Niki de Saint Phalle – “I have walked inside of Hell, I am Hell”

Legend of the 20th century art : Niki de Saint Phalle One of the most significant female and feminist artists of the 20th century.Talented, beautiful, flamboyant, provocative, strong and independent, Niki de Saint Phalle was a woman ahead of her time. Niki de Saint Phalle’s sculptures and other fascinating artworks that she has created during her prolific artistic career prove that this self-taught sculptor, painter and filmmaker was a great woman in the age when men defined, constituted and occupied the world of arts.

Niki de Saint Phalle  was a sculptor, painter, and filmmaker. The French-born, American-raised artist is one of the most significant female and feminist artists of the 20th century. Saint Phalle, born in 1930 into a rich banking family, either amused or shocked the art world in 1966 with an 82ft work full of psychological conundrums called the Hon (Swedish for She), done in collaboration with Jean Tinguely, and Per Olof Ultvedt. She got married young and gave birth at an early age of 21.

In the middle of fifties, she and her family moved to Paris, France, where Niki de Saint Phalle met sculptor Jean Tinguely (her future – second- husband). Tinguely introduced her to the Nouveaux Réalistes, a group of young people that included famous Arman and César. This influence of French artists on Niki de Saint Phalle was mixed with an American influence that she received after seeing show of American art in Paris, where were exhibited artworks by Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, among others. She later became friends with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and as a result of these two influences, her first major success had emerged in the beginning of the sixties: her own experimental work named Shooting Pictures. The story goes like this – Niki thought of a way to combine destruction and construction. She had put bottles of paint behind a white plaster. Then, she used a .22-caliber rifle to shoot at a plaster, causing the burst of paint bottles and consequential leaking of paint onto a plaster. This way the totally original piece was being produced, and she even invited spectators at her Shooting Pictures show in 1961 to make their own artworks – to construct via destruction.

The opening volume of Saint Phalle’s autobiography, Traces, has been released to coincide with her first Paris exhibition for six years, in which she turns many of her fragile earlier works into sturdy bronzes while celebrating her emaciated rivals to the tubby Nanas – the Skinnies. The Left Bank gallery would not have been big enough to accommodate her latest innovations, a giant Noah’s Ark of monumental animals for Jerusalem and a towering ‘freedom tree’ for Paris’s millennium celebrations. Also absent was Niki herself, now a semi-recluse working in a hangar in San Diego, California, after moving to a pollution-free environment to relieve the pain in her asthma-affected lungs damaged by toxic plastics. Families at Stockholm’s museum climbed up the polyester legs and entered through the vagina to visit a milkbar, a cinema, an art gallery, a children’s park and a planetarium within the mother figure.

However, behind all of the beautiful artworks she has created, stood the dark and incredibly painful secret from her childhood, that she had revealed to the world just a few years before her death in 2002. Her departure from Europe soon after Tinguely died in 1991 initiated her reflections on a violated childhood. In 1992 she published a letter to her daughter revealing ‘My Secret’ – ‘My father’s attempt to make me his mistress when I was only 11’. ‘The weight of that unspoken truth was terrible,’ she said on the release of Traces, which offers a perspective on parental lust in an outwardly respectable family. ‘Incest must be spoken about openly so that victims are no longer afraid and can express themselves.’ A writer and film-maker, she had given many clues to her traumatic childhood, including her 1967 adult play area – the Nana Dream House in Amsterdam – and her first film, Daddy, of 1973, in which she says in Traces: ‘I killed my father 17 times.’ After her parents settled in the United States to further the interests of the Saint Phalle family’s investment bank, life was shared between the wealthy New York business scene, holidays on Long Island Sound and at the ancestral chateau in central France. But in the middle of accounts of childhood crushes, Atlantic crossings on the Normandie and the Fall of France, Saint Phalle reveals the nightmares of a little girl fearing the approach of ‘Melancholia’ slithering under the bedroom door. ‘Since the age of 11 I have loved writing poems and fragments from my life,’ she recalled. ‘That same year my father raped me. The rape will always remain an enigma for me.’ She took more than two years to write Traces in which her father, who died more than 30 years ago, emerges as a handsome, caring man with a reckless approach to life and a sense of fun, who was the heart and soul of seaside holidays with his two sons and three daughters. The sculptor believes his philosophy of life was the key to her own freedom of choice. For her father, every individual was free to choose and no one could tell them what to do. ‘I could do whatever I wanted, whether people liked it or not,’ she said, explaining her break from aristocratic conventions. ‘Father’s ideals became part of me and still are today. His reserve, deeply rooted liberal views, his provocative humour, his passion for work and love of risk are also mine. I have made peace with him and myself and see my family in a warmer light.’That reconciliation takes nothing away from the chill of a falsely cheerful book, which veers into recollections of ‘father’s hypnotic eyes’ and a poem that begins: ‘I have walked inside of Hell. Hell is me. I am Hell.’

