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Niki de Saint Phalle

French-American Painter, Sculptor, Performance, Conceptual, and Installation Artist

Movements and Styles: Nouveau Réalisme, Feminist Art, Performance Art, Conceptual Art, Modern Sculpture

Born: October 29, 1930 - Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, France

Died: May 21, 2002 - La Jolla, California, USA

Niki de Saint Phalle Timeline

Important Art by Niki de Saint Phalle

The below artworks are the most important by Niki de Saint Phalle - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Tirs (Shooting) Picture (1961)
Artwork Images

Tirs (Shooting) Picture (1961)

Artwork description & Analysis: In 1961, Niki de Saint Phalle held an exhibition at Galerie J entitled "Fire at Will." On show were several of her Tirs or Shooting Paintings (Tir is the French word for "shooting" or "to fire"), including this one. They were made by fixing polythene bags of paint to a board, and covering them with a thick plaster surface. Viewers were then invited to shoot a rifle at the surface, popping the bags and causing the paint to run down the textured white surface. This particular work was shot at by a number of notable artists, including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

The process of creating the artwork became a live performative event done in the public eye and with the public's participation, challenging traditional perceptions of the artist as a solitary, hermetic figure. Shooting Paintings involve the viewer directly and physically in the creation of work, and leave the resulting image to chance. Critic Craig Staff interprets the aggressive nature of these shooting pictures as representing the death of traditional painting as a medium. He claims "it is difficult not to interpret Saint Phalle's Shooting Paintings iconoclastically and within a set of terms that unequivocally sought to negate, if not entirely bring down, the medium." While the aspect of group authorship and the combative action of shooting at the physical canvas suggested, in Staff's view, a totally antagonistic relationship to painting, the Tirs pieces were not so precisely oppositional. They still retained many of the essentials of painting: a canvas as a blank ground, and paint constituting the form that populates the ground.

The element of spectacle, particularly the arresting image of an attractive young girl wielding a gun as part of her art, was a crucial aspect of these performance-paintings. The Tirs events drew personalities such as Jane Fonda, whose image as a young and beautiful political dissident of the state was also a media spectacle in the 1960s. "In certain respects," writes critic Ariel Levy, "Saint Phalle's career was as much like Fonda's as it was like Rauschenberg's, built at the juncture of art, personal charisma, and political gesture." After a couple of years, Saint Phalle stopped making these works, claiming she had become "addicted to shooting, like one becomes addicted to a drug."

Plaster, paint, string, polythene and wire on wood - Tate, London

Crucifixion (1963)
Artwork Images

Crucifixion (1963)

Artwork description & Analysis: This abstracted female figure is made from found objects and fixed on the flat surface of a wall. It resembles, but does not completely conform, to the method of sculptural assemblage, a combination of sculpture and collage that brings in a third dimension by adding elements that protrude or project out of a planar, two-dimensional surface. This work responds to the genre-blending of mid-century abstraction, and is definitive of Saint Phalle early feminist works. The figure is strangely proportioned, with a physical emphasis on the center of her body: her breasts, groin and hips are strongly exaggerated. The piece expresses Saint Phalle's attitude towards the female condition, which she saw as a highly ambiguous and contentious state.

The figure stitches together suggestions and formal elements of the constructed, biological-cultural stages of womanhood: youthful and sexualized, maternal and abundant, elderly and confined. The figure also has no arms, indicating a lack of female agency and disempowerment within a society that strongly delineates women's roles in accordance with diminishing reproductive capacity.

In addition, the woman is presented in cruciform, a symbol of suffering and martyrdom that also implicates the church and its androcentric view of the world. As Eunice Lipton puts it, "this aristocratic Catholic woman who'd been brought up in a strict household attacked the church with sculptures [...]. In perfectly calibrated formal choices, de Saint Phalle disfigured long-held articles of faith - high art, the family, the church." This sculpture marks an important moment in Saint Phalle's career, as it prefigures later famous Nana works.

Found objects and polyester paint - Centre Pompidou, Paris

Black Venus (1965-67)
Artwork Images

Black Venus (1965-67)

Artwork description & Analysis: This large-scale sculpture presents a highly non-traditional view of the goddess figure. Saint Phalle's Venus doesn't conform to the stereotypes of female beauty established by Western classical art, nor does it necessarily recall sculptural goddess forms of the ancient Eastern world and/or the Southern hemisphere. Instead, this figure is large-limbed, actively in motion, black-skinned, and adorned in a colorful, cartoonish bathing costume. Black Venus is one of several black Nanas (French slang term for woman; like chick or broad) Saint Phalle made during this period, as a statement of solidarity with the civil rights movement. The black Nanas were among the first in the series, and exhibited at the Alexander Iolas Gallery in Paris in September 1965.

