a personal journey in the public eye

Niki de Saint Phalle

“In my work I am condemned to reveal every thought, emotion and experience,” Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) once said: “Everything is used: my time, great joys, tragedies and pains. It’s all my life; nothing is secret.” Clearly, from the early part of her career, it is easy to identify the central concept behind her artistic endeavours: the deep and inseparable relationship between her work and her private life. Her work has often been described as ‘outsider art’; with no formal training in her field, Saint Phalle’s pieces are vibrant and compelling examples of an artist relying entirely on her intuitive abilities and emotional instinct. As a result, Saint Phalle has an enduring appeal to seasoned aficionados, those who simply want to stop and stare and children.

Niki de Saint Phalle is one of a handful of artists whose work is almost impossible to categorise. Some people see her as one of the most original contributors to 20th Century sculpture. Others describe her as a revitalist breathing new life into ancient archetypes. Many believe that she was an authentic outsider, taking a firm stance against male domination in culture. However, there always seemed to be extra layers to both her goals and her pieces.

Rejection and Creation

Catherine-Marie-Agnes Fal de Saint Phalle was born into a wealthy and aristocratic Franco-American family on October 29th, 1930, near Paris. She was a child of the Great Depression and while her mother, Jeanne Jacqueline Harper, was expecting her, her father, Count André-Marie Fal de Saint Phalle lost all their money in the crash of 1929. During this time, Jeanne discovered that her husband had been unfaithful and, according to her daughter “cried all the way through her pregnancy. I felt those tears.” This last statement is one of the strongest indicators of the young Niki’s perceptions of male fallibility and weakness; a theme that was to appear in her work, time and time again.

In her early childhood, Niki’s mother would repeatedly tell her that the marital troubles were somehow her fault; that her daughter’s presence was enough to drive a wedge between her and her husband. Whilst wanting earn her mother’s approval, Niki also sensed that this unfair judgement was to become a motivating force in her life: “her bad opinion of me was extremely painful – and useful – to me. I would reject her system of values and create my own.”

A Cultural Renaissance

With the family’s finances in tatters, André took a job as the manager of the Saint Phalle’s family bank, in America. With money coming in through the doors, Niki was enrolled in New York’s celebrated Brearley School. However, it seems that the seeds of rebellion had already been sown, as she was shortly expelled for painting all the fig leaves on the school’s collection of Greek statues, with red paint. The school also insisted that she see a psychiatrist, leaving the young Niki worried that “I might be insane.” However, she managed to quell her non-conformist tendencies enough to graduate from her next school, the Oldfields School, in Maryland. During this time, she worked as a fashion model, appearing on the covers of magazines, such as Vogue Paris and Life and in the pages of Harpers Bazaar.

At the age of 18, Saint Phalle married and eloped with her childhood sweetheart, Harry Matthews. Looking to break free from the conservative attitudes of their families and society in general, they settled in Paris – which was in the early throes of an intellectual, political and cultural renaissance. Inspired by this eclectic and innovative backdrop, Saint Phalle began to experiment with a variety of artistic media and styles.

A Deep and Fathomless Fury

In 1951, at the age of 21, Saint Phalle gave birth to her daughter, Laura. Two years later, she suffered a catastrophic nervous breakdown: the rest of her family entirely rejected her artistic pursuits, seeing them as frivolous and a waste of time. In addition, Saint Phalle came to the realisation that she was now living exactly the kind of lifestyle that she had sought to reject; a safe, conventional existence, in which she was playing the traditional role of wife and mother. On a darker note, this mental conflict brought back memories of sexual abuse at the hands of her father which, in turn, explained her mother’s apparent rejection of her, in childhood.
The result was a deep and fathomless fury: “I wanted to forgive my father for trying to make me his mistress when I was 11. I found only rage, passionate hate and imaginative revenge in my heart.” As part of her recovery, her therapists recommended that she continue with her painting.

Beginning the Artistic Adventure

Saint Phalle emerged from the ordeal angry, defiant and even more committed to art: “I was fuelled by the desire to live the artistic adventure.” This black period saw her produce washes and oils that have been described as naïve and expressionistic; these were to become her trademark and the elements that set her apart from more conventional artists of the time. They consisted of portraits, self-portraits, scenes that depicted social gatherings and beach parties. As her art in this period advanced, she began to incorporate decorative motifs, giving her work a childlike appeal. From 1956, a distinct narrative developed; animals, monsters, goddesses, small girls, cathedrals and castles, the sun and moon all found their way into her paintings. But despite these additions, the central figure always tended to be a female form.

