From February 3, the SCHIRN will be showing Niki de Saint Phalle's diverse oeuvre in a comprehensive survey exhibition. But if you think exclusively of "Nanas" when you hear the name of the visionary artist, you are quite mistaken – a look at the diversity of her art.
1. provocative performances and happenings
Saint Phalle first became known in the early 1960s with her Shooting Pictures (Tirs) series. In provocative performances that took place in front of an audience, she shot with a rifle at packets of paint embedded within white plaster reliefs, causing the works to literally begin to bleed. In 1961, these actions led to her inclusion as the only female artist in the Nouveaux Réalistes group, which centered around Pierre Restany; these artists rejected the abstract art of the postwar period and demanded a new alliance between art and reality. Essential to Shooting Pictures is the dissolution of the strict separation between artist, audience, and artwork. Visitors—as well as fellow artists such as Pierre Restany, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Edward Kienholz—actively participated in these happenings by shooting at the pictures. In turn, they became participants in a destructive and simultaneously creative act of social criticism.
2. monstrous women
Beginning in 1963, Saint Phalle’s assemblages became more figurative and explored female identity. Although the artist did not actively participate in the emerging second-wave women’s movement, her works anticipated central aspects of the feminist art movement. With works such as Femme nue (Figure) (Naked Woman (Figure)) (1963/64), L’accouchement rose (Pink Birth) (1964), or Autel des femmes (Altar of Women) (1964), she created imposing yet also quite monstrous female figures. Emphatically feminine and covered with plastic toys and found objects, these sculptures ambiguously illuminate the power of female virility while critically challenging women’s traditional roles as wives, mothers, and sexualized bodies in postwar Western society.
3. A “jubilant celebration of women”
In 1965, Saint Phalle debuted her new Nanas series in Paris, which she described as a “jubilant celebration of women.” Unlike her early assemblages, the voluptuous and often pregnant female figures—painted in bright colors and featuring plump breasts, large buttocks, and small heads—embody joie de vivre and strength, proclaiming a matriarchy liberated from oppression. Following this, the Nanas were created in many iterations: in different materials, sizes, and colors, and as sculptures in public spaces and walk-in Nana houses. For the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the artist realized the large sculpture Hon – En Kathedral (She – A Cathedral) in 1966, in collaboration with Per Olof Ultvedt and Jean Tinguely. This work consisted of a Nana that could be entered through the vagina, inside of which was an amusement park for adults complete with a milk bar, a cinema, and exhibitions, among other things. The Schirn is presenting a model and a sketch as well as documentary material of the figure, which measured twenty-five meters in length, nine meters in width, and six meters in height; only the figure’s head has been preserved. As a counter to the liberated Nanas, the artist conceived the series The Devouring Mothers in the 1970s, which depicts aging women bound by social conventions.
4. architectural sculptures in public space
Saint Phalle’s fascination with architectural sculptures accompanied her from the very beginning of her artistic career. As early as the 1950s, visits to Antoni Gaudí’s Park Güell in Barcelona and Ferdinand Cheval’s Palais idéal in Hauterives, France, among others, left a lasting impression on her. The desire to integrate art into people’s lives manifests in her work through various ways: from a motif in her early paintings to her sculptural buildings, children’s playhouses, and sculpture parks. After 1975, she began to focus her attention on the Tarot Garden, which eventually became her artistic legacy. She worked for over twenty years on this large-scale project, which she financed herself. A number of artists, including Jean Tinguely, Seppi Imhof, and Rico Weber, participated in its creation. The garden was opened on May 15, 1998, and includes twenty-two monumental sculptures, some enterable and inhabitable, which are covered with mosaics of colored stones and shards of ceramics and mirrors.
5. politically savvy and still relevant
A concern with political themes is present in each of the artist’s creative phases. Her Shooting Pictures were made amidst the Algerian War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the nuclear threat of the Cold War. In the 1980s, she was one of the first artists to participate in the fight against AIDS through educational campaigns. It was in this context that she realized the sculptures Trilogie des obélisques (Trilogy of Obelisks) (1987), and Skull, Meditation Room (1990), both on view at the Schirn. In 2001, the artist made a series of prints in the US that continued a long series of pictographic letters she had begun in the 1960s. In these works, the artist negotiates public discussions in the U.S. and elsewhere that are still relevant today, such as the lack of regulation of the arms industry and the debate over abortion and a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and self-determination. In Global Warming (2001), Saint Phalle criticizes the then Republican president George W. Bush, whose policies she sees as embodying environmental neglect.