My work has always been my way of expressing my problems and then exorcizing them.
—Niki de Saint Phalle(1930.10.29-2002.5.21)
The first time I recognized Niki de Saint Phalle’s work was at the Central Avenue Station of Zurich, there was a lovable angel hanging over the heads of the rushing crowd. Her body was blue and she was dressed in beautiful clothes with golden wings shining in the sunlight and it’s an abstract figure with the details of the face erased. She shows her kindness and loyalty in a soft posture while looking at the traffic at this central station day after day and silently greeting travelers. Later I came to know that this was Niki’s classic series of Les Nanas and this piece happened to be called as L’ Ange Protecteur (1997). When I first met Niki’s work, I did not know about her experience. Instead, I was so impressed by the pure but romantic texture she conveyed, which touches the hearts of people and it reminded me of the words by Italian Memphis design master Ettore SOTTSASS, the life of people in the city seems to be too hasty, art design and creation is to provide them with a chance to “dream.” Niki said, “Imagination is my refuge, my palace… Dream is a pure psychological laboratory in which a lonely palace illusion can be created.” Behind her dreams, what has been hidden is profound strength and an absolute rebellion. In the rich colors of Pop, she dreams, but inadvertently she shoots directly to the heart of death. She looks for a new birth on the way to death.
After three years of preparation, this beautiful dream was brought to China by Today Art Museum. Inspired by Niki’s Jardin des Tarots (The Tarot Garden) created in Italy, the curatorial team constructed a colorful wonderland based on the spatial features of the exhibition venue. At the same time, “Niki de Saint Phalle: Legendary Female Artist of the 20th Century and Her Wonderland” also summarized the important works of Niki de Saint Phalle, this most attention-grabbing female artist of the 20th century including paintings, sculptures, performance art, conceptual art, large-scale public art and experimental films which are all exhibited in Beijing. As an artist, she has never received professional training but she broke through the taboos and left rich and profound artworks for the world. As a woman, she picks up art weapons, attacks unbalanced gender relationships and continues to question the fate of the female. As a person chasing freedom, she was reluctantly reborn with pain, from healing the wounds of life to releasing spiritual freedom, which remind us of what true vitality really is. The exhibition will remain on view till 10 March, 2019.
“The world kisses me with pain, how shall I respond to it with songs”
Niki de Saint Phalle’s life was fascinating, but it was too tough. Whether being an artist, a woman or a member of society, she was actively confronted with reality and strove to grasp her own destiny. Moreover, her oeuvre and style cannot be separated from her destiny. They intertwined or furthermore is the pain of fate that contributes to her “beauty.”
On October 29, 1930, formerly known as Catherine Marie-Agnes Fal de Saint Phalle was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, near Paris. Her mother was an actor and her father was a banker. Actually she was born into a noble family but they lost their money and moved to the United States in the 1930s due to the financial turmoil. Then she called herself Niki. Unfortunately, she had a traumatic childhood and her autobiography Mon Secret revealed her pain. At 11 years old, she suffered from her father’s cruel sexual assault and abuse. She was expelled from school with “disorder behavior” in middle school and she was then urged to have spiritual treatment which constitute a distinct contrast with her colorful works. In the letters to her friends, she mentioned, “In my childhood, I could not agree with my mother, grandmother, and aunts. Our family was suffocating. It was a closed space with little freedom and little privacy…I wanted the world, but the world belonged to men at that time. I cannot accept the limitations that my mother tried to impose on my life because I was a girl. No, I crossed the boundaries to reach the world of men. For me it seems full of adventures, mysteries and excitement.” It can be said that the family with the fake religious atmosphere and the cruelty of the father were the origin of Niki’s rebellion, which became deeply rooted into her life. Niki began to work as an actor and model to make a living. Because of her mother’s delicate genes, she went smoothly on the road to being a model in her twenties, and she used to be cover girls for magazines such as Vogue, Life, ELLE and so on.
The lack of happiness decided the keynote of Niki’s younger stage. At the age of 19, she ran away and married the poet and musician Harry Mathews without her family’s consent. She gave birth to her first child two years later. The couple returned to Paris in 1952. Although they seemed to be happy, anxiety, illness, and bondage made her gradually suffer a nervous breakdown. In 1953, she was treated for neurological diseases. During the recuperation, the doctor encouraged her to try to solve her problem by painting. Through art Niki gradually overcame her illness: “Painting has calmed my uneasy soul, and it tamed the devils that appear in my works.” At that time, the artistic atmosphere flourished in Europe. Although she had never received formal art training, she had seen various exhibitions and in cafes she met artists including Alberto Giacometti and Jean Dubuffet. Inspired by Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, Niki gradually faded out of the acting career and concentrated on art. “Becoming an artist was not my choice. This is my destiny. I spent a short time in a mental hospital and accepted electric shock therapy dozens of times. When I embraced art with open arms, I really needed it to save me. Art is a necessity for me.”
