Who was Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002)? A politically and socially engaged feminist committed to changing the patterns of how women’s roles were defined in society. A pioneer of performance, passionate for art for all, and art in the public space. That said, art history rarely describes Saint Phalle in such terms, instead simplifying her involvement and gestures. Even today, the French-American artist remains mostly known and associated as the creator of colourful ‘Nana’ figures or shooting paintings, which seems justifiable, as long as they are considered in the broader context both of her practice and of art history.
Saint Phalle’s bigger, if not to use the word blockbuster, exhibitions from recent years have popularised her art, yet have been more or less accurate in contextualising her art for the contemporary visitor. The retrospective in Paris at Le Grand Palais (2014–2015), and later in the Guggenheim Bilbao (2015) brought Saint Phalle attention as an important figure in contemporary re-readings of art history, yet left the reasons why she was a pioneer in between the lines. A show from 2021 in New York at MoMA PS1 emphasised her public works, while at the same time remembering such details as Saint Phalle’s book AIDS, You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands, written and illustrated in 1986, which expressed support and care for people with HIV before any similar political campaign existed.
Thinking in contemporary terms and in the context of vital activist movements like Black Lives Matter, her black ‘Nanas’ also deserve new readings; in the exhibition Joy Revolution (2021), Salon 94 in New York placed the black figures in the central part of the show, echoing Saint Phalle’s first solo exhibition in 1967 (Stedelijk Amsterdam, Nana power). Not that many shows have focused on Saint Phalle’s pioneering role in the history of performance art, although Tate Modern in London exhibited works by Saint Phalle from its collection in the themed gallery “performer and participant” (later moving them to a room with works by Xiao Lu, where they are shown today). Briefly put: the work of this exceptional painter, sculptor, director, model, actress, and writer gives many options of how to present her oeuvre. Which element or subject to highlight and make more visible, and which to leave more in the shadows?
The exhibition at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, the first large Saint Phalle retrospective in Norway, curated by Caroline Ugelstad, follows those contemporary interpretations. Chronologically organised rooms – with a couple of interesting nuances – give an overview of Saint Phalle’s entire practice. The show is accompanied by a catalogue that emphasises mostly feminist perspectives: Ugelstad accentuates Saint Phalle’s social and political engagement and struggle to expand what women could do in the broadly defined public and – no less important – how they could do that. As Ugelstad formulates it, Saint Phalle’s approach to art was playful, but it was a very “serious play” (‘Lek på alvor’).
Elsewhere in the catalogue, Camille Morineau (curator of the Saint Phalle exhibition at Grand Palais) writes about the meaning and significance of the artist’s public works, Martine Hoff Jensen elaborates on how Saint Phalle directed herself in the media (‘Moteikon og muse’ or ‘Fashion icon and muse’), and Kimberly Lamm pays attention to the importance of Saint Phalle’s art in the light of women’s right to express anger. And perhaps the latter, the anger, is most readable or hearable in the show at Henie Onstad – even if it starts off rather tranquilly (or even if the intention was different).
Early paintings: Art without the burden of recognition or acclaim
The exhibition’s first gallery presents works from 1955 onwards, which at first glance might appear overtly simple. Saint Phalle started painting relatively early, after graduating in 1947 from Oldfields in Glencoe. She painted in between working as a model (her face appeared in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Life magazines) and also considering acting. The first years of her work were devoted to more or less private topics, and scenes from everyday life dominated: beach views, guests’ visits, self-portraits, and family. For instance, La Fête (1955) surprises with the childish one-dimensionality of its characters. The focus goes almost immediately to the figure of a girl dancing among the others. The painting, as we know from the artist, depicts a celebration on a boat in Cologne, and the dancing figure is Saint Phalle’s daughter.
In Scorpion and Stag (1956-1958), Pink Nude in a Landscape (1956-1958), or Bateau (1956-1959), the backgrounds recall Jackson Pollock’s characteristic drip stroke, and Autoportrait (1958-1959) demonstrates Saint Phalle’s interest in mosaic patterns. She took inspiration from such names as Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco Goya, Willem de Kooning, Jean Faurtier, and Jean Dubuffet. Works by Dubuffet, an important figure for Art Informel and especially Art Brut – the art of pure and authentic creative impulses without a burden of recognition or acclaim – are on display here too, to emphasise this connection (Highway, 1956; Beniquet trompette, 1967, Henie Onstad collection).
