Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 - 2002)


Niki di Saint Phalle’s work today is internationally acknowledged and accepted. She is one of the more well known artists of the 20th century, and she continues today to be a major figure in contemporary art – vivacious and inventive, original and open-minded. From her early works of the 1950s, when she began drawing and painting, through her assemblages and shooting pictures, to the political and artistic statements of the early 1960s, her artistic career developed at a rapid rate. Long before she invented her Nanas, the central concepts of her art had already been identified: there were the additive strategies of collage and assemblage (the collection and altering of found materials); her approach to landscapes, the introduction of narrative figures and stories; and overall an intense relationship between the private life and public work.

Once she left her family and her pre-artistic life, Niki de Saint Phalle seemed driven to live and work in all possible, available public spaces: in her art, in the press and the media. Her concept was a political one, closely linked to the alternative pictorial world of the Pop era that had developed in both daily life and in art, music, literature and film. Saint Phalle’s public life began in the limited art circles of Paris – in the group of the Nouveaux Realistes. But she soon left the restricted space of that scene and, initially without plan but subsequently deliberately and very consciously, became a public figure in the larger developing art world of the 1960s.

Long before feminism in art, she defined new roles and forms of presentation for the female artist, and with remarkable femininity. She was the beauty who challenged the beast of public taste. Deliberately ignoring accepted female role images such as passivity, withdrawal, shyness, and the willingness to play second fiddle, she directed a sharp criticism at the prejudiced images of male society. In her work she left behind the old female roles and formulated new ones and opportunities, thus anticipating the dialectics of the birth of a possible new world from the destruction of the old.

There are countless different approaches to art in our age. Every form of human activity with respect to art, such as analytical reflection, playing aimlessly or the search for the finding and realisation of one’s self are such occasions, described both in aesthetic and in psychological terms, for being on the level of symbolic action, for composing both allegories and graphic representations.

Niki de Saint Phalle’s artistic creativity was not the result of a plan, nor is it rooted in systematic training at an art school or academy, but only became a vital and continuing approach to life in the course of a deep-seated personal crisis. Having fled from her family into an early marriage, finding herself with small children in the economic uncertainty of a vie de boheme, full of unsatisfied expectations of life, she almost came to grief on the contradictions between her own desires and the misery of the world around her. “I was an angry young woman, but there are many angry young men and woman who nevertheless do not become artists. I became an artist because I had no alternative – consequently I did not need to make any decisions. It was my fate. In other ages, I would have been locked away in perpetuity in a mental institution – but in fact I was only placed under strict psychiatric supervision for a short term, with ten electroshock treatments and the like, I embraced art as my salvation and my necessity”

The first attempts at painting, while she was still in the USA, are only available in black-and-white illustrations in the list of works – faceless silhouettes in an empty interior. Having returned to France, in the first half of the 1950s, she began to create contoured interiors with figures such as in “Asseyez-vous madame” dating from 1952 to 1954. Like painter’s dummies, faceless and reduced to an anatomical pose, the two figures act in the interior; only their clothes reveal them to be a seated woman and a standing man, each raising an arm in greeting and apparently in the process of moving towards the other; this is suggested by the goodies facing each other and by the knees bending towards each other. An image of the encounter between two people, perhaps of the possibility and the beginning of an affair; the potted plants in the background, with their blossoms extending high above the heads of the figures, bring the figures together in a gently and harmonious segment of a circle. An idyll of harmony, described generally and without specific contents; as an idyll based on the artist’s own life.

