fan. “She did an amazing job of producing work that was both strong and feminine in a way that is very relevant today,” Rose enthuses. “She was a fighter! I love that she was so liberated before it was fashionable to be so. It always seemed like her motivation was to make incredible, powerful art, regardless of what her sex was, which by default ended up being super pro-woman.