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Portrait: Niki de Saint Phalle or the art of exorcizing

Clitti de Saint-Phalle

      Who has already seen the Nanas, these colorful women with generous shapes, found in the Stravinsky fountain at the Center Pompidou in Paris? Many know them, but few people know the name of the artist who modeled them. This is Niki de Saint Phalle, an artist who has found in art a way to rebuild herself and communicate with the world.

Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) is a Franco-American visual artist who is classified in the New Realism movement. She can also be compared to Art Brut because she is self-taught and her first contact with art occurs during an episode of madness.

This madness was fed by great sexist violence that took place in her youth and that she will express in her works: the girl-boy inequality she experiences during her childhood, and especially the rape of her father at 11 years old. (often represented in his works by snakes).

In 1953, then settled in France, married and mother of two children, she suffered a serious nervous breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. During this stay, she felt a strong need to paint and it was through this activity that she cured her madness. She thus understands that she has a vital relationship with art and that she must devote her life to it. She then left her role as a housewife in the south to find a space of her own in Paris and dedicate herself fully to art. There, she met and then married Jean Tinguely, with whom she collaborated on several occasions. For a long time she lived in the artistic shadow of Tinguely. Until the 2000s, art critics still attributed  some of his works to this one.

Niki de Saint Phalle was a visual artist. She dabbled in everything: painting, collage, compositions based on plaster and objects from the consumer society, sculpture. So many ways to express your anger and the violence of the world. With the performance Tirs (1960), which consisted of shooting rifles (or having others shoot) at plaster assemblies to explode pockets of paint, she first sought to free herself from the relationship with her first husband. The performance goes around the world and offers him a space of expression such that it reshapes it at will and extends the target: politics, religion, patriarchy, history, etc. Everything goes there. Eventually, she develops an addiction to this performance that she can no longer bear, and starts looking for something else.

She then gives birth to the "Nanas", which become omnipresent in her work. The Nanas are first of all compositions: imposing women, very powerful, sometimes soiled or macabre, covered with plastic dolls, sometimes in the process of giving birth. Over the course of his tests, the Nanas evolve and end up stabilizing in matter. Resin and polyester are born from sculptures of Nanas completely emancipated: huge, with generous shapes, with clothes and colored skins, joyful and free to move. For a long time, these works were misunderstood: they frightened the public and aroused controversy.

The latest versions of the Nanas foreshadow a universe that the artist seeks to transmit to the world (especially to children) in his last great work: the Tarot garden (Tuscany) inspired by Gaudi's Park Güell (Barcelona) and divinatory Tarot cards from Marseille. She imagines a garden filled with paths, huge sculptures, mosaics, colors and fountains.

To carry out this vast project (estimated at 4 million euros) and guarantee her artistic independence, she decided to finance herself by selling products derived from her works. For thirteen years until the opening of the garden, she chose for her home the sculpture of the Empress (arcana III of the Marseille tarot) and dedicated that of Temperance (arcana XIV) to her husband Jean Tinguely. , disappeared in 1991.

In 1998, then aged 64, she made her #meetoo. In the book The Secret illustrated by her care, she frees her speech and denounces the rape committed by her father.  

In 2002, the art that was her life energy ended up getting the better of her. She succumbed to chronic respiratory failure linked to polyester dust, the material she used for her sculptures.

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