Earlier this week I went back to the Grand Palais to see the exhibit of Franco-American painter Niki de Saint Phalle. Best known for her large, colorful Nana statues (nana is slang for woman in French), de Saint Phalle might also be familiar if you've ever hung around the Pompidou Center in central Paris. She and her husband Jean Tinguely are responsible for the the colorful, moving, water-spraying Stravinsky fountain that stands between the museum and the Saint-Merri church.
The daughter of an American mother and French father, de Saint Phalle had a privileged if troubled upbringing (she later revealed father raped her when she was 11). She worked as a model when she was young, but when a severe bout of depression put her in the hospital, she turned to art as a form of therapy. De Saint Phalle was self-taught, but very plugged-in to the American and European art scenes of the 50's and 60's. Her early influences included Jackson Pollock Jean Debuffet and Jasper Johns, and their signature techniques and motifs -- strong graphic lines, drip painting, affixed objects -- are evident in her early work.
De Saint Phalle was an overtly political and feminist painter who put the figure of the woman at the center of her work. Her first large-scale sculptures depicted women in their various guises and complexities. Brides, prostitutes and mothers recur in her work, expressing beauty, rage, destruction and love all at the same time. An excerpt of an early filmed interview shows de Saint Phalle refuting an male interviewer's assertion that her art wasn't feminine (hard to imagine what he was looking at when he claimed that, but there you are). As she stated, her work is necessarily feminine because it was made by a female artist.
Violence was also an overt theme in her work. Early collages incorporated deadly tools and weapons and her later "Tir" series was made by firing rifles at pouches of paint covered by plaster. For me, these worked better in concept than in execution. The "art through violence" idea is not exactly a new one, and her worthy attempts to criticize violence and prejudice in our society can come across as simplistic.
But de Saint Phalle's best work, including the Nanas, her illustrated serigraphs, and pieces from her self-financed sculpture garden, are full of wit and exuberance, something often lacking in contemporary art. (Keith Haring's work probably comes the closest in spirit). Unlike my experience at the Hokusai exhibit, I felt these pieces really should be seen in person to appreciate the way she plays with colors, volumes, textures and surreal imagery.
The poster for the exhibit may depict de Saint Phalle pointing her rifle straight at the viewer, but the image I took away with me was her floating, spinning or dancing Nanas. De Saint Phalle may not be the most original or subtle artist out there, but I dare you not smile at her celebration of the female form and her unapologetic feminist agenda. Rather than become a victim of personal or political oppression, she fought back through her art. If her anger and appetite for destruction are omni-present, so too is her sense of joy and wonder.