Niki de Saint Phalle – Réunion des Musées Nationaux - Grand Palais

Stephanie van den Hende
Nov 3, 2014 3:36AM

The exhibition was organized in collaboration with the Réu- nion des musées nationaux including the Grand Palais and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, with the kind participation of the Niki Charitable Art Foundation. The exhibition benefits from loans from the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, Germany and the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporaine (MAMAC) in Nice, France - both recipients of generous donations from the artist.

It will be shown at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao from 27 February to 7 June 2015.

Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 - 2002) is one of the most renowned artists from the mid-twentieth century. Throughout her prolific career, Saint Phalle created a complex body of work in various media which was deeply embedded with so- cio-political issues. With themes ranging from joyful to profound to intellectual, the paradoxal nature of her work has yet to be fully explored. She was one of the first women to receive international acclaim and recognition during her lifetime, as well as successfully create a public persona. Similar to Warhol, Saint Phalle was able to use the media to skillfully guide the reception of her work.

Without any formal art training, Niki de Saint Phalle took her inspiration from Gaudi, Dubuffet and Pollock to invent, in the late 1950s, a singular world independent of any trend or art movement. Her entire career is sublimated by great themes and myths, which later articulated her entire oeuvre. The joyous, colourful side of her work is well known but its violence, commitment and radical stands have been forgotten. And this is equally true of her audacious performances, the political and feminist content of her work and her ambitious public sculptures.

This retrospective, the first major exhibition devoted to Niki de Saint Phalle in twenty years, presents a multifaceted artist, at once a painter, assembly artist, sculptor, printmaker, performer and experimental filmmaker, and takes a pro- foundly new look at her work. Over 200 works and archives, many unpublished, are set out in 2,000 square metres, organised by chronology and theme, and punctuated by screens showing the artist talking about her work. Models of architectural projects and a sculpture-fountain (Snake’s Tree) outside the Grand Palais will give visitors an idea of the scope and diversity of her public work.

A Franco-American artist

Niki de Saint Phalle was born in France and spent much of her life here but was brought up in the United States and chose to spend the last part of her career there. She shuttled back and forth between her two homelands and tried to re- concile art trends from both countries. Known as the only female artist in the New Realism Movement in France, she was also an American artist – whose works are to be situated in the history of the Neo Dada Combines – alongside Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, but also at the origin of Pop Art, to which she brought a new slant. Multiculturalism, references to Native American art and the Mexican civilisation, the race question and criticism of George Bush’s policies are all typical American subjects in her last works.

The first feminist artist

Reconciling life as a woman and life as an artist, changing the representation of the female body and eroticism, reinter- preting the great mythical figures, questioning women’s role in society and proposing another one are recurrent themes

in her work from the late 1950s until the end of her life. Daughter, wife, mother, warrior, witch and goddess – all labels stuck on her famous “Nanas,” which are real and fantasised portraits of the artist and contemporary women. The series of Brides, Births, and Goddesses then, after the Nanas, Devouring Mothers create a veritable female mythology. If we add her performances, texts and declarations, and the content of her feature films, we have several good reasons for restoring Niki de Saint Phalle to her rightful place as the first great feminist artist of the twentieth century.

A committed artist

Feminism is only one element in her precocious struggle against conventions and rigid mindsets. Every one of her works can be read at several levels, but a superficial, decorative interpretation has often masked their political impact. If we go more deeply we recognise, for example, the subversive power of the “Shoots.” These performances, in which the artist or members of the audience shot paintings to bits with a rifle, were among the founding works in the history of happenings, judged particularly scandalous because they were orchestrated by a woman. Directed against a particular vision of art, an idea of religion, patriarchal society, a political situation entwining the Cold War and the war in Algeria, a country – the United States – where carrying guns is legal, the Shoots are the image of her later work, which was almost always fed by social issues. Niki de Saint Phalle was one of the first artists to tackle racial discrimination and defend civil rights and then American multiculturalism; one of the first to use art to make the public aware of the devastating effects of AIDS.

In the avant-garde of public art

The first woman to make her mark in the public space on a world scale, Niki de Saint Phalle very quickly sought to address everyone, not just museum goers. The decision to make public art is to be seen as a political choice and a precocious one because she made it an essential part of her research in the mid-1960s. Architectural projects and mo- numental sculptures followed throughout her career: fountains, children’s playgrounds, esoteric gardens and habitable houses were some of her most important achievements. The central, majestic Tarot Garden is a major work, which she funded entirely herself, partly by developing and selling a perfume, furniture, jewellery, prints and art books.

In continuation of the exhibition, the RMN-Grand Palais and the CENTQUATRE-PARIS introduce la Cabeza of 17 September 2014 to 1 February 2015.


General curator : Camille Morineau, cultural heritage officer and Lucia Pesapane, assistant curator.
Scenography : Atelier Maciej Fiszer assisté de Thimothée Ma Mung.

Stephanie van den Hende