While on a modelling assignment in Paris, in 1955, Saint Phalle befriended the American painter, Hugh Weiss, who encouraged her to chase her own style. That same year, she gave birth to her son, Philip Abdi, and the family decamped to Spain. Whilst there, Saint Phalle became particularly taken with the work of Antoni Gaudi, who used natural materials in his artworks. His work, ‘Park Guëll’, a public park and buildings, using shapes found in the natural world, struck a particular chord and Saint Phalle entered what many consider to be the beginning of her naturalist phase.

The Descent into Hell

Inspired by Gaudi’s assimilation of natural materials, Saint Phalle began further experimentation and her works became embellished with stones, beads, broken glass, leaves, twigs, ceramic fragments and shards of mirror. Much of her work during this time has a mosaic-like quality, as though she was trying to reassemble the splinters of her fractured soul from the materials around her; to create depictions of life itself, as she saw it: “I started to make assemblage works; reliefs with objects, bought toys at stores, found objects at flea-markets. There was a lot of aggression in me that was starting to come out; I started putting my violence into my work. I made reliefs of death and desolation. I was starting to descend into Hell.”
Saint Phalle’s anger is easily visible in some of her works from the late 1950’s. Knives, pistols, severed doll’s hands, glass eyes wire and nails all serve as a visceral reminder of her inner turmoil; a turmoil that could only be exorcised through the creative process.

The Shooting Paintings

In the 1960’s, Saint Phalle left her husband and children, to pursue her career independently. After a series of short-lived affairs, she met and fell in love with the Swiss painter and sculptor, Jean Tingley. Tingley actively encouraged Saint Phalle to continue with her works and poured scorn on the notion that she couldn’t an accomplished artist because she was self-taught. Their relationship became so strong that they collaborated on a number of projects together and his input seems crucial to the creation of the notorious ‘Shooting Paintings’: “I told Tingley about my vision to make a painting bleed by shooting at it: real bullets would pierce the plaster reliefs and hit the bags and cans of paint embedded inside the relief, causing the paint to explode. They were very much like the abstract, expressionist paintings that were being done at the same time. It was not only exciting and sexy, but tragic as though one were witnessing a birth and death at the same moment.”
While many of the Shooting Paintings were abstract in form, others recreated the human form, lending a mesmerising morbidity to the pieces. In addition, many of the forms created were male, leading many to wonder – including the artist herself – just who Saint Phalle was shooting at. Whoever the subject, Saint Phalle saw herself as something of an ‘art terrorist’, provoking society through her works. Shooting sessions were held in public, in Paris, Stockholm, New York, Los Angeles, Berlin and Milan, rocketing Saint Phalle to international notoriety.

From Provocation to Femininity

On the back of the acclaim and reaction to the Shooting Paintings, Saint Phalle was invited to join the ‘Nouveaux Réalistes’; the only female member of what was to become an important, art movement. Her acceptance not only gave her the validation she needed as a professional artist, but also cemented her as one of the first women to publicly and outrageously rail against the strictures and conformities set by a male-dominated society. Saint Phalle’s Shooting Paintings preceded the beginnings of the Women’s Liberation Movement by some five years.
The success of the Shooting Paintings also seemed to drain some of the rage from Saint Phalle’s spirit, although this was to be replaced with the themes of pain and suffering. Her subsequent works explored her own perception of women alongside the perceptions of society. Using baby toys and other small objects, Saint Phalle created multi-media paintings to explore facets of female existence. Hearts, heads, women giving birth, prostitutes and brides were all created in various guises, each displaying the naivety and intuitiveness that had originally set her on the road towards artistic acclaim. Saint Phalle described the subjects of these works as ‘victims’. However, as her pain and suffering began to heal, through artistic release, Saint Phalle moved in a new direction: “From provocation, I moved into a more interior, feminine world.”

The Nanas

The Nanas are the first of Saint Phalle’s works in which she is seen to glorify, rather than crucify, the subjects. Named after a French, slang term (the modern equivalent of which might be ‘chick’ or ‘babe’), the subjects are all female and draw on ancient archetypes, combining them with bold, simple colours. The Nanas are voluptuous sculptures that owe their form to ancient depictions of the Earth Goddess. Their vast, rolling bodies provide the canvas for bright paints, patchworks of textiles and fabrics, collage, paper Mache and polyester. They are endearingly child-like and joyous in their execution, perhaps hinting at the artist’s state of mind. The Nanas were directly inspired by the pregnancy of a close friend of Saint Phalle’s, Clarice Price, leading her to explore her own femininity and the concept of femininity in 20th Century society. These sculptures were displayed at the Alexander Iolas Gallery, Paris, in 1965 and many were used in performance art displays in theatres across France.

