Niki de Saint Phalle: Genius and grit, rebellion and joy

Installation view of “Niki de Saint Phalle: Rebellion and Joy” at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, showing several of the artist’s “Nana” female sculptures (photo by Dana Anderson)

A major retrospective of the Postwar Franco-American artist has exclusive showing at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Niki de Saint Phalle, “Le Diable [The Devil]” (1985), painted polyester, 22 13/16 × 19 11/16 × 9 1/16” (MAMAC, Nice, France © 2024 Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All Rights Reserved)

Whether you know who Niki de Saint Phalle is or not — and many Americans are still unfamiliar with the work of this postwar Franco-American artist — the exhibit “Niki de Saint Phalle: Rebellion and Joy” at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is a must-see. The show is a testimonial to the artist’s genius and grit, and it is Kansas City’s good fortune that it is here now, the only venue for this crucial retrospective. Some of the pieces in the show have never been exhibited before.

From gunshot-riddled paintings to assemblages made from discards of all kinds, to joyful, decorated, dancing female goddesses, this once-in-a-lifetime exhibit shows the breadth of a career like none ever. Saint Phalle inhaled the politics and art movements of her time, with one foot in the cosmos and all things mystical. She embodied the number one quality of all great artists: fearlessness.

The exhibit was arranged courtesy of Helene Guenin, director of the Museum of Modern Art (MAMAC) in Nice, who collaborated with William Rudolph, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s director of curatorial affairs, and Julián Zugazagoitia, the museum’s director and CEO. The three agreed to curate an exhibit of Saint Phalle’s art for the Nelson while MAMAC currently undergoes a restoration.

Niki de Saint Phalle, “Ange (jaune) [Angel (Yellow)]” (1987), serigraphy, 27 1/2 x 19 3/4“ (MAMAC, Nice, France © 2024 Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All Rights Reserved)

Niki de Saint Phalle was born Catherine Marie Agnes Fal de Saint Phalle Oct. 29, 1930, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the second of five children. When the family’s banking business suffered after the stock market crash, her parents and older brother moved to New York, where her father worked in one of the family banks. In 1933 she left her grandparents’ home in France and moved in with her parents, who lived on Park Avenue in New York City.

Saint Phalle’s childhood had a titanic influence on her. She wrote that she grew up in a strict, violent Catholic environment in which she was sexually and emotionally abused. Her two younger siblings both committed suicide. She was expelled from three prestigious schools in New York (including Brearly), but finally graduated in 1947 from the Oldfields school in Maryland. She frequently returned to France and was fluent in English and French.

A great beauty, she became a fashion model at the age of 18, appearing on the covers of Life magazine and French Vogue and in the pages of Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, among other magazines. She married musician and student Harry Matthews in 1949. (He later became a writer.) A year after her daughter, Laura, was born in 1951, the small family moved to Paris, where they led a somewhat bohemian lifestyle.

After attacking her husband’s mistress in 1953, Saint Phalle spent six weeks in a mental clinic in Nice, where she focused on making artwork. While there, she was encouraged by her friend, the American artist Hugh Weiss, to continue working as a self-taught artist.

Eventually Saint Phalle chose a path that was unexpected and completely her own. She rebelled against her family’s conservatism, the patriarchy, the domestic demands made on women, and the church, becoming a feminist and an outspoken advocate for women and minorities. These were the values which underscored her art, along with her studies of mysticism and Indigenous spiritual beliefs.

In 1954 the family moved to Majorca, Spain, where her son Philipe was born. Although she continued to paint, she was deeply affected upon seeing the work of the architect Antoni Gaudi, who combined mosaics, glass, ceramics and found materials into his iconic architecture.

Saint Phalle and her husband mutually agreed to separate in 1960; the two children stayed with their father while Saint Phalle soon moved in with sculptor Jean Tinguely, known for his kinetic artworks. The two stayed together intermittently, marrying in 1971 and then splitting up again. However, they collaborated closely on various projects until Tinguely’s death in 1991.

Niki de Saint Phalle,”La force [Strength],” (1987), painted polyester, 14 3/16 × 13 × 20 11/16” (MAMAC, Nice, France © 2024 Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All Rights Reserved)
Niki de Saint Phalle, “La Peste [The Plague]” (1986), painted polyester with plastic figurines, 44 1/2 × 72 13/16 × 11 13/16” (MAMAC, Nice, France © 2024 Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All Rights Reserved)

Gunshot Paintings a Sensation

Saint Phalle’s most familiar works are her monumental, colorfully painted sculptures of women she named “Nanas,” most of which are installed in public arenas. Fortunately, this show includes her earliest work — paintings, assemblages and gunshot paintings (called “tirs”) from the 1950s and early ’60s, when she burst upon the European and American art scene.

At this time France was still involved in a deadly armed conflict against Algeria (1954 – 1962), which still haunts the country to this day. Most of the avant-garde in France were outraged by this war, as well as the one in Vietnam. Always the activist, and still roiling from her conservative upbringing, Saint Phalle’s tirs were her idea of anger management.

To create these, Saint Phalle embedded things from doll arms to razors and household objects into plaster that covered a large board. To that she attached bags filled with paint, tomatoes and spray cans of paint. She would then shoot the piece with a variety of weapons (the exhibit contains a video of one of her tirs events), producing a splintering and gory effect.

Her first public tirs event was in February 1961 in the Impasse Ransin, a back alley where the studios of such artists as Constantin Brancusi, Max Ernst, Yves Klein and Tinguely were located. An immediate sensation, she was then asked to be the only female member of Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism), France’s prestigious avant-garde artist organization, which included Yves Klein, Tinguely, Daniel Spoerri, Arman, and artists such as Christo, who periodically exhibited with them. The goal of Nouveau Réalisme was to show “new ways of perceiving the real,” according to the group’s manifesto. Yves Klein famously used women’s naked bodies as paintbrushes; Spoerri took tabletops full of plates of just eaten meals and glued the whole thing to the wall.

