Le Journal Books

Niki de Saint Phalle

Niki de Saint Phalle

Published with a retrospective of her work at Guggenheim Bilbao in 2015, is a comprehensive tome on the work of French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle. At the back of the book, interspersed by quotes from de Saint Phalle, is a timeline that provides a good place to start. It details everything from her difficult birth in 1930, her family’s relocation from France to America, the Depression, the Second World War, her expulsion from school, a brief career in fashion modelling, her first marriage and the beginnings of her artistic activities. All of this took place within the first nineteen years of her life. This provides a bedrock to our understanding of de Saint Phalle’s prolific art practice all the way up until her death in 2002. So much of the artist’s varied and at times, tumultuous, life experiences can be found within her work, which ranges freely across painting, drawing, sculpture, video, diaristic texts and outdoor public works. The mood of the work varies too – from the raw and intimate to the joyful. She is difficult to entirely pin down.

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Niki de Saint Phalle by Bloum Cardenas, Camille Morineau and Catherine Francblin

 

The catalogue contains than fifteen essays on de Saint Phalle. The first is written by Bloum Cardenas, the artist’s granddaughter, and offers a refreshingly non-sugar-coated tribute to her life and work. “Niki was a sort of sacred monster, a phoenix who burnt up most of her relationships, voluntarily or otherwise,” Cardenas notes. Other of the publication’s essays focus on de Saint Phalle’s strength and determination toward her artistic endeavours, framing these within a feminist context. This is one well-suited to the artist’s series of Nana works – large, rounded, brightly coloured and highly decorative polyester sculptures that celebrate the female form. These have become the pieces for which she is best known though there is much more to discover.

Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle

Many of the most interesting works are marked by resistance and violence. Earlier sculptural assemblages were made using found objects. Night Experiment (c.1959), for instance, integrates revolvers, cleavers, razor blades, shoe heels and toy train tracks stuck within thick paint. Others incorporate plastic dolls and wedding dresses in rather sinister narrative arrangements and articulate some of the frustrations of motherhood and family life that de Saint Phalle felt. In 1960 she abandoned her financially stable and seemingly comfortable life, leaving behind her small children and first husband for new artistic paths. She noted: “Painting calmed the chaos that shook my soul.”

de Saint Phalle’s finest and most evocative works might well be her paintings that seem to bleed. Her Shooting Paintings are marked by bright gushes of liquid paint. Their grounds contain objects covered with white plaster and have been shot with a rifle, such as Grand Shoot – J Gallery Session (Grand Tir – Séance galerie J) (1961). Some were made with other artists such as Jean Tinguely, whom she married in 1971, and were made in front of live audiences and screened on television. Such strong, rebellious artistic expressions could not be any further from the cosy life of the mother and model that had originally been laid out for her.