Niki de Saint Phalle exhibition, Le Grand Palais, Paris
Anyone who is a fan or admirer of this brilliant and prolific artist and sculptress, Niki de SaintPhalle- me included!- should go to this magnificent and eminent exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. The work of Niki de Saint Phalle, 1930-2000, which is as broad as it is varied has not seen a retrospective for nearly twenty years. The show boasts at least 200 works of art gathered together, not least starting with her stunning ‘Tree of Life’ presented outside at the very entrance of the grand palais.
The exhibition minutely traces Saint Phalle’s career and life as she faced the very real challenges and choices demanded by her chosen vocation, art. We learn that Saint Phalle started painting as a way of battling with the depression that afflicted her from a very young age. In fact when she was a teenager she was placed in a psychiatric hospital, suffering from a type of schizophrenia and it was only through painting that she could control her illness. Hearts”, is one of the first works on display and it affirms both her commitment to art and the challenges it presented to her. For example Saint Phalle felt it necessary to leave her husband and two small children in order to devote herself entirely to art. Throughout her work we see how she is continually reconciling chaos and violence – often within herself – with playfulness and a joie de vivre. Her slightly grotesque and momentous piece called, ‘Crucifixion and L’Eto’ – a large mural sculpture of a tortured, buxom woman with no arms, showing her pubic hair by spreading her legs in pink suspenders and a minute head is formidable. We see how she plays with different textiles and objects, often covering her pieces with felt objects such as flowers, dolls and teddies and fabrics. Similarly Saint Phalle uses grimacing masks and skulls to represent life and death. The woman displayed can either be seen as a prostitute or a mother, a victim or a warrior. Saint Phalle is questioning the role of women in society and in religious history. So she is playing with the idea that women are both victims of the feminine condition as well as heroines and matriarchs of the new world. Throughout the exhibition are very interesting film clips of Saint Phalle herself as she tries to explain her views, her art and her passionate ideas on woman’s role in society. Perhaps one of the most important art works that catapulted her into the art world was her massive woman giving birth, called ‘Hon’ which she built in 1966 with the help of her lover and art companion Jean Tinguely. We learn from the film footage that inside the installation was a milk bar in the right breast, signifying a glorification of woman as mother as well as praying devourer and a call for a new world where women hold more power.
Saint Phalle’s formidable Nanas were a natural extension of her idea of a fertile goddess and mother. There is a huge collection of them in the exhibition – women often dancing and athletic, large – even giant – sometimes imposing, sometimes playful and sexy. There are never any thin Nanas. The Nanas carried her hope for a new world where women would have their rightful place and where femininity had no restraint. Saint Phalle wanted women to be free from the stereotypes imposed by fashion and social restraints. Her Nanas became symbols for feminine standard bearers and for female civil rights. They were the warriors in the feminist battle that Saint Phalle was one of the first to lead in the world of art. The trio of black Nanas on display who are all dancing in a circle is magnificent; the colour, power and movement of the women is incredible. Moreover since they are physically moving round their bodies catch the lights and so there is a bright kaleidoscope of colour. We learn interesting facts – such as, for example, that the Nana’s heads are so small in comparison to their bodies because she is expressing the view that the scientific mind is killing society and that women can be independent from men in a new world of joy. The exhibition focuses on each aspect of Saint Phalle’s artistic career and in depth. Her work called ‘Tea at Angelina’s’ is a powerful study on the theme of devouring and predatory mothers and the dark side of motherhood. Here the Nanas are grotesque, unsightly and large and not presented as joyous in any way. Saint Phalle herself had a difficult relationship with her mother who often criticised her work, ideas and art. These ideas are also expressed in ‘La Toilette’, created in 1977, where Saint Phalle is expressing her need to rely on herself alone and not on other people’s opinions.
There is an enormous section of the room devoted to Saint Phalle’s ‘shooting’ phase or her ‘Tir’ development. Here we see her filming herself and other artists shooting at objects and pockets of colour incorporated into plaster fixed on a board shooting target range. The sense that she is physically and literally channeling her rage and emotion onto an art form that explodes in front of us is exciting. Her work, ‘King Kong’ is on display – her most accomplished shooting painting as it is 6 metres long and follows the footsteps of Picasso’s Guernica. For me the highlight of the show is the film footage of the Tarot Garden which Saint Phalle created in 1978 – her stunning garden of habitable sculptures inspired by the Tarot and created by her talent, forceful imagination and hard work. There is a whole room replicating each of the works of art that Saint Phalle produced in life size in the garden and you can delight in each and every one of them up close – for example The High Priest and The Sun.
I strongly recommend any art lover to go and revel in this magnificent show!
Larissa Woolf, Arts Editor, Visitmuseums.com