Americans were basically oblivious to such European art movements, particularly as Minimalism, with its emphasis on industrial materials and its rejection of meaning and expression, took over the art scene on the East Coast when the U.S. considered itself to be in the vanguard.

With her combination of performance, painting and sculpture, Saint Phalle and her tirs were sought after throughout Europe and Scandinavia. She staged variations of tirs in European museums and art galleries, encouraging artists and visitors to join in the shootings with various armaments. In the U.S., one historic tirs event took place in the hills overlooking Malibu, where anti-war celebrities such as Jane Fonda joined in the shooting.

Saint Phalle also began creating assemblages, becoming the ultimate dumpster diver, picking up old frames and discarded items — including statues representing Catholic saints — and then mixing them provocatively in her assemblages. Her earliest assemblages are small; then they gain in scale, as with her 1964 “Coeur de vieille bigote” (Coeur blanc), an extraordinary, 3-D visionary image of a heart created from paint, wire mesh and found objects including a tea set, coffee grinder and religious references. From a distance it looks like a wall work designed by Hallmark; up close, inside the heart, one sees the chilling face of a woman, serving as a critique of the drudgery of the typical female domestic lifestyle.

Niki de Saint Phalle “La Justice (card 8) [Justice (card 8)” (1999), lithograph, 29 3/4 × 22 1/4” (MAMAC, Nice, France © 2024 Niki Charitable Art Foundation. All Rights Reserved)

Birth of the Nanas

At this point, Saint Phalle went through a radical change in her art.

Inspired by a pregnant friend, her desire for women to be liberated, and icons such as the Venus of Willendorf, Saint Phalle began creating her “Nanas” (French slang for “chicks”). At first she constructed them from papier mâché and various textiles, and there are several terrific examples of these in the exhibit. She then learned to work with composite fiberglass-reinforced polyester plastic, along with polyurethane foam, and her Nanas became more durable, as well as colorful, spirited and robust. She continued to experiment with materials throughout the years, but unbeknownst to her, many of these materials were toxic, and later resulted in giving her lung disease, which led to her death.

In 1966, with the help of Tinguely and others, Saint Phalle created one of the most astonishing art installations of the 20th century in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden (represented by photos in the exhibition). Working for 40 days, she and her team created an 82-foot-long, 30-foot-wide structure of a reclining pregnant women whose interior was entered through a vaginal opening through her legs. Inside was a slide for children, a pay phone, a sofa, a cinema theater, a milk bar, a museum of fake paintings and a brain built by Tinguely, with moving parts.

More than 100,000 visitors came to the exhibit, which was closed after three months.

After that Saint Phalle designed stage sets and costumes, co-wrote plays, directed films, and constructed numerous Nana installations, including one in New York’s Central Park. Artists such as Keith Haring took up temporary residence in some of her habitable pieces.

From 1974 to 1998 Saint Phalle worked on the most comprehensive project of her life, the Tarot Garden in Tuscany, Italy. As she wrote: “The garden was made with difficulties, wild enthusiasm, obsession, and most of all faith. Nothing could have stopped me.”

While recovering from a pulmonary abscess in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Saint Phalle reconnected with her friend Marella Agnelli and her family, who helped sponsor her garden. Artist friends from around the world helped work on the project, along with her 14-year-old granddaughter Bloum Cardenas, with whom she had a very close relationship. Saint Phalle helped fund this gargantuan endeavor by making and selling perfume, pool balloons, chairs, vases, lamps and other artworks, which raised one-third of the needed financing for the Garden. She was roundly criticized by people in the art world for her fundraising tactics, which were considered déclassé, but, as always, she couldn’t have cared less. Later she sold maquettes of the Tarot Garden sculptures and made prints to raise money, some of which are in the show. All of this was accomplished while she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and lung disease.

Videos in the exhibition relay the absolutely fantastical nature of the Tarot Garden. From 1983 to 1988, when on-site, Saint Phalle lived in a small apartment built into The Empress, a sphinxlike sculpture in the Garden. Her bedroom was in one breast and her kitchen in the other.

Around 1983 Saint Phalle began covering her Tarot Garden sculptures in durable ceramic tile, along with mirrors, glass and polished stones. Local women were taught techniques for molding tiles onto the sculptures, and Tinguely added motorized sculptures to the project.

The completed Garden contains sculptures and architecture representing the 22 cards of the major arcana in the Tarot, with which Saint Phalle was familiar. She designed a map of the garden, which covers 4.2 acres, for visitors, and the site is open seasonally.

Saint Phalle was afflicted with asthma, emphysema and severe arthritis. Still she continued to work on various projects, and became an activist for AIDS, civil rights, and as always, feminism.

In 1994 Saint Phalle moved to La Jolla, California, because of her failing health, and in May 2002 she died there. Several of her projects were completed posthumously, including “Queen Califia’s Magical Circle” in Escondido, California. The artworks in this large maze were all based on Native American culture and spirituality, and it comprises the largest public collection of her works in the States.

Saint Phalle’s art was virtually ignored in America in the last decades of her life, but that is changing. As a self-taught artist, she had a singular vision and was, as her granddaughter described her, “a sacred art monster.” She was ahead of her time; today many young artists collaborate with one another and their communities; they sell “merch” to fund their art; they want their work to be part of the culture; and they feel free to work in many different genres. Identity issues are of paramount importance, and Nikki Saint Phalle was totally comfortable with letting people know exactly who she was.

“Niki de Saint Phalle: Rebellion and Joy” continues at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak. St., through July 21. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. For more information, 816.751.1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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