As Elaine Hedges argues, "Saint Phalle is aware that most western myths handed down through time present few female models with whom women of today - particularly women of ethnic and racial minority groups - can identify, or even wish to identify. Portraying the goddess of love and beauty as strong, active and black, rather than mild, passive and white, Saint Phalle affirms the being and beauty of the black woman." Saint Phalle's voluptuous figure celebrates a new black goddess archetype, concurrent with a political culture of radical black love emergent in the mid-1960s that was also widely - if problematically - embraced by many progressive whites. "I saw a fat woman on the beach today and she reminded me of a great pagan goddess," Saint Phalle wrote of this work. "Black is different. I have made many black figures in my work. Black Venus, Black Madonna, Black Men, Black Nanas. It has always been an important color for me .. Black is also me now." She also made a series of white Nanas (along with an array of many other colors), reinforcing the concept that all women of all colors possessed, and were expressive of, universal goddess-like qualities.

Painted polyester - Whitney Museum, New York

Hon - A Cathedral (1966)
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Hon - A Cathedral (1966)

Artwork description & Analysis: This work is Saint Phalle's largest Nana figure. It was designed in collaboration with her future husband Jean Tinguely and Swedish artist Per Olof Ultveldt for the Moderna Musseet in Stockholm. It is a large-scale sculptural work which viewers could enter from the vaginal opening, and could hold up to 150 people at a time. The interactive element of the work was something which deeply interested Saint Phalle at the time, and is an extension of her explorations into audience participation begun with the Shooting Paintings.

"Hon" is the Swedish word for "she", implying that the sculpture is both a symbol for the every-woman, and also a cathedral-like space for the worship of women and femininity. Its structure references classic architectural theories about the entrances to cathedrals and their metaphoric and symbolic relationship to female genitalia, which Saint Phalle literalizes by having visitors enter the sculpture through the figure's vagina. This feature also presents the woman's body as a place of exchange and creation, a space which is entered and explored, and also generative of new life by way of its exit. The scale of this work also inspired Saint Phalle to begin working on a more architectural scale, culminating in her sculpture (and actually a home that one can live in) The Empress.

Plaster and paint - [destroyed, originally in Moderna Musseet, Stockholm]

My Love We Won't (1968)
Artwork Images

My Love We Won't (1968)

Artwork description & Analysis: My Love We Won't is one of the drawings completed by Saint Phalle in the late 1960s, many of which she turned into lithographs. They were part of her preparations for a large relief entitled Last Night I had a Dream, which featured a variety of mythical creatures and serpents combined with images from remembered dreams.

This drawing features a series of images accompanied by hand-written phrases. It has a clear narrative that resembles a personal letter, and describes the end of a relationship in statements listing various things the author and a former lover will no longer do together, such as drinking a Bloody Marys, taking a bath, or swimming in the sea. The tone is confessional and intimate, but it also speaks more generally to the preoccupations and obsessions of young love. The piece is humorous but also touching, pointing to the small but universal joys and sadnesses in life.

Saint Phalle once claimed that "Some of my drawings look like those of mad people. Don't we all have madness in us? Some of us are able to express it more easily." There is a sense that this drawing offers an insight into Saint Phalle's mind, the combination of words and images acting like a visual diary of complex thoughts and feelings. It also explores the typical tropes of masculine and feminine imagery, where the female speaker has a dream in which she is a flower (a trope in Western art history often representative of female genitalia) and her male lover is a snake (similarly representing the phallus).

Lithograph - Brooklyn Museum, New York

The Empress (1980)
Artwork Images

The Empress (1980)

Artwork description & Analysis: The Empress is an enormous sculpture in the form of a sphinx (a lion with the head of a woman), that is also a functioning house and studio space where Saint Phalle lived for several years. It incorporates a kitchen, bathroom, and extensive living area. Elaborately decorated with mosaic and ceramics on the outside, and Venetian glass on the inside, the work maintains the aesthetic of assemblage used in many of her earlier works.

The Empress, like all the works in the Tuscany sculpture garden, is based on a Tarot card symbol. For Saint Phalle, the empress figure is the ultimate symbol of femininity and the female condition - as Saint Phalle said "The Empress is the great Goddess. She is the Queen of the Sky. Mother. Whore. Emotion. Sacred Magic and Civilization. " By creating The Empress as a home, Saint Phalle makes it a refuge, associating this multifarious feminine archetype with the safe space of the womb, and scaling it to the size and grandiosity of monumental architecture. In its function as an artistic workspace, Saint Phalle also draws comparisons between female artistic creativity and the life-bearing creative capacity of a woman's body. The central room and living space is situated inside the figure's large breasts, with two windows looking out of the nipples.

