Exhibition: Niki de Saint Phalle

The Niki de Saint Phalle exhibition at the Grand Palais is a joy, a pleasure, a celebration.

Before this exhibition, I only knew Saint Phalle as the artist behind the Stravinsky Fountain by the Centre Pompidou, and other such colorful creations. I was not expecting to be blown away (as I was) by the force of her artworks’ color, form and joie de vivre.

“I decided at a very early age to be a heroine. The main thing was that it was difficult, great, exciting!” -Saint Phalle

Niki de Saint Phalle was born into a Franco-American family and grew up in New York upper class society. She was a self-taught artist, and this chronological exhibition starts off with her rejection of many of the values with which she was raised. Enormous (and quite frightening) brides covered with found materials gaze down at you from the second room. 

And then come the nanas: powerful, colorful, joyous expressions of femininity and equal rights. They started with a drawing Saint Phalle did of a pregnant friend and kind of exploded.

Next, you turn a corner, and all of a sudden you have entered the most wonderful room. Dancing nanas rotate on a circular stand, causing the mosaic glass that covers them to send moving light throughout the room, like curvy disco balls.

The exhibition takes you from this joyful segment to a darker period in the artist’s oeuvre. In the section “Devouring Mother, Predator Father”, isolated spaces present globular women in scenes of muted violence. Saint Phalle made an experimental film with these forms that was both fictional and semi-autobiographical, with dark elements of her childhood.

I couldn’t help but stare at these fantastical, lumpy women and ask myself just how Saint Phalle came up with them. They were so wonderful (if terrifying). 

An important part of Saint Phalle’s career was her Rifle Art, where she shot objects and colored bags to transform them. It was a mix of performance art, sculpture, painting and ritual. This section of the exhibition was unsettling to me, with the sound of shooting and a video of the artist creating these artworks.

Some quotes by the artistic on this subject:

"Ritual enabled me to die by my own hand and to let myself be reborn."

"By shooting at myself, I was shooting at society and its injustices. By shooting at my own violence, I was shooting at the violence of the times."

"It is a voodoo piece. An exorcism. I was involved with someone who I knew wasn’t good for me. My way out of this relationship: I stole a shirt from him. I glued it on a panel. I put a target for the head and I killed him in a ritualistic way, throwing darts at his head. That healed me quite quickly. I strongly believe in the importance of rituals."

The following room presents the Dream of Diana, a mediation on dreams and the subconscious, I was totally inspired. The forms and colors were so joyous (yet sinister) and free. I would love to be able to imagine such truthful creations.

The exhibition ends with an explosion of color and reflections. I was enthralled (my fiancé doesn't call me 'magpie' for nothing). Saint Phalle created numerous public architectural projects to make joyful art accessible to all.

My love for Saint Phalle can be summed up in the panel for the artwork "Grand Obélisque" from 1989:

"In the 1980s, Saint Phalle created a series of phallic sculptures decorated in joyful painted patterns or sparkling mosaics. These obelisks are large colored condoms, an encouragement for everyone to use them to protect themselves against AIDS. The frightening spector of the epidemic is thus overthrown, the artist choosing to vanquish it with art and color."

This exhibition is exquisitely presented, with a solid discourse, accessible and interesting wall texts, plenty of video interviews of Saint Phalle at different ages, and beautiful and playful scenography.

If you haven’t seen this exhibition yet, go now. If you have, go again.

What a life-affirming joy!

Niki de Saint Phalle at the Grand Palais (until February 2, 2015)

Address3 avenue du Général Eisenhower, 75008 Paris  ∣  MétroFranklin-D.-Roosevelt (lines 1 & 9) or Champs-Elysées-Clemenceau (lines 1 & 13) ∣ Opening hoursWednesday to Monday from 10am to 10pm, open until 8pm on Sunday and Monday