July 28, 2021

Portrait: Niki de Saint Phalle, boredom killer

Sorority, fights and blows of brilliance. Our journalist, Juliette Debruxelles looks back on the fate of women who changed the face of the world … Who was Niki de Saint Phalle?

EShe takes her gun, takes aim and shoots. Reload and shoot. On sculptures, objects stuck on a support, on political figures, on symbols, on shampoo bottles, ink bottles, tomatoes, eggs, all covered in white, she shoots paint balloons that flow and splash, and make it all fart. The “Calamity Jane of art” calls it “The Shoots”. Logic.

She organizes “statements”, like this collective performance at the Embassy of the States in Paris, June 20, 1960 where Robert Rauschenberg paints while she sets up a target painting to which Jasper Johns sticks flowers while Jean Tinguely exhibits a striptease machine and David Tudor plays the piano back to the audience. Otherwise it’s going ?

We are at the beginning of the Sixties, when, for the first time, this woman with precociously darkened eyes becomes a known artist here (she was already known elsewhere and in particular in the United States). TV films her and her expression of the violence of the times becomes a reference. It is “the new avant-garde” as the press says and it is part of the New Realists movement, with Yves Klein, César, Christo … It is beautiful and strange, too elegant for the beaufs of the time. who – even in the art world which takes itself seriously – reproach him for his past activity as a model, his appearances in “Vogue” or in the general press.

However, Niki remains a nutcase who really does not give a damn about conveniences and borders. It was in the psychiatric hospital that she began to paint, while she was interned for a serious depression (her father raped her when she was 11 years old, she did not reveal it until 40 years later in a book: “My secret”). She was then 22 years old, we are in 1953 and the fashion, at the time, is to “cure mental and nervous illnesses” with electroshocks (instead of holding dad to account). She leaves bits of memory in the brutality of the treatment. “I started to paint with the mad… I discovered there the dark universe of madness and its healing, I learned to translate my feelings, fears, violence, hope and fear into painting. joy. “

The artist Niki de Saint Phalle in front of her studio at the Auberge du Cheval Blanc. (Photo by Giancarlo BOTTI / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Three years later, traveling to Barcelona with her first husband (the poet Harry Mathews, married when she was 18 and with whom she would have two children), she discovered Gaudi. Here we go !

Catherine Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint-Phalle will become the free and incernable being that we know. Despite the diversity and commitment of his art, we nevertheless continue to systematically associate him with his “Nanas”: fat multicolored dancing ladies found in art collections in cities around the world, but who could do anything. as well to compete in good taste with Desigual, so much we have eaten copies, miniaturizations and decorative objects of card making. To enter into its artistic intimacy and measure its methaphoric power, you have to go see its Garden of Tarots – financed by its own funds and erected like a mirage in a dry Tuscan landscape. A totally barred universe, inspired by divinatory mysteries, where monumental sculptures and “dwellings” follow one another all in over-colored mosaics and pieces of mirror that end up disturbing. Things to see everywhere, things to read if you feel like it (finding these little cement tiles with declarations of love written on them makes you cry). It is like in an amusement park without attractions and it is dying of heat. So, with Jean Tinguely (her Swiss artist “husband” since 1971), they made the water flow there. Pools, jets, fountains that sparkle even more and give even hotter and fill the eyes and make you want to stay, to bead sweat to become shiny in turn. As if by contagion. The freedom of Niki de Saint Phalle, the strength of her love and her excessiveness are really assessed here. In her “house” (in real life, a large empress with soft shapes that one enters to discover completely rounded rooms – as in the “Maison Bulle” by Antti Lovag – and covered, there too, with mosaics and pieces of wood. broken mirrors), no sense except that of aesthetics. It is there that she lived during the works, between 1979 and 1993. In California, in Escondido, she erected the Queen Califia’s Magical Circle, on the same principle: a succession of works like a garden to visit, between representation of Queen Califia, riding an eagle, totems, labyrinthine monsters and wall of snakes.

Niki de Saint Phalle
Portrait of Niki De Saint-Phalle in front of one of her famous ‘Nanas’ sculptures, 1965 (Photo by Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

But Niki is not only a loner crushed by pharaonic projects: she is also a committed. For the equal rights of black Americans, the liberation of women from patriarchy, help for AIDS patients (she illustrated a book, produced a documentary with her son on the subject…).

She produced the series of sculptures “Black Heroes”, in 1998, featuring Joséphine Baker, Miles Davis, Michael Jordan (exhibited in front of the National Museum of Women in Arts, in Washington), or Louis Armstrong.

Her art will eventually kill the one he made breathe: her lungs, destroyed by the polyester dust she worked for her sculptures, let go in 2002, at the hospital in San Diego, California, after years of respiratory failure and agony.

And Niki glasses.


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