Tuesday, November 10, 2015

WOMEN ARTISTS: Niki de Saint Phalle

One of the first women to make her mark on public spaces across the world, Niki de Saint Phalle was a French sculptor, painter, and filmmaker.  She is the featured artist for November, in my Woman Artist Series.  From sculptures in Jerusalem to fountains in Paris, to totems in a California park, the works were her way of taking possession and re-owning the male-dominated public space.


Here are 10 things to know about Niki de Saint Phalle, along with some of her artwork and images of Saint Phalle herself:

1.  Catherine Marie-Agnes Fal de Saint Phalle was born on October 29, 1930 near Paris.  Her father, Count Andre Marie Fal de Saint Phalle, was a French banker, and her mother was an American, Jeanne Jacqueline Harper.  

Before World War II broke out in Europe, the family moved from France to the United States, to seek safer ground.  Saint Phalle's French family had business ties in New York and relocated there, where her father became manager of the American branch of the Saint Phalle family's bank.  

Saint Phalle attended the prestigious Brearley School in New York City, a girls'  prep school, between 1942 and 1944, but was dismissed for painting fig leaves red on the school's statuary.  She went on to attend Oldfields School in Glencoe, Maryland, where she graduated in 1947.  It was there, she said later, that she became a feminist.  "They inculcated in us that women can and must accomplish great things."

During her teenage years, Saint Phalle was a fashion model.  At the age of 18, she appeared on the cover of Life; and later, on the covers of French Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Elle.  

2.  While rejecting the conservative values of her family, Saint Phalle married at 19 -- eloping with author and musician, Harry Matthews, whom she had known since the age of 12, through her father -- and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.  

While her husband studied music at Harvard University, Saint Phalle began to paint -- experimenting with different media and styles.  Saint Phalle's self-taught artistic pursuits, were rejected by members of the Saint Phalle clan.  They reportedly took a dim view of her artistic activities.  

The couple's first child, Laura, was born in April, 1951, when Saint Phalle was 21.  She had her second child, Philip, at 25.  The family moved to Paris in 1952.

After becoming a mother, she found herself living the same bourgeois lifestyle that she had attempted to reject.  This internal conflict, as well as reminiscences of her rape by her father when she was only 11, caused her to suffer a serious nervous breakdown.  She was treated with electroshock therapy and insulin, for what was diagnosed as schizophrenia.  As a gentler form of therapy, she was also urged to pursue her painting, which she did, on a full-time basis during her convalescence.

While in Paris on a modeling assignment, Saint Phalle was introduced to the American painter, Hugh Weiss, who became her friend and mentor.  He encouraged her to continue painting in her self-taught style.

3.  After moving to Majorca, Spain, with her family, Saint Phalle gleaned ideas everywhere.  Saint Phalle read the works of Proust and visited Madrid and Barcelona, where she became deeply affected by the fantastic structures of the architect Antoni Gaudi.  Gaudi's influence opened many previously unimagined possibilities for Saint Phalle -- especially with regard to the use of unusual materials as structural elements in sculpture and architecture.  

Saint Phalle was particularly struck by Gaudi's "Park Guell", which persuaded her to create her own garden-based artwork, that would combine both artistic and natural elements. That definitely set her course -- to one day create a sculpture park.

Saint Phalle continued to paint, particularly after she and her family moved back to Paris. Her first art exhibition was held in 1956 in Switzerland, where she displayed her naive style of oil painting.  She then took up collage work, her first reliefs -- that often featured various humble objects, such as plastic toys and knitting needles, embedded in them.  

Sometime during the early 1960's, she left her first husband.

4.  From 1960 to 1963, Saint Phalle caused a stir with her spectacular, experimental "shooting" paintings.  These famous Tirs (Shoot) pieces -- considered scandalous at the time -- drip like Pollock's, but were executed by Saint Phalle by shooting a rifle at balloons of colorful paint mounted on white canvases.  

These pieces of art were created with polythene bags of paints, sometimes in human forms, covered in white plaster.  Standing before her canvases, she would first plaster on small pots and bags of paint, and then shoot at them mercilessly with a shotgun, to open the bags of paint, which splattered color onto the relief when they burst. Saint Phalle was a picture of total concentration as she completed her works of art, often surrounded by spectators.

For Saint Phalle, shooting with a shotgun or pistol at these modeled plaster reliefs was a release of her feelings and aggressions.  "I fired at men, at society with its injustices, and at myself."  She was considered an "action artist", rebelling against set conventions.