The creation that was the biggest time-consumer of Niki’s career was certainly Tarot Garden made on the large area in Tuscany, Italy. Niki de Saint Phalle started building 22 large sculptures in the late seventies, and the Garden was opened in 1998 – so, Niki de Saint Phalle took 20 years to build large artworks that were based on fortune-telling tarot cards. But Tarot Garden was not inspired mainly by these cards and future, but by the famous Parc Güell that was built by the great Antonio Gaudí in Barcelona. Back in the fifties, Niki de Saint Phalle visited Barcelona and Parc Güell was carved into her brain since. Some two decades later, she started building Tarot Garden, with all those ceramic tiles and mirrors, obviously paying homage to the great architect.

Through Bloum Cardenas, her granddaughter, with the support of the Niki Charitable Foundation and the Galerie Mitterrand, an exhibition in conversation with Chinese artist Shen Yuan is presented at the Power Station of Art museum in Shanghai in August/October. This first major show in China was be followed by a solo presentation of her work in Beijing during the Winter 2019. As the artist is especially famous for monumental outdoor installations, some of her monumental works will be presented in the public space, as a promenade leading to an indoor exhibition.I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Niki Charitable Art Foundation, Galerie Jean-Gabriel MITTERRAND and Shanghai Activation Liquid for their support to this exhibition, as well as the exhibition team for their huge efforts in this program. Also, I want to give special thanks to Ms. Bloum Cardenas, the granddaughter of Niki de Saint Phalle, who is in charge of Niki Charitable Art Foundation. It is her faith and persistence that makes the exhibition in Beijing possible. Bloom said, “Niki de Saint Phalle will bless us. She must be looking forward to the large retrospective exhibition to meet with Chinese audiences”.

As the contemporary of Andy Warhol, Saint Phalle is also an artist famous for her unique creativity in the era of media communication. In the early 1960s, she appeared in the art circle as an outsider and created the famous “shooting painting”, making her a pivotal figure of “New Réalisme” in Europe. This led to “conceptualization” in painting and sculpture. After 1965, she shaped the female images of “Bride”, “Nana” and “Devouring Mother”, which intervened in the social criticism from the perspective of feminist. This became an era rebel echoing feminism. From 1970s, she began to participate in public art. The representative “Tarot Garden” is the art of human wisdom and nature. Multiple legends, religions and disciplines were echoed in this garden. The curatorial team of this exhibition went to Tuscany of Italy and San Diego of America to carry out investigations. They collected a large amount of documentations and present Saint Phalle’s documentaries in the exhibition hall. Through Saint Phalle’s voices and historical images, the audiences can track Saint Phalle’s forty-year art history visually and acoustically: her anger and repression, her nightmare and happiness, her criticism and fight. Saint Phalle created a world of imagination in her lifetime. In this world, she encourages people to look into themselves, to overcome the barrier of emotion, and to use art to shape a broader world.

Niki de Saint Phalle died in 2002 as a result of lungs failure. The retrospective of her works was held twice in 2015, at Grand Palais in Paris, France, and at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Combine By Olga Bejuà /2020 ART/ for D&F Magazine

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