Revolver in one hand, paintbrush in the other, Niki de Saint Phalle was a woman who believed that art is a means to an end. ‘On a psychological level I have all that it takes to be a terrorist,’ she once said, ‘but instead I decided to use guns for good, for art.’
De Saint Phalle has tried it all: from huge Gaudi-style papier mâché sculptures to video, and from sketching to shooting at paint-filled bags against a canvas. Working from the ’50s through to the ’90s, her unique artistic vision touches upon outsider art, new realism and feminism.
Problems of masochism and the female condition are the crux of this exhibition, emphasising how de Saint Phalle’s furious passion for creation matches her disgust at Western male patriarchy. She refuses to conform to the role of submissive woman and has a life story that puts her in an optimal position to discuss the subject. Brought up between Paris and New York, the ex-Vogue model suffered rape, incest, difficult motherhood and an angry divorce. Brave and warrior-like, she lays out her life experience in her work, emphasising fury, frustration and rage at communism, capitalism and society’s gender inequality.
De Saint Phalle’s art has too often been taken at face value, stripped of its loaded politico-social commentary. Fortunately however, the Grand Palais looks beyond her bright and curvy ‘Nana’ sculptures to reveal the dark backbone of her work. The challenging themes of pregnancy, birth, failed love, incest, violence and revenge take centre stage.
De Saint Phalle’s art inspires a blend of admiration and discomfort. Visit the exhibition to take a look at the long list of social problems on her hit list and see how far we’ve come – or if anything has changed at all.