In a catalogue published by Sprengel Museum in Hanover, the chapter devoted to Saint Phalle’s art in the 1950s starts with this quote:
I was an angry young woman, but then there are a great many angry young men and women who don’t become artists. I became an artist because there was no alternative – and so I didn’t have to make any decisions. […] I embraced art as my salvation and dire necessity. (1)
Those words can serve as a comment on one of the most misinterpreted episodes from Saint Phalle’s life: in 1953, she was hospitalised in Nice due to a nervous breakdown. This fact has often been exaggerated by art history – and repeated ad nauseam – in the context of Saint Phalle’s decision to pursue an artistic path. Even if illness – like any significant life experience – found an echo in her creative practice, it should not be considered in the substantive evaluation of the art itself. Art history knows quite a few male artists with weak mental health, but, surprisingly, I have never read any serious art analysis that so obsessively frames their art as a form of therapy.
Soon after, her painting completely changed direction, form, and size. The may have been partially due to a trip to Barcelona in 1955 that revealed for Saint Phalle the idea of a sculpture park (Park Güell) and, above all, the style of Antoni Gaudi, with his ceramic mosaics and glass fragments. But most importantly, she was thinking about the format. As she wrote retrospectively in 1990, in a letter to Jean Tinguely: when she first saw works by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and others, she was really overwhelmed. Saint Phalle felt that her works were small and wanted to change them, but was afraid that she did not have good enough technique. Around that time, she stopped using oil paints and started using gouache and enamel and began integrating found objects into her canvases. In the same letter, she writes further:
I bought toys in shops and second-hand objects from the flea market – mainly things that had to do with violence, such as axes, knives, and pistols. It was fun and it was exciting. I loved this new way of expressing myself, instead of painting for months slowly and patiently at my oil paintings. (2)
A few of those works are presented in the second room at Henie Onstad (which integrates almost smoothly with the next period’s shooting paintings). In Monkey (1960–1961), a toy stuffed animal with her arms widely open looks bluntly at the viewer and is surrounded by more or less accidental or identifiable objects. Night experiment (1959), or Paysage de la mort ou Collage de la mort (1960) serve as examples of those violent works with various weapons, sharp objects, and tools. What is striking in those collages is that they give the impression that they were fighting with the limitations of a flat surface, as if they were desperately trying to escape the one-dimensionality of the canvas. Eventually, they did, in the performative gesture.
Performing self, performing others
“I killed the-painting, it is reborn. War without victims,” reads one of Saint Phalle’s most famous quotes. The painting was reborn in the new dimension of performative gesture. One of the most interesting projects opening the artist’s performance art period is Saint Sebastian or Portrait of my Lover (1960–61). It is indeed a portrait: a real dart board serves as a man’s head, and the rest of the corpus is made of a white shirt with a knotted tie pinned with nails. At Henie Onstad, the work is accompanied by a photo from the original show, suggesting the initial setup: the work was exhibited in 1961 in both Paris (Salon Comparaisons) and Stockholm (Moderna Museet), with real darts placed next to it. In one of the interviews, Saint Phalle admitted that she was delighted to see the visitors throwing darts and thus becoming a part of the work. A throw of a dart – a gesture – served as a last stroke of paint, an action finishing the work.
Similarly, Painting made by dancing (1961) was created during the opening party for the exhibition Movement in Art, at Moderna Museet. On the reverse side of this enormous beige canvas placed on the floor, Saint Phalle attached many small plastic bags filled with paint; as the guests danced on it, the painting was created. This participatory element – making the audience a part of the work, part of the process of its creation – continues and transforms in her late period into the need to make art for the public space, making art for all.
