The works of Niki de Saint Phalle accompanied the evolutions of his time(r), but also heralded our generation. The activism of the Franco-American artist remained more than relevant and gives all the strength to his works, which take their origin from the important and dramatic events of his life.
An intimate exhibition at the Musée des Abattoirs in Toulouse, “Niki de Saint Phalle – 1980-1990. Art in Freedom”, focuses on this aspect of his career. On the occasion of this large-scale event, which will continue until March 5, 2023, take a look at five important facts about the life and work of this outstanding sculptor.
She was a major figure of ecofeminism
When you dive into Niki de Saint Phalle’s work, the first thing that jumps out at you is obviously her feminism. We think about him, for example Little ones the giant woman who is the symbol of the modern and free woman occupying the public square; such as his paintings around abortion “freedom of choice” ; or his Shots strongly condemning patriarchy, sexism and violence against women.
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Looking back at her career, there is no shortage of feminist works. Moreover, the visual artist who was active in the Women’s Liberation Movement did not hesitate to put misogynistic journalists in their place in the 1960s.
Apart from her struggles with sexism, we talk a little less about her ecofeminist commitment. As the name suggests, ecofeminism is a philosophical, political and ethical movement that combines two struggles: ecology and feminism. Niki de Saint Phalle was a feminist and environmentalist who tackled issues such as animal welfare and global warming. These struggles were united in his artistic works.
The Gardens and the wild animals that inhabit the artist-activist’s work are very political. Fauna, flora, water and land are ubiquitous elements that condemn the exploitation of endangered species and the natural resources of our planet. “Her preoccupation with ecology and feminism, the way she considers the life force of all living things, animals and plants, is indicative of early ecofeminism.”we read in Les Abattoirs.
In 1993, while living in California to take advantage of the state’s heat, which is beneficial for respiratory problems, the visual artist came across a book that told the history of the region through a legend: In the Middle Ages, California was seen as an island without men, where black women dressed in gold would later live on animals. One of these women was called Queen Califia.
The artist dedicated to him such a work in his own image: a temple of colossal statues in Escondido, near San Diego. This garden is called Queen Califia’s Magic Circle, to its glory, is full of statues, mixing Egyptian and pre-Columbian influences and drawing from a marvelous register. In his sculpture Liberty Tree (Queen Califia)it represents the Queen at the top of the tree, a combination of her feminist and environmental commitments.
Another example: Skinnytubular and hollow sculptures, a general break with it Little ones full and generous. It was established in 1979 Skinny resonates with the artist’s respiratory problems: “I discover the void. My sculptures breathe. […] The earth goddesses were replaced by me Skinny. The Skinny take a breath They are aerial sculptures with mythological themes. Through them you can see the sky or nature. I invite you [public] follow with me. […] Breathing deeply, exercising, walking, and being close to nature changed me.”
In it Shots and on it wall of ragehe lists everything that makes him angry and wants to paint: rape, sexism, machismo, injured animals, polluted water, waste, neglect of nuclear waste, risks of nuclear power plants and disrespect for our Earth.
She survived the incest
If his art is cheerful and colorful with flowers and women, Niki de Saint Phalle carries within it a painful trauma. He survived the consanguinity: his father regularly raped him from the age of 11. in a book called my secretPublished by Editions de la Différence, he first acknowledged this trauma at the age of 64 in a children’s essay.
In the form of a letter addressed to his daughter Laura, he finally breaks this heavy silence “secret” talks about his family and how he feels isolated in society, as an adult and in his life as an artist. In this text, on full display as part of the Abattoirs de Toulouse exhibition, she writes about the summer of her first rape, reminiscing about the dead snakes she entertained hiding in her brother’s bed. the genus of the reptile and its father.
“One evening I was removing the sheets from my bed in the small bedroom where I slept alone. The black body of the snake was lying on the sheets. […] Morality was everywhere in our house, it was crushed like a heat wave. That same summer, my father – he was 35 – put his hand in my panties like those infamous men who watch little girls in movie theaters. I was 11 and I felt like I was 13.
