By Shawna Wangseng, Graduate Student in Parinting

I chose to write this blog entry on the same topic I am working on for my art history research paper because this person is a highly influential artist that is not as well known as some of her contemporaries. Even though her work has been considered important for many decades, and she has a paragraph reserved in the Nuevo Realiste chapter of art history, she often falls off the radar as a contemporary artist, at least as far as I know. I was first introduced to Niki de Saint Phalle’s work in “women in art history” class a year ago, and her name and work stuck with me. Her work is unmistakable, and has true authenticity. Niki de Saint Phalle worked in monumental, theme park size and scale for the last twenty years of her life. In the 1950’s, Niki saw Parc Güell by Gaudi in Barcelona which spawned the idea for The Tarot Garden. The Tarot Garden is a sculpture garden, made by Niki in Tuscany which depicts each of the 21 cards of the Tarot. The project broke ground in the late 1970’s and Niki was still living on site, working on the project until her death in 2002. The project embodied her philosophy about art.  For her, the only life worth living was as an artist and there she was free to focus completely on creation. Soon after the project began, she made her home in the first completed sculpture, in the body of the Sphinx. With the help of her lifelong partner Jean Tinguely and a small army of Italian artisans, they covered every square inch of the elaborate garden with tile made from reflective glass, brightly colored ceramic tile, and concrete covered armature.

This style became her signature, during the 80’s and 90’s and she was also creating many public sculptures in gardens and outdoor art spaces that can be seen worldwide. All of these pieces are sculptural and painted in primary color with paint or tiles. She was interested in creating art as installations that were functional playgrounds for children as well. The work made in the final decades of her life is joyous and celebratory of the peace she found from her artistic pursuits. The work is also highly spiritual, dealing with dream world imagery and anthropomorphic characters from her imagination. She came a long way psychologically in her artistic career, from a dark beginning in the mid-1950’s. Married with children, she suffered a nervous breakdown at the age of twenty-one from unresolved family crisis experienced in her childhood, and the feeling of suffocation from the domestic life. She spent two years in a mental institution where she left her mental illness for her life as an artist. The therapists suggested that she try drawing as part of her recovery, and with no artistic training she began making the imagery she would work with for the rest of her life. Niki soon divorced and abandoned her young family to fully pursue art, which was unheard of for a woman at this time.

In the early 1960’s Niki met Jean Tinguely who was also an artist. They soon became affiliated with the Nuevo Realistes, a group of European artists that were distinctively working with found objects, specifically the excess and garbage of so called industrial progress.  The Realism was the materiality of real world objects. Niki became known internationally for her dramatic display of protest. She filled her paintings full of paint, by attaching balloons full of wet paint and shot at them with a gun causing the paint to burst. She was shooting at patriarchal society, at war culture, at the Catholic Church, at the disparity between the power given to men and women, and very specifically poking fun at the self indulgence of Abstract Expressionism. At this time Abstract Expressionism dominated the realm of “good art” internationally, but there were those like Niki and the Nuevo Realistes that questioned the motives of all this personal expression in the male dominated group of Americans.

Niki continued for the next several years working in this style and created many different forms to shot at. She experimented with alters and landscapes covered in plastic toys and molds made depicting various political figures and her nightmarish vision of the world. The work turned fully three dimensional soon after and she began making large scale female figures that further shed light on her feminist values.  Some were in the form of women in wedding dress, completely covered in white paint with toy plastic babies covering the flesh of the body. The emergence of abstracted female form would be dominant in the rest of her life’s work.

For the rest of the 1960’s, Niki continued working on what she called “Nanas”, voluptuous sculptures of women made in very simplified forms in concrete and wire armature. They represented the maid that her family hired to take care of Niki as a child. She said this woman was the only person who showed her affection at a young age and became symbolic of a place of peace.  The next earth shaking work by Niki came in the form of a vaginal passageway. With the help of Jean Tinguely, they created her first monumental sculptural work in Stockholm, Sweden in 1966. The sculpture was named The Hon and was a reclining “Nana” in which viewers were invited into the vaginal passageway to find they could get a drink, relax and watch a film.

Niki de Saint Phalle’s art inspires me to push the conventions and definitions of art. She is also an example of someone on the brink of death and insanity who art saved, which for me is powerful. Perhaps her art is marginalized because of her gender or because she refused to chase the avant garde, but people will continue to be inspired by her passion for what she did.