10 Things to Know about Niki de Saint Phalle

Niki de Saint Phalle

“In the human heart there is an urge to destroy all. To destroy is to affirm one’s existence in the face of and against everything.”

Artsper introduces you to 10 things you should know about revolutionary artist, Niki Saint Phalle. 

1. Niki isn’t her real name

Niki Saint Phalle photographed by Horst P. Horst, Vogue, (1950)

Born in 1930, Niki de Saint Phalle was originally named Catherine Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle. Her mother, Jeanne-Jacqueline Harper, was American and her father, André Marie Fal, was French.

2. She carried a huge secret

Niki de Saint Phalle with her gun after having shot her painting

For most of her life, Saint Phalle carried a traumatising secret; she was raped by her father at just eleven years old. This horrific event destroyed all innocence harvested by the young Saint Phalle, causing her to become an unstable and disturbed young woman. Despite her life being tainted by this abysmal secret, she only revealed it her book, Mon Secret (My Secret), in 1994 at the age of sixty-four.

3. She was a beautiful woman

Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle on the cover of Vogue (1952)

In 1948, Niki de Saint Phalle was scouted by a modeling agency at the tender age of 17. “One day I was on my way to a dance, and I met a man who owned a modeling agency. He asked me if I’d like to become a model and I said yes.” She was heavily encouraged by painter, Hugh Weis, and would go on to pose for some of the biggest magazines in fashion. Until the age of 25, Saint Phalle braced the covers of Vogue, Elle and Life, eventually abandoning modeling to focus on her artistic career.

4. Art saved her from depression

Niki de Saint Phalle painting

After travelling between France and the United States, Saint Phalle suffered a severe nervous breakdown. In 1953, at just 22, she was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Nice where she received memory-altering electroshock treatment. Heavily encouraged by psychiatrists, Saint Phalle devoted herself to art: “I started painting in the madhouse, where I learnt how to translate emotions, fear, violence, hope and joy into painting. It was through creation that I discovered the sombre depths of depression, and how to overcome it.” It was during this tumultuous period that Saint Phalle launched her career as an artist; reconnecting with herself and overcoming her mental trauma through painting and sculpture.

5. Her Tire paintings made her famous

Niki de Saint Phalle, Tire, (1963)

Her first Les Tirs (the shots) exhibition took place in 1961, during which she fired shots of paint at her canvas, creating emotionally-charged explosions of colour. Saint Phalle’s Les Tirs series not only made her famous worldwide, but also provided her with a vital outlet for her inner demons. Shooting at her canvas was for Saint Phalle a way to shoot at her father, society and all the difficulties she had encountered during her life.

6. She was a committed activist

Niki Saint Phalle in 1985

Niki de Saint Phalle was committed to campaigning against racial segregation, social injustices, AIDS and, above all, women’s lack of rights. Later in her career, Saint Phalle discovered “a deeper, more feminine world.” As a result, her art became an ode to femininity, both in sensual and empowering ways; criticising conservative and traditional feminine values.

7. She is known for her Nanas

Niki de Saint Phalle, Bénédicte
Niki de Saint Phalle, Bénédicte, 1965

In 1965, she created her first Nanas, a slightly derogative French term for a young girl. These were large-scale sculptures inspired by the artist’s close friend, Clarice Rivers, who was pregnant at the time.

8. She created a film

Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle in her film Daddy (1972)

An artist of many talents, Saint Phalle was simultaneously a painter, sculptor and film director. Her film Daddy, was pieced together using autobiographical materials that heavily criticised her family. In the film, Saint Phalle is seen attacking a figure reminiscent of her father; providing a channel for the anger and trauma experienced in childhood. She collaborated with Peter Whitehead, an influential filmmaker known for his forward thinking and sexually liberating films.

9. She created her own sculpture park

Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle, Tarot Garden, Tuscany

Inspired by Gaudi’s Parc Güell in Barcelona, Niki de Saint Phalle created Le Jardin des Tarots in Capalbio, Tuscany. Her monumental structures were inspired by Tarot cards, resulting in huge ceramic, mosaic and glass figures. Some of the colourful sculptures are up to fifteen metres high and are habitable; providing Saint Phalle with her very own artist residency during the construction of the park.

10. She suffered from chronic respiratory failure

Niki de Saint-Phalle with one of her Nanas in 1967

For years, Saint Phalle worked with various materials that violated health and safety rules, inhaling incredibly toxic fumes on a daily basis. As a result, she suffered from inflamed lungs, which were gradually destroyed by the polyester dust produced from her sculptures. Her art simultaneously saved her and killed her; dying from respiratory failure in 2002, at the age of 71.

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