Niki de Saint Phalle was a French-American self-taught artist, best known for her vibrant, large-scale public sculptures, decorative assemblages, and her sculptural female figurines known as Nanas. She was also a painter, performer, and filmmaker. She was one of the few women artists known for monumental sculptures at this time.
Sainte Phalle was born in Paris into an aristocratic French banking family. When she was three years old, her family moved to Connecticut and four years later to New York City. She describes her childhood as hell. Her mother beat her, and her father raped her when she was eleven years old, and this continued for many years. This sexual exploitation and child abuse were recurrent themes in her multifaceted work – as in her 1973 autobiographical film “Daddy.” Both of her younger siblings would commit suicide as adults.
When she was 17 years old, she became a fashion model. For the next eight years, she landed covers and spreads for major fashion magazines including Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. In 1952, she moved to Paris with her husband and baby daughter. A year later she had a nervous breakdown. While convalescing, she began to paint. Five years after her son was born, she met Swiss artist Jean Tinguely in 1956. They collaborated for twenty years, marrying in 1971. Even though they separated two years after they married, they still worked together as partners.
Her figurative canvases, painted in the 1950s as a form of therapy, were followed by abstract works, which were influenced by Pollock and Rauschenberg. Her early assemblages were vividly colored small sculptures made with found objects. They evolved in complexity and scale culminating in her last assemblage, “Pirodactyl over New York” 1962, which was more than ten feet long.
Moving away from her iconic assemblages, Saint Phalle joined the French Nouveau Realiste movement, which included Yves Klein, Tinguely, and Christo. In 1966, with Swedish artist Per Olof Ultvedt and Tinguely, Saint Phalle made a brightly painted, temporary sculpture “She – a Cathedral.” It was 80 feet long and 20 feet high where up to 150 visitors at a time could enter the nana’s reclining body through her legs.
She invented her controversial “Tirs Seances” or “Shooting Paintings” in which she loaded a rifle and shot at canvases covered with found objects and plaster embedded with paint-filled balloons or other liquids. She kept a loaded rifle at the gallery and when she or an invited shooter blasted away, color exploded and covered the ravaged surfaces. She performed two dozen shooting sessions in Europe and the United States in 1961 and 1962. Several took place in Los Angeles.
In another artwork, she took a shirt from a former lover, fitted it over a wooden panel, and replaced the head with a dartboard. She invited gallery visitors to shoot it. “I fired at men, at society with its injustice, and at myself.”
Her “Shooting Paintings” evolved into her Nanas, her best known sculpture series. These were life size, buxom female figures who developed into larger, rounder monumental works. In time, these sculptures became more joyful, more colorful, and even larger. Some were posed dancing or performing acrobatics dressed in boldly exuberant primary colors.
Influenced by Antoni Gaudi and surpassing him, Saint Phalle made outdoor sculptures for numerous cities throughout the world. Her most magnificent was “Tarot Garden” in Tuscany, which she began in 1979 and which was opened to the public in 1998. Because of the damage done to her lungs by working with polyesters, she moved to the milder climate of California where she died in 2002 of pulmonary emphysema.
There was a major retrospective of her work in Paris in 2014-2015 and a current exhibition to be held through July 17, 2022 at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Saint Phalle was one of the most significant feminist artists of the 20th century and one of the few to receive recognition in the male-dominated art world. Her work is held in the permanent collections of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, Museum of Modern Art, Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice France.