“Niki… ? Nanas… ? Who?” I asked my editor at a loss when I was hired for this story. “Niki de Saint Phalle’s name may not sound familiar to you now, but I’m sure you do,” she said. “She’s the one who created these colorful sculptures of tall, curvy women.”
And indeed, I knew these figures, which have been printed in magazines and sold in museum shops for decades: the colorful, happy, often pregnant-looking female figures with plump breasts, big buttocks and small heads.
For me they stand for one thing above all: a woman’s body is a work of art, especially when it doesn’t conform to the usual, often patriarchal notions of form and function.
The figures known as “Nanas” are the trademark of the late French-American artist, sculptor and visionary Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002). The name is no coincidence. In French, cheeky young women are called nanas.
I recently had the opportunity to see some sculptures up close at the Schirn in Frankfurt. Highlights from her extensive work are currently on display there. A large poster depicting a Nana enthusiastically throwing her hands in the air hangs at the entrance to the museum. This cheerful display is a pleasant counterbalance to the cloudy and rainy February morning.
Upon entering the exhibition hall, visitors are greeted by an abundance of colors. Decorated in a striking gradient of vibrant fuchsia, royal purple and intense cobalt, the walls provide the perfect backdrop for the works of de Saint Phalle.
As an autodidact in art
Catherine Marie-Agnès Comtesse Fal was born in France in 1930 to an American mother and a French father en Saint phalle was a multi-talent who let off steam equally in painting, sculpture, film and performance art.
Self-taught, having previously studied theater, de Saint Phalle turned to painting after being hospitalized in 1953 for a nervous breakdown. After her release, she decided to pursue art more extensively. She once said: “Painting calmed the chaos that stirred my soul and gave my life an organic structure.”
In her 1993 memoir, Mon Secret, de Saint Phalle revealed that she was sexually abused by her father as a child. This shed new light on her work, particularly her 1973 feature film ‘Daddy’, in which a father figure is killed, and also her nanas, which are seen as symbols of free spirit and breaking with societal conventions.
“Men seem to enjoy much more freedom in their roles, and I’ve striven to gain that freedom for myself, too,” she once wrote.
The woman who took pictures
Niki de Saint Phalle was also a pioneer of performance art. In the 1960s she provoked with her so-called “shooting pictures”. To put it in today’s words: It went viral back then – without any social media.
In front of an audience, she fired rifles or pistols at bags of paint embedded in white plaster reliefs, triggering explosions of color that completed her works. She often invited her audience, which included fellow artists, to take the first shot.
De Saint Phalle, who has also modeled and graced the covers of Life, Elle, and Vogue magazines, often wore a white jumpsuit for her performances. One of these overalls can be seen in the Frankfurt exhibition together with her “bleeding” artworks.
With her “Schießbilder” de Saint Phalle pushed the boundaries in a male-dominated art scene and became one of the most important artists of her generation.
“She uncompromisingly disregarded the rigid social conventions of her time and the prevailing rules of the art world. Her artistic urge to create was fed by anger against a society permeated by patriarchal structures, which she declared war on with her open-hearted, provocative work,” explained Katharina Dohm, curator of the Frankfurt exhibition, in a press conference.
Art with discarded objects
Niki de Saint Phalle also created assemblages and landscapes from used everyday objects. She created works of art from broken dishes, razor blades, gloves or plastic objects. Inspired by contemporary art, she experimented with different techniques, such as in her work “Nightscape” (1959). To do this, she used a dripping technique invented by the American expressionist Jackson Pollock and combined it with the old Moorish mosaic technique of the famous Catalan architect Antoni Gaudì.
In addition, she increasingly dealt with female identity in her works.
Although she was not actively involved in the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, her artworks often question the social role of women as wives, mothers and sexual objects.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s contribution to the women’s movement
Inspired by her close friend Clarice Rivers, who was then pregnant, she presented her first Nana series in Paris in 1965, describing her larger-than-life figures as a “jubilant celebration of women”.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nanas show feminine strength and stand for a liberated matriarchy. Originally made of fabric, yarn and papier-mâché, polyester was later used as a material strong enough to display the larger-than-life figures in public places around the world.
However, she was doing herself no favours, as inhaling polyester dust and other noxious fumes released while working on the sculptures led to de Saint Phalle suffering from long-term lung problems and eventually to his death from respiratory failure in 2002.
Among her many different nanas, “Hon/Elle” could be called the “mother of all nanas”. De Saint Phalle created it in 1966 in collaboration with the Finnish painter Per Olof Ultvedt and her longtime partner and fellow artist Jean Tinguely for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. A smaller model of the lying, pregnant Nana – visitors could enter a milk bar and a cinema through her vagina – can be seen in the exhibition in Frankfurt.
“The Nanas say to women: ‘My female body is strong… There is no need to be ashamed of it, no need to hide,'” explains the curator.
Everyone should be able to live freely
Niki de Saint Phalle also dealt with socio-political issues in her art: Her works “AIDS, You Can’t Catch it Holding Hands (1986)”, “Guns (2001)” and “Global Warming” (2001) deal with stigma, gun violence and climate change.
With the lithograph “Global Warming” the artist criticized the former US President George W. Bush for his environmental policy
“With her art, she opened a public dialogue about socially relevant issues that still concern us today,” says curator Kathrina Dohm. “We’re still dealing with equality between men and women. We deal with issues in society like body positivity or body shaming. Certain groups in our society are still stigmatized. Their goal was for everyone to live freely can.”
The “Niki de Saint Phalle” exhibition runs until May 21, 2023 at the Schirn in Frankfurt.
This article has been adapted from English.