When talking about the academic training, the renowned Chinese female artist Yu Hong, who was invited to participate in the opening ceremony of the exhibition, expressed her feeling that, “Although Niki had not received any professional painting training, she was very confident. She was inspired by art and she found the value of existence from pursuing art. Her works include painting, sculpture and public art. There is no technical or language conversion problem in the whole process of her creation, because her works are full of strength, and this is amazing.”
It is not difficult to find that Niki’s early works convey two significant confrontations, on one hand, the recurring tangles and fears, the large black blocks uneasily surge, the white paint swaying into the diffuse lines; on the other hand, it is full of an optimistic will, bright and rich colors appear on the paper. “Ceramic pieces, pebbles, coffee beans, buttons, pearls, nails, shells” and other ready-made products are drawn into the painting. The overlap of these two opposing emotions reveals Niki’s anxious state in the early period, and also sews her original “absorptive” language. In 1960, her fear of falling into the stereotype life of “housewife”, Niki and Harry separated because of their differences. At this time, she used art to heal the pain of life and she longed for “doing something” to declare a war on the social injustice and provocation.
“A Murder with No Victims” —Self-rebirth in Shooting
After her encounter with a soul mate and partner, Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, Niki’s mental state got better and art became her most direct window to express and the easiest weapon for a rebellion. In 1961, she lifted her rifle as a “brush” and nailed a bag of polyethylene coated plaster to the board. After shooting, various pigments spurted out and flowed, resulting in an unexpected “art.” Considering the old-fashioned, taboos and oppressive life she suffered since she was young, it can be said that Niki fought in a devastating way. Her original intention can be read from her confession. “In 1960, I was a very angry young woman. I shot at the painting because shooting allowed me to release my arrogant emotion. For men, I feel anger at their authority. I feel that they have deprived me of my free space. I want to conquer their world and earn my own money…I want to tell them that I am a person, I exist, I am the voice of a female rebellion, which is very important. I’m ready for killing.” The “Shooting Painting”, which originated from her personal release, triggered a strong reaction from the art circle. A “murder with no victims” completely unveiled Niki’s artistic career.
From 1961 through to 1963, Niki organized 12 “shooting” creations, and she invited French neo-realist artists and audiences to join her and “shooting art” became the most explosive symbol of Niki. At the same time, this also plays a leading role in the conceptualization of modern art. She described that “when I shot, I found a wonderful feeling, a feeling of ecstasy, that moment was very real, shooting at my paintings, and the passion shocked me.” In this exhibition, two works entitled Tir Avion (1961) and Cathedral (1962) show this tension: when observing closely these coagulated wounds that bulge after being shot, splashing dull colors and holes which precipitate an unfathomable panic. With direct destruction on “church” represented as a religious symbol, she expresses repression and hatred in the form of “profaning sacred gods”, “God, I am approaching the altar with love and hate in my heart, why do you make people feel angry and painful? I hate you, I love you, I trust you, there is a mystery that I cannot understand… Please forgive me, I am repenting, I ask for redemption, I will throw myself at your feet, I created this altar and cathedral between 1961 and 1962 to express my passion.” She “shot” herself and fired at an unfair fate. Perhaps this is a fateful arrangement. Before that, she had never received a reply from her faith, but she opened up another kind of redemption from herself. “I like to kill the picture, but it is a rebirth. This war has no victims.” At this moment, Niki turned art creation into a modern shrine of extinction and resurrection.
“Those joyful creatures are the glory of women.”
This angry woman with a gun for painting has always been full of enthusiasm for faith and life. Art led her to come out of the haze, and she covered her wound with creations. Inspired by her pregnant friend Clarice in 1965, Niki created the classical Les Nanas series, and these joyful and rhythmic women also showed the female toughness and femininity of Niki to the world, her works developed towards broad public art, and the female strength in her body has also sublimated to a deeper social value. She said frankly, “after I shot the work, the anger left, but the pain was still there. Later, the pain was gone, I relocated to the studio to create joyful creatures and convey the glory of women.”
“Nana” is a form of address for women in French but also the name of a prostitute described by the French author Emile Zola in the book with the same name who “Conquered the whole of Paris with her flesh.” The description in the book exudes the original metaphor of the Naturalism, “Nana, this fleshy girl, screaming like a hen, radiating the fragrance of life, filled with the infinite charm of women, and people were fascinated by her.” In Niki’s eyes, “Nana represents a happy, free and confident woman.” Niki gets involved in reality, and she condemns society for defining women’s roles as fertility tools, greedy mothers, witches and prostitutes. Based on the controversy of the feminist movement and the black sovereign movement at that time, she made a reluctant counterattack with the weapon of art and waited for an opportunity to fight. In the huge space on the first floor of the exhibition hall, a few black-skinned “Nana”, including Big Lady Black and Black Dancer, attract attention with the huge size of the beauty. Curator of this exhibition Dr. Gao Peng, Director of the Today Art Museum, also mentioned that “she has a very good relationship with black fellows, and the beauty of her friends has been revealed.”Besides, sculptures including Trois Graces fontaine (1999) , Gwendolyn (1966-1990) and Bathing Beauty (1967-1968), with the fleshy body like “Venus of Willendorf” breaks through stereotypes of taboos with barbaric power, soft lines, vivid gestures, and optimistic colors seem to carry the mysterious power to show the original beauty and feminine beauty.