Glass, ceramic, iron, steel, concrete - Tarot Garden, Tuscany

The Grotto, Hanover (2001-2003)
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The Grotto, Hanover (2001-2003)

Artwork description & Analysis: This is the last project Niki de Saint Phalle worked on before her death. It is the final installment in a series of semi-architectural works accessible to the public. This aspect of public interaction was key for Saint Phalle's career and her philosophy of art. This particular cave was originally built in the baroque style in 1676 as a place for members of the Hanover court to escape the heat. When Saint Phalle was invited to turn the space into an immersive art environment, she created a design in response to the formal qualities of the existing architecture. She also maintained the original function of the Grotto, creating a space that acted as a cool refuge from the sunny gardens.

The Grotto consists of three rooms, and each is decorated in a very different style. The central room is entitled "Spirituality," and the walls feature a spiral of yellow, orange and gold mosaic pieces made of ceramic and glass, along with seashells and river pebbles. The river-like pattern pays homage to the original baroque idea of a grotto as a cave carved out by a river and decorated with shells and natural rock formations. The room on the right is set against a field of dark cobalt blue, and is inspired by the work of Henri Matisse. The deep blue mosaic walls are decorated with colorful figures, many of which are installed in large architectural niches. Dancing female forms and turning arrow shapes direct the gaze around and upward, circulating energy around the space and toward the sky, and vividly recalling Matisse's La Danse series (1909-1910). The final room is bright and full of silver shards of mirrors, creating an impression of continuous daylight inside the dark cave. This room features sculptural figures in a range of styles from across Saint Phalle's career, acting as a sort of catalogue of her oeuvre.

Glass, ceramic, plaster, concrete - Herrenhausen Gardens, Hanover, Germany



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Niki de Saint Phalle Photo

Related Art and Artists

Spiral Woman (2003)
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Spiral Woman (2003)

Artist: Louise Bourgeois

Artwork description & Analysis: Spiral Woman, a hanging doll, showcases Bourgeois's longstanding interest in both dollmaking and the spiral form, as seen in the much earlier Femme Volage (1951). Like Hans Bellmer's poupées, the figures in the Spiral Woman series offer distorted, Surrealist-inspired visions of the human body. The 2003 version pictured here is headless with feminine curves, but its spiral form connotes a masculine form, underscoring the overlap of male and female anatomy in her work. As with so much of Bourgeois's oeuvre, the spiral had autobiographical significance for her, as she stated in the following: "It is a twist. As a child, after washing tapestries in the river, I would turn and twist and ring them. . . Later I would dream of my father's mistress. I would do it in my dreams by ringing her neck. The spiral - I love the spiral - represents control and freedom."

Fabric - Cheim & Read

The Dinner Party (1979)
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The Dinner Party (1979)

Artist: Judy Chicago

Artwork description & Analysis: The Dinner Party is a monumental installation celebrating forgotten achievements in female history. Chicago described it as, "as a reinterpretation of The Last Supper from the point of view of women, who, throughout history, have prepared the meals and set the table." The central form is a forty-eight-foot triangular table with symbolic places set for thirty-nine "guests of honor"—remarkable women from different stages in Western civilization. Each guest has her own runner, embroidered on one side with her name and on the other with imagery illustrating her achievement. Each place setting includes a glass plate, decorated with a butterfly or floral motif symbolizing the vulva. By incorporating elements of a contemporary social event with the status and appearance of a banquet, Chicago elevates her guests to the role of heroes, a traditionally male epithet. In essence, Chicago states, the work "takes us on a tour of Western civilization, a tour that bypasses what we have been taught to think of as the main road." The floor is inscribed with the names of 999 additional women worthy of recognition, while acknowledgment panels on the walls honor the 129 collaborators who worked with Chicago on the piece.

Regarded as an icon of twentieth-century art, The Dinner Party is arguably the most significant and recognized piece of feminist art ever made, notable in its incorporation of collaborative working process, political symbolism, the sheer scale of the media response, and the unprecedented worldwide grassroots movement it prompted in reaction to the work's condemnation. The piece's lasting importance lies in its defiance of fine-art tradition by representing a feminine history suppressed by patriarchal society, as well as its celebration of the traditional "feminine" crafts: textile arts (weaving, embroidery, and sewing) and ceramic decoration. Featured in sixteen exhibitions in six different countries, The Dinner Party has now been seen by more than one million viewers.

Ceramic, porcelain, textile, glass - Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum

The Dance II (1932)
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The Dance II (1932)

Artist: Henri Matisse

Artwork description & Analysis: Albert Barnes, a doctor and art lover, commissioned Matisse in 1931 to paint a mural for the main hall of his gallery housing works by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, and others. Matisse created a maquette for the mural out of cut paper, which he could rearrange as he determined the composition. However, the finished work was too small for the space due to being given incorrect measurements. Rather than add a decorative border, Matisse decided to recompose the entire piece, resulting in a dynamic composition, in which bodies seem to leap across abstracted space of pink and blue fields.

Oil on canvas - Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania

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Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised by Brynn Hatton

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised by Brynn Hatton
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