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.
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)|
|The Pink Birth (1964).|
|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.
|The Blue Cathedral (1962).|
|My Heart Belongs to Rosy, homage to Rosa Parks (1965).|
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).|
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).|
|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).|