The creation pushed the social value of “Nana” to a high point is Hon (She) in her solo exhibition in Stockholm in 1966. Niki invited Dingley and others to create a giant “Nana” space sculpture installation: including a cinema, a planetarium, a bar, a fake painting museum, etc., and the entrance was the vaginal hole between the huge female legs. The launch of the event aroused sharp concern. Although this work was created in the 1960s, it is not difficult to guess that it would still “be controversial” in current society. In the exhibition hall, the documentary film of Hon, has such a narration of Niki, “so we all became pagans, and some even brought children to watch. She (Hon) is the world’s largest prostitute, within three months, having 100,000 spectators through the hole, she returned to nature, the mother’s deity, satisfied everyone, and brought an excellent experience to everyone who saw the exhibition.” “From another perspective, she showed the discussion of the relationship between people and society in the perspective of female artists,” said renowned female artist Jiang Jie when she talked about the shock that this film brought to her in the discussion, “she clearly puts it forward without too much modifications. In a video in the exhibition, Niki said that creations are not only from knowledge, but also from emotions. I could not agree more with this. I think if there are no emotional factors, her work will not be so strong and shocking. She still has a very important position in the 20th century male-dominated art world and she is irreplaceable.”
As a female artist, she seems to be born with a special mission in a world that men dominate. Her work Bride (1965-1992) is a representative work of the “destructive” female image. Niki said that “a bride is a beautiful lie that people promise to women”, the bride is made of polished white bronze, palladium, silver plated and other materials. Although she is dressed in a wedding dress while holding flowers, there is no joy on her face at all. Fear and sluggishness are hidden in the riddled holes in the “wedding” epidermis, and it collapses into lies set by people. There might never be gender equality in the true sense, the social paradox, identity contradiction and mental pressure that women suffer in each era cannot be resolved. The proposition of “female freedom” she cares about is transformed in the reality of the gender imbalance. While art may just be able to fill the gap in the discourse of this invisible violence, what Niki pursues is never feminist, but the right that everyone is born to be equal.
“Building this wonderland is my destiny”
If Hon ignites her ambition to carry “fantasy architecture” through the maternal space, Jardin des Tarots she had started to build since 1974, this carries Niki’s entire “Utopia” spirit of freedom. Niki recalled, “I went to Barcelona in 1955. In the beautiful Park Güell, I met my spiritual master and fate.” Antonio Gaudi gave her inspiration, “I was shuddering there. I know, I am destined to build my own wonderland one day, at the corner of heaven, the intersection of man and nature. After twenty-four years, I set off on the biggest adventure in my life: Jardin des Tarots.” Inspired by 22 tarot cards, the “Priestess, Queens, Emperors, Magicians, Wheels of Fortune, Power, Sun, Death, Devil, Moon” in her cognition were created. During the process she invited many artists, friends and local residents to work together to create a magical environment using polyester fiber, ceramics, glass, mirrors and mosaics. She also moved into the “Queen” in 1980 and lived for 7 years. Jardin des Tarots was opened to the public in 1998. She transformed her personal rebellion and resistance into a firm but soft woman’s love, and she was released from the struggles of self-bounds. As the Curator Gao Peng said, “Niki in her later years, completely turns from the self-rescue art and social critical art development to public art.”
It is her expression to portray destiny rather than building a garden for people to visit. After surpassing the suffering, her garden blooms with the aroma with flowers in the twisted boughs of the tree of life. Niki finally completed her belief in self-destination during the last 20 years of her life. She said, “This garden is intertwined with hardship, madness, enthusiasm, obsession and most importantly—faith. As described in all fairy tales, I met dragons, wizards, magicians, and temperate angels on the way to finding the final treasure.” Among the exhibition halls, the winding bridges, the flashing lights, and the eye-catching mosaics bring the audience into the wonderland, looking for a place where the winding path leads and the story awaits for others to find.
In 2002, Niki died from lung disease caused by the long-term use of polyester materials. Bloum Cardenas, the granddaughter and head of the Niki Charitable Art Foundation, recalled that “my grandmother was always optimistic and she even learned hang gliding before she passed away.”This open-mindedness makes us believe that although Niki departed this world, it will be another wonderland that she reached. Bloum also talked about the great efforts for this exhibition, “Saint Phalle will always bless us, and she must be looking forward to seeing her large retrospective exhibition to meet with Chinese audiences.” The organizer paid tribute to this great female artist with Niki’s work La mort n’existe pas-Life is eternal (2001) as a conclusion for the exhibition. Niki’s life is constantly fighting the outside world. She has come from sufferings and she gained self-redemption from struggles. God, faith, love, and spirit are intertwined with rich and wonderful structural images that construct this beautiful wonderland, which encourages people to get rid of the inner dragon, pick up a firm weapon, and build your own tree of life.
Text by Zhang Yizhi, translated by Sue/CAFA ART INFO
Photo Courtesy of the artist and Today Art Museum, Copyright © Niki Charitable Art Foundation