Her "shootings" catapulted Saint Phalle into the limelight of the international art scene, and won her acceptance among the French Nouveaux Realistes group of artists.

5.  Seemingly out of nowhere, came Saint Phalle's signature works -- her Nanas -- large, playful, balloon like figures of women, with their arms outstretched, and colorfully decorated from head to toe with gaily-painted flowers, hearts, and other folk motifs.  

Saint Phalle created these Nanas, her best-known works, in the mid-1960's.  Nana is French slang for "broad" or "woman".  They are often credited as redefining the depiction of women in sculpture.  Some of these vast, curvaceous sculptured bodies towered more than 5 meters (or 15 feet) high.

She finally found a highly individual style to express her ideas about being a woman in society.  The Nana figures embody self-aware femininity and joie de vivre.  These were, in effect, an alternative art to her shooting paintings.  Saint Phalle said that she "wanted these good, bounteous, happy mothers to take over the world".

The first of these freely posed forms-- made of papier-mâché, yarn, and cloth -- were exhibited in Paris in September, 1965.  They eventually were made of polyester.

The Nanas' forms may be French, but their attitudes are American.  They seem to say -- break all the rules, be confident, be arrogant, and throw your weight around.  These rotund girls dressed in bold primary colors twirl on their toes and look like they're having a grand old time.

Her larger-than-life Nanas soon conquered the hearts of the public.  They seemed to make the world a little more cheerful and colorful.

6.  Through the wild group of artists, the New Realists (Nouveaux Realistes) in Paris, Saint Phalle met the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely in 1960, whom she lived with and later married, in 1971.  

Tinguely, a fellow artist and sculptor, helped Saint Phalle in her efforts.  They participated in many Happenings throughout Europe.  Their numerous collaborations include the beautiful and whimsical Beaubourg Fountain near Paris' Pompidou Center, on the Place Igor Stravinsky -- with sculptures by both Niki and Jean Tinguely.

Saint Phalle and Tinguely were together until his death in the 1990's.

7.  In the mid-1960's, Saint Phalle and Tinguely collaborated on another installation -- this time a huge Nana figure.  The sculpture was Hon (the Swedish word for "she").  This architectural sculpture was like a cathedral.

This 92-foot-long (28 meters), 20-foot-high hollow sculpture of a woman lying on her back was placed on the floor of Stockholm's Moderna Museet.  

Visitors entered the figure -- which contained a bar, aquarium, planetarium, music rooms, and a movie theater -- through a door between her splayed legs.  

8.  Saint Phalle worked on her biggest project, the Tarot Garden, inspired by Gaudi's Park Guell in Barcelona, until her death.  

She started the project in the early 1970's -- when she decided to create and build a sculpture garden.  

The Tarot Garden in the hills of Tuscany features a series of monumental sculptures based on the 22 symbols of the tarot cards -- gigantic figures and towers covered in mirrors, ceramics, and stones.  The artist's highly individual style would make the whole place a singular work of art.  

In 1983, the first completed figure -- the Empress, in the center of the garden -- became her home and studio for seven years while she worked there.  

Eventually, after decades of work, the Giardino die Tarocchi (the Tarot Garden) in Garavicchio, Tuscany, opened in May of 1998.

9.  Niki de Saint Phalle's role as an artist and a provocateur defined her.  She had a unique, yet often dismissed place in 20th century art.  In so many ways, she was a pioneer of avant-garde.  She once said, "I always admired people who went all out."  She did just that.

When she was 62, Saint Phalle published her memoir, Mon Secret, in which she revealed that her father had sexually abused her for several years, beginning when she was 11 years old.  After that, her strikingly varied body of work took on new meaning, with a more cohesive narrative. 

She overtly tackled American issues, such as gun control and civil rights in the 60's in her artworks.  She was one of the earliest champions of Aids awareness.  

10.  Saint Phalle was half French, half American, and bilingual.  Although she was born in France, she spent decades in New York and California -- where she lived out her final years.

Her Tarot Garden in Tuscany opened in 1998, but by then, Saint Phalle had already retreated to the milder climate of California.  Her lungs had been seriously damaged by working with polyesters.

Niki de Saint Phalle died on May 21, 2002, in San Diego, California, of pulmonary emphysema -- at the age of 71.