“La fete” (around 1953-1955) also concerns the relationships between the figures who appear to be the actual topic; a dancing figure surrounded by a tight group of people in rows along the upper and right edges dominates the action in this work. All the faces here have details drawn in, revealing personality and character; the public and the musicians are laughing, showing themselves to be a group through their common experiences and feelings. Only the young couple in the bottom left corner of the painting, huddled close to each other at a table overlooking the activity, is isolated from the social events in the scene. The two of them appear to be not only separated from the rest of the festivities in their togetherness and their closeness, but also seem to be isolated from each other. The public and the musicians, the dancer and the couple are all the protagonists in a situation in which the cheerfulness of some is contrasted with the solitude of the other figures; the dancer and the couple are the ones who withdraw almost antithetically from the feelings and the formation of the group.

In another group of early paintings from as early as the mid1950s, the young artist was creating the figures and objects to which she would return once again in the later course of her work: images of girls and women, expressed as general symbols of femininity; presented against backgrounds composed of ensembles of surreal towns and landscapes; contrasting with images of the world and the global view in large landscape and townscapes, populated by real or mythical animals and humans, the outlines of mountains separating the plains from the red or black skies in which ambivalent flying creatures appear, as do large expansive stars. In “entre la ville et la fleur” (around 1956), the faceless girl, wearing a bright dress and a bouquet of flowers in her hand, stands in front of a towering mountain landscape in which individual elements from a depiction of the world repeatedly occur as in a collage – such as animals in a landscape, people with a car, trees in a valley. The figure appears oversized in proportion to the scenes, being only just surpassed by the rock formation. The semantic perspective shows how much this representative figure occupies the centre point of the picture. The nature shown is ambivalent at those points, such as in the mountain formation, where it is given large mask-like shapes that look outwards from the painting. The large star in the red sky is circumscribed by a negative shape with a dark background, which appears to be a continuation of the mountain landscape in the same colour; a protuberance, a tree, a spatial perspective are only some of the conceivable readings.

In “Pink nude with dragon”, the figures are again standing in a landscape against a large star in a dark sky. The large circular shape is almost resting on the extended arm of the female figure, appearing like a ball that the nude is playing with, a nude who is simultaneously also the mistress of the monster. Such landscapes are the subject of experience and of dreams; they are surreal nocturnal compositions in which the individual female figure is surrounded by things that she dominates, or at least to which she does not appear alien. Elements of preciousness and of decoration become perceptible in the arrangement of the surfaces, where for instance the dark sky is spread over with a filigrane pattern of stars or the landscape and the figure are in part formed using foods such as coffee beans and rice, as well as with coloured stones. Large found objects, such as a stone in the sky, take their own place within the structure and scene of the work, at the same time, however, forming the surface patterns of the world and persons.

Many of these early paintings are “world images” in the sense of allegorical panoramas of landscapes, cities, seas and mountains, as found in the landscapes of the early Renaissance. In pictures such as “Navigation a l’estime”, the painter also combines the view of a landscape with forests, roads, a lake, cars, people and a white elephant, with the view of a mighty towering castle with tentacle-like towers. In the “Round Room”, the figure of a black naked woman, like an early anticipation of the later Nanas, corresponds with comparable figures in “Composition” dating from 1956 in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The latter painting contains other precursors of the artist’s later fantastical figures such as the snake, the tree with naked outstretched branches, the sea monster, the crocodile. Men, women and children can also be made out, people playing ball, and once again the figure of the opulent nude with emphasised breasts. These huge narrative scenes have their own unmistakable undertone of Eros and joie de vivre.

In addition, in these early years it is the found objects, increasingly being integrated into the oil paintings, that underline the character of such treasures. The many objects trouves in paintings such as “Pink nude with dragon” made their appearance after the artist had discovered Gaudi’s Parc Guell in Barcelona in 1955, with its magnificent all-over ceramic ornament. In her paintings, the found objects are reinterpreted as things and objects in the painting, such as the sun, eyes, decorative patterns or the like. This constitutes a personal use of objets trouves by the artist, a use that dates from long before she became acquainted with the nouveau realiste artists in Paris in the early 1960s. What is remarkable and individual is that the found objects are always metamorphosed in the paintings; each object reappears in a new reality, in a completely different existence.

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