But it was the artist’s series of shooting paintings, Tirs (Gunshots, 1961–1970) – not those pioneering pre-performance pieces – that caught the attention of the media and made Saint Phalle the first Pop Art star, long before Andy Warhol. In Tirs, the rifle becomes an extension of the painting brush. Saint Phalle placed plastic bags filled with paint on sculptural structures – usually large in size – and then organised shooting sessions during which the splashing paint gave visually interesting results. The first thing the viewer sees – or hears – while entering this part of the exhibition, is Saint Phalle’s angry voice introducing those works from a dominating video screen showing footage from 1961. This disturbingly loud video seems justifiable here, for a few reasons. The actual results and effects of the Tirs are fascinating, but presented only as art objects they can’t recall the whole atmosphere and performance of how they were created. Another reason for this is connected with what Kimberly Lamm attends to in her text for the catalogue – the meaning of anger.
What is anger, actually? An emotion. Emotions are natural, healthy human responses to certain situations; fear is the reaction to danger, sadness to loss, and anger is a reaction to a violation of boundaries (physical or mental). However, those natural, healthy emotional reactions can be suppressed or transformed into something else, due to various personal or more objective reasons. That is exactly what is happening within patriarchal structures in which female anger is either transformed into shame, muted, censored, demonised, mistaken for aggression, or trivialised; in short, it is not accepted.
Thus women have ‘learned’ that the socially acceptable emotional response to a violation of their boundaries is sadness and shame (and, therefore, silence), whereas the actual healthy reaction would be an expression of anger (which is something different than aggression). In that sense, the trouble does not lie in the individual ‘fragile’ female psyche, but on a general social level that allows violence to be neutralised and makes victims feel guilty and silenced. That said, the video introducing Tirs could be read as a critique of the patriarchal system as such, or as a statement against any form of violence (war included). Looking at this footage from today’s perspective, it is also hard not to think about women-led protests in Iran.
At the beginning of the 1960s, such actions like Tirs were exceptional, not only for purely artistic reasons. During that time there were many English-speaking repatriates in Paris, and it was men who mattered. Saint Phalle was seen as a young, beautiful, and intelligent woman. It was common knowledge that she painted, but everyone kept a distance from judging her art or taking it seriously. Therefore, her entry into the art scene with a rifle in hand was a literal critique of the prevailing relations. Any female artist who at that time wanted to create and function in the art world had to struggle with translating her femininity into professional terms. And if female artists did express themselves in public, they often evoked – or, more accurately, exposed – the whole set of cultural codes and clichés, as Rebecca Schneider rightly notes in her book The Explicit Body in Performance (1997). Saint Phalle dressed in a white jumpsuit to paint and, by her own admission, shot at men, church, school, family, and herself, because the painting was bleeding and dying and being born again. In a catalogue from 2010, the chapter devoted to the 1960s quotes Saint Phalle:
In 1960, I was an angry young woman. Angry about men, about their power. I felt that they had taken my own freedom away from me that I needed to develop individually. I wanted to conquer their world. I wanted to earn my own money. I was angry about my parents because I felt that they had raised me for the marriage market. I wanted to show them that I was somebody, that I existed, and that my own voice, my cry of protest was important as a woman. (3)
From a formal point of view, her works belonged to the Nouveau Réalisme, and she was the only woman in this group. As time passed, the shot assemblages grew larger and more complex, but painting with such a strong gesture could not last too long. Saint Phalle admitted that shooting became a sacred ritual, a drug – it created fantastic visual effects, but she knew she had to stop. As she suggests in the quote above, she felt empty and dead, and started looking for her identity as a woman.
The female roles
The interest in various social roles seemed to be a natural consequence of her work. This is how witches, whores, and brides appear in pretentious poses, in sculptural works made of plastic knives, cars, and with toy animals sticking into their bodies. In Saint Phalle’s work, toys used as sculptural material completely lose their innocence and become a disturbing pattern. That’s the case in The Bride (1965), a massive white figure covered or webbed from head to toe in a whitish transparent veil which gives the impression that the woman is trapped; the effect is strengthened by doll bodies placed around her neck.
