Monday, 21 November 2016

More than curvy babes

One of the exhibitions we recently visited in Helsinki was that of the intriguing and often provocative self-taught artist Niki de Saint Phalle (born Catherine-Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle, 1930-2002). (If you missed my posts on the other shows chick here and here.) You may have come across her sculptures in a public space somewhere as her colourful curvaceous babes, the Nanas, can be seen at numerous locations especially in Europe but elsewhere around the world, too. There is also one in the restaurant of a local art museum a few blocks from where we live.

The Three Graces (1995).

Niki was born outside Paris to an American mother and a French aristocrat father who lost his fortune during the great depression and the family moved to the USA. Niki was only in her late teens when she started to model, eloped to marry and began to develop an interest in art. A few years later, she was posing on the cover of the French Vogue, met artists in Paris and moved with her husband to Europe. She often had health problems, once even a nervous breakdown, finding relief through art. She was inspired by the work of many contemporary and modern artists, especially that of Antoni Gaudí. The couple had two children who stayed with their father when they divorced after a decade or so. Niki continued to concentrate on her art.

Clarice Rivers (1965), collage of a friend whose pregnancy inspired Niki to create the first Nanas.

Almost every story about Niki de Saint Phalle begins by quoting her early decision to become a heroine. The rejoicing Nanas, either painted brightly or covered in pieces of ceramic, glass and mirror, are representations of the empowered and self-confident modern woman. Like a true heroine, they are bold, powerful and fun thus particularly lovable as public art.

Detail of a Tir (1961)
But before all that was the ‘troubled soul period’ which was portrayed in Niki’s early Tirs or ‘shooting paintings’, sometimes executed as a performance. These were pieces containing hidden paint bags that she fiercely shot at to release the paint onto the piece to create the final work of art.

The Pink Birth (1964).
Her rage can also be seen in her early radical collages made up of every imaginable kind of items and junk often depicting the different aspects of a woman’s life in a grim and oppressive manner. Even today, those daringly feministic pieces are almost too shocking to behold at close range.

Self-portrait (1958-9).

Pink Nude in a Landscape (1956-8).

During the 1960s, Niki made friends with many prominent artists one of them being the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely (1925-1991). They soon moved together often collaborating in various commissioned projects around the world. However, they married only in 1971 when they no longer lived together. This was to ensure they would be able to manage each other’s artistic legacy. If you have visited the Centre Pompidou in Paris since 1983 you must have spotted the whimsical Stravinsky Fountain at the Stravinsky Square very close by. It is the most popular fruit of their collaboration with Jean’s moving mechanical pieces, Niki’s colourful ones and water running from both.

Grande tête (1971), from a series of big heads.

The Blue Cathedral (1962).
My Heart Belongs to Rosy, homage to Rosa Parks (1965).
Artwise, their most famous project would have to be the Hon, a huge sculpture of a reclining woman that was entered through an opening between the legs. It was created for an exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1966. No wonder the ‘cathedral’ as it was called won worldwide attention.

The Helsinki exhibition showed quite an impressive selection of paintings, prints, sculptures and collages from Niki’s wide-ranging oeuvre. I found the diary-like drawings, in particular, very captivating. Any of them could have made a fabulous album cover, for example. A few models of her crazy designs for children’s playground-like architectural projects were also presented. They were quite fascinating to look at although not necessarily viable.

The Palace (Guesthouse) (1978-9).
Ever since seeing Antoni Gaudí’s Park Güell in Barcelona, Niki had cherished a dream to build a sculpture garden of her own. It would be based on symbols from the tarot cards. She managed to find some land in southern Tuscany through the brothers of a friend, the wife of Gianni Agnelli, the late head of the Fiat dynasty. In the 1980s and 1990s, she devoted much of her time to creating the monumental Tarot Garden also living on the site in an apartment inside one of the sculptures.

A few years ago when we were spending some time in southern Tuscany, we happened to visit a small town called Capalbio. There was a black Nana, similar to one of The Three Graces, standing at the little square in front of the gate to the old town. I’ve been familiar with Niki’s babes since the late 1980s but I didn’t know about the park in Tuscany. It would have been less than a 15-minute drive from Capalbio to the Tarot Garden, Il Giardino dei Tarocchi, at Garavicchio. I will try to keep that in mind.

Shot of a video on the Tarot Garden shown in the exhibition.

Temperance of the tarot cards (1994).

Temperance, Nana at the Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova museum in Turku, Finland (1985).
Through the 1980s, Niki was also working on various kinds of ‘lighter’ projects from jewellery and furniture to a 52-page informative book on AIDS that was translated into seven languages. She had her first attacks of rheumatoid arthritis at that time and finally moved to California for health reasons in 1994 never stopping her creative pursuits. Queen Califia’s Magical Circle, a sculpture garden in Escondido, California remained her final work. Shortly before her death, looking elegant as ever, Niki donated hundreds of her pieces to a museum in Hannover and to another one in Nice. Her legacy is being managed through a foundation led by her granddaughter.

Black Nana Upside-down (1965-6).

Both Niki’s pain and empowerment were evidently sprouting from the same early experiences. Even though she didn’t remember it until her father apologised to her in a letter, he had abused her sexually when she was a child. Her method of coping was her determination to become something out of the ordinary, something unique, someone who would not stay silent but would make her voice heard whenever she saw an evil to fight against. That is exactly what she did gaining great acclaim and becoming one of the best-known female artists of the 20th century.

Sorry folks, Niki was such a magnetic character I couldn’t make it any shorter. The exhibition at the Taidehalli or Kunsthalle Helsinki closed yesterday but I feel Niki’s art will carry on touring the world both delighting and shaking us for a very long time.

Niki taking aim (1972).


  1. What an amazing artist. I love those sculptures. Hopefully the exhibition will come our way soon. Love the bold colours and shapes. Wonderful :) B x

    1. Aren't they? There's a show called 'The Big Shots' ongoing in Hannover until May and another one will open on Dec 9 in Dortmund but as far as I know nothing is scheduled outside of Germany at the moment. Hopefully soon in the UK. Probably not in France as there was a big one at the Grand Palais in Paris two years ago I've understood.

  2. Ihanaa! Energiaa! Jes, kun tykkään!

    1. Jotkut varhaiset suuret kollaasit olivat melkein liika rajuja edes katseltavaksi saati kuvattavaksi, mutta nekin kuuluvat osana Nikin matkaan. Onneksi hän löysi tuon valoisamman voimaannuttavan puolen, joka jäi elämään meidän kaikkien iloksemme.