Niki de Saint-Phalle
In 1930, Catherine Marie-Agnès de Saint Phalle was born in France. Later on, she became popularly known as Niki. She was raised in a relatively large rich family with 4 siblings, French father and an American mother. But it New York City that De Saint-Phalle spent “most of her childhood and adolescence.” It was here that she was able to cultivate her artistic talent. She started out by modifying the paint of her school (Niki Charitable Art Foundation 1).
Then, she got married in 1950 and moved to Boston. She was already making paintings during this period and even went back to “Paris to study theater and acting. In 1953, she had a nervous breakdown but it was her paintings that kept her sane. Briefly after she was hospitalized, she and her family emigrated to Spain where she became enamored by the works of Antonio Gaudí and Park Güell in Barcelona who specifically suggested that she “sculpture garden and inspires her to use diverse materials and found objects as essential elements in her art” (Niki Charitable Art Foundation 1). Then, she moved back to Paris where she collaborated with Jean Tinguely. In her homeland, De Saint Phalle discovered the greatness of 20th century artists such as “Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg.” All of these artisans shaped the unique and innovative style popularized by De Saint-Phalle. In the 1960s, she began experimenting with “shooting paintings” which resembles the techniques in action painting that was made famous by Jackson Pollack (Niki Charitable Art Foundation 2).
In 1965, she created her initial rendition of Nanas which are “archetypal female figures which are updated versions of ‘Every (wo)man.’” More so, this term means “dame” or “chick.” This concept was motivated by the pregnancy of Clarice who was the wife of Larry Rivers (Niki Charitable Art Foundation 3). The Nanas were portrayed with vibrant colors and voluptuous forms. Throughout her career, the Nana transcended fro being an image of pregnant lady to a general symbol of the female species. Since its inception, the Nanas have become an integral part of De Saint-Phalle’s oeuvre and even became her artistic trademark (Gallery Delaive).
One of De Saint-Phalle’s famous Nana work is the “Black Venus.” It was made between 1965 and 1967 and the material was painted polyester. It is a sculpture that measures 9’2/4” x 2’11”x 2.” It is currently housed at the “Whitney Museum of American Art” in New York. This sculpture was treated with a “rotund and highly animated figures made of paper mache or plaster and painted with bright colors. The figure has a really large chest and bottom area. The right foot is holding all the weight while the left foot is lifted to create a sense of gracefulness. Both arms were raised to catch the ball and to emphasize the curves of the body. Meanwhile, the design and patterns of the wardrobe shows the contemporary influences of De Saint-Phalle which emphasizes its modernity. In terms of body proportions, it is evident that the female human form was abstracted. In ancient Greece, the roundness of a woman’s body signifies fertility. Probably, De Saint-Phalle wanted to convey the significance natural characteristics of women wherein they have the ability to bring another life into the world which only the females can do. Also, this sculpture shows that women are not weak and helpless. This Nana symbolizes the “archetype of an all-powerful woman (Anarson 511).
Another great masterpiece by De Saint-Phalle is the “Hon (She)-Cathedral.” The Nana was in a reclining position. This large-scale sculpture and installation art weighs six tons and measures 82 feet long, 20 feet in height and 30 feet in width. This artwork was done in collaboration with J. Tinguely whom she have lived with after her divorce with her husband and Per Olof Ultvedt, Swedish sculptor for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden (Hedges and Wendt 191). The figure was also painted in colorful bold colors like the ones used in “Black Venus.” In the center of the figure between the two legs, which was the female reproductive organ, an opening was constructed so that viewers can see what was inside the enormous sculpture. The interior simulated the womb of a female but there were several modern installations that were incorporated such as the “bottle-crunching machine, a planetarium and a cinema showing Greta Garbo movies” (Anarson 511). Also, there were “expanding and contracting heart and lungs,” aquarium, telephone, music rooms and a bar with a soda pop machine where visitors heard love-talk relayed by microphones from the ‘love nest’” (Hedges and Wendt 191). After just three months, this piece of art was destroyed leaving only the head in tact, which is still on exhibit at the Moderna Museet (Anarson 511).
This Nana obtained several types of responses from the public. Some believed that it illustrates a strong, humorous and feminist point of view. Due to its sheer size, people have called it “Giant Nana” and even “described it as the largest whore in the world” (Fantasy Art). Though, it was received by people in different ways, the “Hon” still capture the fascination and interest of the public. It was not merely a viewing piece but the audience can interact with its different elements making the art experience more meaningful. Moreover, the interactive quality of the sculpture, De Saint Phalle’s love for architecture and her immense respect for women, generated a masterpiece that have evoked the artistic and feminist sense of people all over the world.
Anarson, H.H. History of Modern Art 5th Edition. USA: Prentice Hall, Inc. 2003.
Hedges, Elaine and Wendt, Ingrid. In Her Own Image: Women Working in the Arts. New York: Feminist Press, 1980.
“Niki de Saint Phalle.” N.d. Gallery Delaive. June 2009 <http://www.delaive.com/index.php?subpage=niki_de_saint_phalle&page=niki04>
“Niki de Saint Phalle: A Life, 1930–2002.” 2009. Niki Charitable Art Foundation. 7 June 2009 <http://nikidesaintphalle.org/life_01>
“Niki de Saint Phalle : Biography.” 2007. Fantasy Art. 7 June 2009 <http://www.fantasyarts.net/desaintphalle_bio.html>