Working with various female roles led Saint Phalle to the archetypal Palaeolithic Venus – and that’s how the ‘Nanas’ were born. The most famous and colourful ones, often placed in public places, were very different from the smaller prototypes made of wool or other subdued materials. I would especially point out The Lady Sings the Blues (1965), and – from the later mosaic figures – Les Trois Graces (1995–2003) which are presented on a specially designed stage. Saint Phalle was aware of the limitations and expectations of female roles, particularly for women of ethnic and racial minority groups. The variety of the ‘Nana’ figures and their technique is impressive; some are running, some are standing on their hands, some are skating, and some are pregnant. Most importantly, all of them are happy and joyful. When they were shown for the first time, they caused a stir – some perceived them as inspiring or satirical, others as aggressive. They caused a real scandal when they entered public places, especially when increasing in scale and changing material from wool to polyester. Initially, these works were symbols for women’s happiness and liberation, but later turned out to be harbingers of matriarchy – which, for Saint Phalle, was the only sensible answer to the future.
In 1966, Saint Phalle’s passions for scale and audience participation met. Together with Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultved, she created Hon – en Katedral (She – A Cathedral), a twenty-nine-metre long, six-metre tall, and nine-metre wide ‘Nana’ sculpture for Moderna Museet in Stockholm (at Henie Onstad, it is presented in the form of a photo, posters, and documentation). The audience could enter through Hon’s open legs; once inside, it was possible to visit a planetarium, go to a milk bar (located in the left and right breasts, respectively), attend a screening of a Greta Garbo film, and view an exhibition of fake works by Jackson Pollock and Paul Klee. Atop the belly of the supine ‘Nana’, there was an observation deck from which visitors could see those entering between the two huge legs. From that time onwards, Saint Phalle would work mostly on sculptures meant for the public space. Her outdoor works were extraordinary not only conceptually, but also in scale and material. The variety of forms and sizes – perhaps as an echo of the Gravichio sculpture park in Tuscany – is present in the last part of the exhibition where various colourful and joyful forms occupy the walls. Is it a room of joy, joie de vivre, or maybe jouissance? I will leave the answer to the viewer. The last part also introduces spiritual elements, and the show finishes with a huge sculpture, Bird Head Totem (2000).
The happiness is the imaginary
The galleries’ historical organisation serves both as a plus and a minus in the exhibition. On the plus side, the chronological display gives an overview of Saint Phalle’s extremely varied practice and marks different periods clearly. And it is good news that these works can be appreciated in Norway (and a minor, but important note is that Saint Phalle’s works are scattered in various public and private collections, so I do respect the enormous amount of work involved in putting them together). As for the negative, the show’s chosen narrative seems to lose the meaning of her pioneering works – or, more, leave it hanging in the air. And that is perhaps the trouble with all retrospective shows, especially when presenting artists with such complex and varied oeuvres, that aim to show it all while at the same time being very specific (which is almost an impossible task).
I’m not sure what the curator’s intention for the show was. Was it joie de vivre, monumental sculptures, art in public space, or a feminist statement? Perhaps it will be different for everyone who visits the show. But since I like reading between the lines: to me, this show is about Saint Phalle’s uncertainty and her struggles as an artist; about her unapologetic and tireless work; about her anger and her full right to express that anger; about her persistent belief in a dream and in imagination – and, in that sense, yes, happiness too. Perhaps hers was fulfilled a bit too late.
My circles are never quite round.
It is a choice, perfection is cold.
Imperfection gives life, I love life.
I like the imaginary as a monk can love God.
Imaginary is my refuge, my palace.
The imaginary is a walk inside the square and round.
I am a blind woman, my sculptures are my eyes.
The imaginary is the rainbow.
The happiness is the imaginary, the imaginary exists. (4)
- Von Niki Mathews zu Niki de Saint Phalle: Gemälde der 1950er Jahre, (Hanover: Spengel Museum, 2003) 9-11
- Pontus Hultén and Niki de Saint Phalle, Niki de Saint-Phalle, (Stuttgart: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1992) 154
- Niki de Saint Phalle – Im Garten der Fantasie = in the garden of fantasy (Klosterburg: Edition Sammlung Essl, 2010) 26
- From Niki de Saint Phalle, ‘The Round’, in Niki de Saint-Phalle: exposition rétrospective (Paris: Centre national d’art et de culture Georges-Pompidou, 1980)