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Niki de Saint Phalle: performance pioneer and rebellious feminist
14 February, 2016
From wild shooting actions to sensual, dancing female sculptures and exuberant sculpture parks. The French/American artist Niki de Saint Phalle stands as one of the most radical and visionary artists of the 20th century.
She can be experienced at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art in a comprehensive exhibition of a good 100 works, photographs and documentary film clips.
Dragons and demons, heroines and plump ladies in large-flowered bathing suits. Niki de Saint Phalle’s universe is both violent and colourful, sombre and humorous. In her art, Saint Phalle combines powerful attitudes to gender roles and equality with eternal themes like love, joie de vivre and personal liberation. She had her breakthrough on the international art scene in 1961 and became famous and notorious for her sensational shooting actions and exploratory depictions of women. However, it was not in the cards that this girl with her Catholic upbringing and aristocratic forebears would become an anti-authoritarian feminist and acclaimed artist.
Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) was born near Paris, the daughter of an American mother and an aristocratic French father. She grew up in the USA, where she worked as a young woman modelling for Vogue, Elle and
LIFE magazine. By the time she was 18 Saint Phalle was married and soon afterwards had two children. But she had a difficult time with bourgeois family life and had several mental breakdowns. Art became her therapy and mode of survival, but at the same time meant a painful break with her family. Saint Phalle then devoted herself entirely to art – as when, over the course of 20 years, she realized her life’s work, The Tarot Garden in Tuscany.
Female existence and identity are the main themes of Niki de Saint Phalle’s art. As a critical commentary on the usual prejudices about female roles she depicted ‘the Bride’, ‘the Woman Giving Birth’, ‘the Whore’, ‘the Witch’ and ‘the Heroine’. In 1965 Saint Phalle introduced her ‘Nana’ sculptures. These festive, seductive sculptures of women pay tribute to the female body and express joy, self-confidence and fertility. But behind the powerful aura the Nanas also problematize the rigid female roles and ideals of beauty that Saint Phalle herself embodied as a young photo model and later fought against.
For Niki de Saint Phalle art and self-staging were two sides of the same coin. She strategically deployed the mass media in her personal narrative, and towards the public assumed the role of an explosive, sharpshooting femme fatale. Dressed in a tight-fitting white suit, black leather boots and armed with a gallery rifle, Saint Phalle was ready for battle. She shot away at her pictures, which concealed spray cans that exploded when she hit the target. The result was powerful and colourful. In this feminist act, Saint Phalle was first and foremost shooting at the male-dominated society, but also at the patriarch with a personal reference to her own father. Saint Phalle let the public participate in her shooting actions and was one of the first to privilege the artistic process over the finished work.