The Nanas received such attention that, one year later, Saint Phalle was invited to create a colossal Nana for the Moderna Museet, in Stockholm: “I was going to build the biggest Nana of all; a great, Pagan goddess. I painted her with the very bright, pure colours I have always used and loved. I knew I was entering the sacred land of myth. She was like a grand, fertility goddess receiving, absorbing, devouring 100,000 visitors, comfortably, in her generosity and immensity. She was the greatest whore in the world; there was something magical about her. The birth-rate in Stockholm went up that year; this was attributed to her.” Although this Nana only existed for three months, it was an incredible draw for the museum and only furthered Saint Phalle’s reputation as one of the most exciting and innovative artists of her generation.

The Tarot Garden

Gaudi’s early influence on Saint Phalle rose the fore in the 1970’s. For some time, she had dreamed of creating something similar to Gaudi’s Park Guëll; a space that created a dialogue between sculpture and nature. The Tarot Garden was to become the biggest artistic endeavour of Saint Phalle’s career.

In 1979, with the help of her friend, Marella, Agnelli, Saint Phalle was granted the use of a plot of land, belonging to Marella’s brothers. Located close to the Tuscan coast, in southern Italy. This was the site that ended up taking 15 years of hard and intensive work for that artist, who wanted to create a monumental, fantasy garden. The Tarot cards served as the inspiration behind the sculptures, with each of the 22 cards to be represented through vast, vibrant mosaics and expressive, colossal sculptures – each bearing the childlike naivety that had become synonymous with her work. Such was her commitment to the project, that Saint Phalle slept onsite, dwelling in The Empress sculpture which offered a mirrored cavern with its own kitchen, bedroom and bathroom: “I lived for years inside the protective Mother. I made it my home and the centre of the garden. It was where I met the crew, ate my meals and made the models for the other cards.” As a piece of trivia about The Empress, the interior is entirely devoid of right-angles, as though they somehow represent the shackles of conformity or the imposing lines of threat. Saint Phalle said that she “wanted to create a new mother, a goddess, and in these forms, be reborn.”

A Perilous Journey

However, as the artist notes, the creation of the Tarot Garden wasn’t all plain sailing: “as soon as I started on the Tarot Garden, I knew it was going to be a perilous journey. This garden was made with difficulties, love, wild enthusiasm, obsession and, most of all, faith. Nothing could stop me. Total immersion was the only way to realise this garden.” The £5 million project was initially funded through generous donations from her friends. However, as work progressed, Saint Phalle realised she was going to have to find a way of raising more money. Ever-resourceful, she created and designed her own brand of perfume, the sales from which raised £1.5 million in revenue.

Financial problems aside, the sheer scale of the project had a detrimental effect on Saint Phalle’s health: “I was struck with severe arthritis and could barely walk or use my hands – yet, I went on. I watched my hands becoming deformed, the disease progressing.”

Over the next 15 years, each of the cards from the Tarot’s Major and Minor Arcana were represented in gigantic, innovative and colourful forms. Saint Phalle also collaborated with her husband, Tingley, who created the Justice; a sculpture encased by a huge lock. However, the majority of the work was undertaken by Saint Phalle’s rapidly-deteriorating hands; a process that she described as “the beauty of horror. I could barely sculpt anymore. Only my imagination remained – and my eyes.”


Coming Full Circle

In 1993, as her health declined, Saint Phalle made the decision to move to southern California. Having established herself as an internationally-recognised and acclaimed artist, she turned her attentions to public installations, believing that art could exist “without intermediaries; without museums, without galleries.” The resulting sculptures were to find their homes in California, Israel and Europe and are testament to the artist finding some inner peace. They are childlike, colourful and bold, encouraging children to explore them and an invitation for adults to revisit a more carefree aspect of themselves. As Saint Phalle said: “I’ve learned, through my art, to tame the things that scare me.” This is nowhere more evident than in the curious and almost cartoon-like figures and creatures that make up her public works.

The year 2000 saw Saint Phalle creating pieces at her own expense. She designed and produced nine sculptures that were donated to the city of Escondido, to create ‘Queen Califa’s Magical Circle’. A stunning collection of colourful characters, such as sprawling, swirling snakes and multi-coloured, totemic eagles, the Magical Circle drew on California’s history, myth and legend as its inspiration. Saint Phalle’s love of mosaic saw her using symbols and designs from Mexican, Pre-Columbian and Native American culture – all mixed together on the palette of Saint Phalle’s imagination. Opened in 2003, Queen Califa’s Magical Circle not only represents that largest public collection of her works in America, but also her last international project.

In a final, bittersweet twist, Saint Phalle was to find out that her art would kill her. Polyester, her preferred material for sculptures, had caused serious and irreparable damage to her lungs. On 21st May, 2002, after six months in intensive care, Saint Phalle died from emphysema.

Contribution by Andy Robb