ENCOUNTERING NIKI DE SAINT PHALLE: 10. GREAT THINGS WE DIDN’T KNOW

Every commuter in Switzerland knows “L’ange protecteur”, Niki de Saint Phalle’s angel sculpture at Zurich main train station, yet there is so much more about the legacy of the French American artist that many people ought to find out. 

An art talk on behalf of the currently running Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life exhibition at MoMA PS1, sheds new light on the work, oeuvre and life of a female artist way ahead of her time. Organised by La Prairie, lead patron of this exhibition, the panel of the talk included Greg Prodromides – Global Chief Marketing Officer of La Prairie and Ruba Katrib, curator of the exhibition, while it was moderated by Irene Kim, Regional Head of VIP Relations, Americas of Art Basel. The talk was divided into following important topics: being a female artist in a male dominated art world, the role of colour and the legacy and influence on today’s world. 

Through their lead patronage of the exhibition, La Prairie aims to honour Niki de Saint Phalle’s oeuvre and audacious feminist spirit as well as perpetuate her legacy for present and future generations.

Niki de Saint Phalle. Tarot Garden, Garavicchio, Italy. © 2021 FONDAZIONE IL GIARDINO DEI TAROCCHI. Photo: Peter Granser.

10. New Findings on this great female artist:

Independent

Niki de Saint Phalle was an untrained woman artist who aimed to stay independent and not follow the norms of the avant-garde art and academic art circles of the time. She was the only female in the male dominated group of Nouveau Realisme, and while being influenced by the work of her male counterparts, she equally had an impact on the artists she was connected to. Furthermore, her work was rather untypical of that which was highly regarded by traditional art circles at the time. This meant that she had to work even harder to face critics and challenges to the seriousness of her practice but also raise the funds to finance her projects: by doing so, she pushed the boundaries of what a female artist can do.

Niki de Saint Phalle with Ricardo Menon, surrounded by models of monumental projects, Malibu, California, 1979. Photo: Ronnie Kaufman.

More than a sculptor 

Niki de Saint Phalle was an architect who also pioneered and shed light on many social causes through her artworks and life. Her shooting paintings, entering mass media, were at the time of creation scandalous and provocative. When she switched to the creation of her “Nanas”, her well-known figures of feminine form and aesthetics, she reached women, children and audiences outside of traditional art circles. These at first, frivolous appearing works, provided something entirely different to her shooting paintings but were equally radical and provocative at the time. 

Niki de Saint Phalle working on the set for The Travelling Companion at her studio near Milly-la-Forêt. 1977. © 2021 Niki Charitable Art Foundation

Experimental

Niki de Saint Phalle’s work is very experimental, “breaking out of the boundaries” of traditional art making. Examples are her architecture, parks, playgrounds, editions, books, films, TV series, and her interdisciplinary approach in art making. She left a lasting legacy of what art is and furthered the scope of the definition of art.

In the public sphere

Niki de Saint Phalle’s works are produced for and within the public sphere, presenting art outside of the gallery and museum space. At the time, this approach was very audacious. A key element was sociability and interaction: she invited guests to her shooting performances and often incorporated elements of spectators or random people in her works. A good example are the workers which helped build the Tarot garden, her biggest work.

Feminism and women empowerment

Two core phases in Niki’s career are feminist rage (shooting paintings) and feminist celebration (through sculptures of female bodies, “Nanas”). The first phase described as “creation through destruction,” includes the layering of a thick coat of plaster over bags of paint, which Niki, or other participants, then shot with a .22-caliber rifle. Holes and spills of colour tainted the surfaces and created unique paintings or “happenings”. The performance of the shooting can be seen as a sign of rebellion and opposition to patriarchal society. 

Niki de Saint Phalle. Tir neuf trous—Edition MAT. 1964. Paint in plastic bags, embedded in plaster on wood. 27 15/16 × 20 7/8″ (71 × 53.1 cm). Photo: NCAF Archives. © 2021 Niki Charitable Art Foundation

The second phase includes the creation of “Nanas”. In these large, curvy, colourful women sculptures that dramatised their spiritual independence, Niki recognises her own self. With their creation she aims to contribute to the Women’s Liberation Movement. Both have been for great examples of a forward-thinking works of feminism art. 

Visitors entering Hon. 1966. © Hans Hammarskiöld Heritage. Photo: Hans Hammarskiöld

The role of colour

A crucial element in both her core phases is also the use of colour. In her shooting paintings colour was released randomly on the canvases and other backgrounds. In the creation of “Nanas”, Niki uses these bright primary and secondary colours of liquid polyester paint to make them stand out. This over-decorative aspect she was using made these figures especially loud, attractive and possibly repulsive to some. By using these vibrant colours she was making “counter monuments”, responding to the public architectural and monumental sculpture drabness. at the time. Colour in her work was also used to evoke and provoke, and communicate emotions such joy, freedom and love.


Own perfume line

In 1982, the artist started her own perfume line, from the development of the scent, over to the design of the bottle, which she crafted as a sculpture with her well-known snakes. It was marketed as an object which anyone could purchase. The perfume, as an art work and bottle as a sculpture, was quite successful. Never seen before, was also the creation of sculptural and creative perfume bottles, a very innovative at the time.

Niki de Saint Phalle. Flaçon de parfum. 1982. © 2021 Niki Charitable Art Foundation

Own patron

Niki de Saint Phalle did not want to rely on finances and patrons to complete her monumental works. Her own determination and power shaped her artistic endeavours: the sales of her own perfume line, helped her become her own patron, as one third of the costly construction of the massive Tarot garden project was financed by it.

Art Activist

Not only did Niki relate to feminist and women empowerment topics throughout her works, but she also addressed the civil rights movement and racist violence during the 1960s. During the ’80s, she continued that spirit with a book about AIDS that she helped illustrate and co-write.

Niki Saint Phalle: A “godmother” to La Prairie

Cobalt blue, a colour which appears in many of her works, including the “Nanas”, but also several fairy-tale and dream space works, was Niki’s favourite colour and became the iconic colour of the famous La Prairie Skin Caviar collection after a memorable encounter between the artist and the brand. Niki Saint Phalle was working on her perfume in a 5th avenue New York studio, shared by the La Prairie team at the time. During their encounter, the artist suggested using the cobalt blue colour for the development of the Skin Caviar collection, a fantastic fit with La Prairie’s goal: a colour which would push the boundaries and be unconventional. But the connection with the artist goes much beyond. Indeed, the artist’s stance and personality have been an inspiration for the brand for many decades. Through the patronage of the MoMa Ps1 exhibition, La Prairie aims to celebrate the artist’s audacious and pioneering spirit and contributes to empowering female artists.  Since 2017, La Prairie has been a strong supporter of the world of art and culture through partnerships with important institutions such as Art Basel, Fondation Beyeler and MoMA PS1 and artistic collaborations with talented young female artists from across the world.

La Prairie Skin Caviar Collection

Final words…

For Andy meets Warhol, the talk provided a fresh perspective on the artist, which is far beyond her known works and should provide inspiration to living artists: in being brave, audacious, not following norms, critical, aware, outspoken, innovative, entrepreneurial and collaborating. Moreover, Andy meets Warhol hopes to be able to visit the exhibition at MoMA PS1 (runs until 6th September 2021) as well as the Tarot Garden in Tuscany in the near future.

Thanks for reading 

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