As a child I grew up in a very much culture oriented environment. Being a millennial little girl also inclined me to appreciate female artists. I was thus, by the age of 8ish, able to say that Niki de Saint Phalle was one of my favourite artists, after seeing a documentary broadcast after her death in 2002.
However, at such a young age, what fascinated me about Niki was her project for a park inspired by Gaudi’s Parque Guell, and Les Nanas, those big, colourful sculptures of figuratively powerful women, which is what she is mostly remembered for.
I then, somehow, moved on and forgot about her. However, when an exhibition dedicated to her at the Grand Palais coincided with me randomly spending a weekend in Paris, I decided to give it a chance and go.
For those who do not know her, Niki de Saint Phalle is French and American sculptor and painter born in the 1930s in an aristocratic family, and was educated in a convent. She was raped by her father as a child, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young woman. After being a model, she decided to dedicate her life to art, recognising the healing power it had on her tortured mind.
The exhibition was chronologically organised, to reflect the artist’s evolution. If at first, she represented violence through collages, under the concept of creation through destruction, she then moved on to making pieces representing an extremely deep psychological insight and reflection.
She strongly believed in woman empowerment, and conceived and represented women as protective, creative, loving, and complex. She believed that with the failure of Communism and Capitalism, what the world needed (and probably still needs) was a matriarchal society, giving a political dimension to her art. Through Les Nanas, those gigantic sculptures, she sought to represent women in and of power, women with attitude, seeking greatness, ready to take over a world ‘where everything was invented by guys’, in her own words.
What impresses most now is her reflection on love and relationships, through a series of drawings made in the late 1960s. Her drawings ‘what shall I do now that you’ve left me?’ and ‘why don’t you love me?’ depict the distress that love, and lack of reciprocity in love, can cause.
Another one titled ‘could we have loved?’ explores the unstable dimension of the concept of soulmate on which we always seek to base our love relationships: ‘had we met some other time could it have been you instead of him?’ She addresses the issue of possibility and commitment, but also of deep love and the intimacy it supposes: ‘my love what are you doing?’, ‘are you you driving your new car/are you drinking bloody mary?’
She also reflected on her background and her relationship with religion, and her parents.
Although she saw women as loving and protective, she also made a series of sculptures titled ‘The devouring mothers’, in which she gruesomely represented the endless (emotional?) greed of women, mothers, her mother, and the petty bourgeois routine characteristic of her family’s social background. Instead of colorful opulent women, these sculptures represent ridiculous fat ladies with greyish hair, old-fashioned purses and dresses, and pearl necklaces. The film ‘Daddy’, directed in 1973, seeks to openly address the abuse she suffered, imposed on her by her father, with crudeness, exposing the facts as they were in an attempt to show everyone what happened.
Niki de Saint Phalle used different techniques to express herself, including a very peculiar one: she would shoot on a blank canvas with a rifle, aiming at bags full of paint, which would then explode and drip. The canvas itself would be a sculpture: objects stuck to, or carved into a blank surface. With this comes again the theme of creation through destruction. According to the artist herself, she was literally shooting ‘on violence’, hers and that of her time. The shooting session were often made public and some of them were even shown on TV. Here is a link to a video showing them.
Upon seeing this impressive exhibition I discovered that there was much more to Niki de Saint Phalle than colourful sculptures and extravagant parks. Her whole work is incredibly subtle and powerful, showing the artist’s genius and sensitivity.
If you happen to be in Paris before the 2nd of February do go see this exhibition at the Grand Palais, it is spectacular. However make sure you buy tickets online beforehands as it gets very crowded and the queue is endless.
I took all the pictures at the exhibition, the quality isn’t amazing but it gives you an idea of what you can see there, I hope you enjoy it!