Champion of the feminist aesthetic, Phalle’s sculptures and paintings have made her one of art’s most important outsiders
You’ve seen them before. Those colourful stylised ladies with tiny heads and plenty of ass, but many wouldn’t know that these bright, pop characters found in gift shops around the world were created by one of the most inventive female artists of the 20th century.
Saint Phalle was born in 1930 in France, the daughter of a French aristocratic banker who had lost the family fortune in the 1929 stock market crash. She grew up in New York and Connecticut, often in convent schools, where she gained a rebellious reputation. At 14, she was expelled for painting the fig leaves on school statues red. After graduating (from another school), she worked as a model, appearing on the covers of Life andVogue, and in the pages of Harpers Bazaar. By the age of 18, she had eloped with an affluent youth and moved to Paris. After a nervous breakdown in 1953, she decided to focus all of her energy on art. She became fascinated by outsider and naïve art. For Saint Phalle, it provided a way to make something outside the narrow confines of the Modernist abstraction that was dominating the avant-garde. Instead, she looked at people like Joseph Ferdinand Cheval, a postman who created a fantastical outsider art palace in the village of Drome, and the champion of Art Brut, Jean Dubuffet.
After splitting from her first husband, Saint Phalle met, and began to collaborate with, the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. He had made his name creating crazy kinetic sculptures out of metal detritus – and inspired her move into sculpture. Within the year he had split from his wife and was living with Saint Phalle. He later became her second husband and it was during this early period that she began to create violent, textured assemblages. She embedded axes, razors and other found objects into white-plastered canvases, later incorporating toys, guns and religious ephemera.
The reliefs were thick with objects and dripping with paint. Around this time, she also became part of the Nouveau Réaliste group of artists who were deliberately resisting the heavy, serious Modernism that was dominating the art world. Instead, like their American counterparts Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, they looked to Dada and Duchamp. In fact, Johns and Rauschenberg helped to install Saint Phalle’s very first solo show.
Saint Phalle really made her name in 1961 with her shooting paintings. She would attach containers of coloured liquid paint into her sculptural paintings that would burst when hit by bullets. People would line up to shoot the art at openings, watching as blasts of colour splattered like blood over the work. It was a hugely brave and innovative thing to do. Other people have used guns in art in her wake – but she was the first. “Ever since Surrealist godfather André Breton stated that the simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, firing blindly, visual art has forged an immanent engagement with the gunshot as a spontaneous, violent and shocking moment of creativity,” enthuses Seventeen gallery curator Paul Pieroni. “Saint Phalle predates a whole line of trigger-happy creators, from the ultra-extreme American performance artist Chris Burden having himself shot in the arm in the name of experimental performance in 1971, to Burroughs’s buckshot and spray-paint shotgun sculptures of the late 80s.”
“I was shooting at myself – I was shooting my own violence and the violence of the times” – Niki de Saint Phalle
- Text Francesca Gavin
Taken from the March 2008 issue of Dazed
Saint Phalle organised no less than 12 shootings between 1961 and 1963, often dressed in a white all-in-one bodysuit and black, shiny boots. “I was shooting at myself, at society with its injustices,” she wrote. “I was shooting my own violence and the violence of the times.”
Exposition Niki de Saint Phalle du 17 Septembre 2014 au 02 Février 2015 dans les Galeries nationales du Grand Palais
Saint Phalle said, “Communism and Capitalism have failed. I think the time has come for a new matriarchal society.”
“I love the round, the curves, the undulation, the world is round, the world is a breast” – Niki de Saint Phalle