One afternoon, my father wanted to look for his walking stick, which was in a small wooden hut where garden tools were kept. I accompanied him. Suddenly, my father’s hands began to explore my body in a way that was completely new to me. Shame, pleasure, agony and fear gripped my chest. My father tells me: “Don’t make progress.” I obey like an automaton. Then I got rid of him by violence and kicks, and ran to exhaustion through a field of mown grass.
My father loved me, but neither this love, nor the ancient Catholic religion and morals of his childhood, nor my mother was strong enough to prevent him from breaking the prohibition. Is he tired of being a respectable citizen? Did he want to side with the killers? […] I often wondered why I didn’t tell my mother immediately after the rape. What if I dared to speak up? Silence saved me, but at the same time, it was disastrous for me, because it tragically isolated me from the world of adults.
It is clear that the snake would haunt many of his works throughout his life and become his totem animal as a re-appropriation of his trauma between admiration and fear. A projected film is presented in the same exhibition hall of the Toulouse museum fathera work in which the artist vents his anger and attacks his father: a sniper takes aim at a figure representing him with a rifle.
“I always tried to include what I felt at that time in my works. My childhood was painful, lonely and difficult, then I escaped to a beautiful world. It set me up for the rest of my life. I will not regret my childhood. It allowed me to be like that.”he said.
He raised awareness of the AIDS epidemic
Niki de Saint Phalle was one of the first artists to openly support AIDS patients since the beginning of the virus in the 1980s. To spread awareness, he uses many communication tools like flyers, posters, “Stop Sida” on TV shows. Like stamps, pins or artwork for the Swiss postal service Plague Where Hitting AIDS-AIDS-AIDS.
Marked by the death of several loved ones from AIDS, he will take it into battle as an ally. He decided to turn to the medical profession, specifically immunologist Silvio Barandu, to document himself about the virus. After this meeting, he published the book AIDS: You can’t hold handsIn 1986.
The name of the book will be changed AIDS is easy to prevent in the French edition published a year later. In these pages, he suggests “instruction”details everything we know about the disease so far, destroys stereotypes and homophobia, provides information on preventive measures, in a language register accessible to the entire public.
In 1990, he made a short film and a book with his son Philip Matthews. AIDS, you will not catch…, in collaboration with the French AIDS Agency. The proceeds from the sale of tens of thousands of copies are donated to the AIDES association, which supports people with HIV and viral hepatitis.
He was involved in the fight against racism
Niki de Saint Phalle has denounced racism and violence against black people in the United States throughout her career. At the time, very few white artists spoke about these issues. The sculptor begins a series of works that are misogynist and especially reminiscent of the violence suffered by women. Little ones black.
He began his series in 1998 to create depictions of racialized people that have been sorely lacking in art history. Black Heroesseries dedicated to black personalities such as singer Josephine Baker, musician Louis Armstrong, basketball player Michael Jordan or trumpeter Miles Davis.
Through these works, he highlighted the difficulty of black people existing and evolving in a world dominated by white people. It is to fulfill his commitment and to give these great figures their rightful place in our history that some of his monumental statues, such as baseball player Tony Gwynn or Michael Jordan, were displayed in the center of the avenue in 2012. , as part of an exhibition in a public space. A statue of Michael Jordan was also placed in front of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington.
Before becoming an artist, she was a model
Before devoting all her mind and time to her self-taught art, Niki de Saint Phalle briefly embarked on a modeling career. She started modeling at the age of 17 when she met a man at a ball who offered to become a model. An artist who poses for major magazines like fashion, Life and He.
The artist, who got married at the age of 18, became a mother at the age of 21. Her modeling career was interrupted a year later when she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where she was prescribed electroshock therapy. “Severe nervous breakdown”. Niki de Saint Phalle, fighting against this nightmare in his cold and colorless room, decided to start a full art career.
In this painful chapter, he presented his first graphic works, “Intricate designs with countless curved lines”In 2014, he reported on the Grand Palais during a retrospective. “I started painting with crazy people… There I discovered the dark universe of madness and its treatment, I learned to translate my feelings, fears, violence, hope and joy into paintings. […] Painting calmed the chaos that was stirring my soul and gave my life an organic structure that I had control over. It was a way to tame the dragons that always arose in my work.”she admitted when she got out of the hospital.