I′m condemned to show everything: the disarming simplicity of Niki Da Saint Phalle
“It was the art that stopped her from going mad. It was that crisis that made it possible for her to become an artist. She said that otherwise she would have become a terrorist.”
Bloum Cardenas, Niki’s granddaughter
“Technique is nothing. Dreams are everything”.
Jean Tinguely, Niki’s lover and mentor
"Niki has proven that she is able to use any situation to create something. Maybe that's the definition of an artist who is able to make something out of any situation."
Born in France and formed by the New York party scene, Catherine Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle (or just Niki, if you like) is one of the most impressive artists of our time.
Combining themes of passion, solace, and wisdom with a sense of overwhelming danger that permeated some of her disturbing works, an unrelenting desire to confront the evils brought on by my patriarchy, the church, and criminals, and an astute social commentary, Niki de Saint Phalle made a staggering contribution to the art world, which she admitted that she was only alive because of. And it was art that ultimately killed her. If you ever wanted to hear the story that literally has everything - here it is.
Niki was born into a wealthy family and as a child played in a formidable family nest, subject to endless stories of her family's grandiose adventures, which (obviously to those around her at the time) were always started and ended by the men of the family.
Women were endlessly oppressed and, interestingly, having sufficiently grown up, Niki, as someone who came from a position of immense power and wealth, decided to abandon the comfort of the 1% and embark on a kind of nomadic adventure, joining all kinds of social groups of every sort of position in society, including the destitute.
Raised in circumstances that can only be described as grandiose and spectacular, Niki decides to explore the real world after emerging from the cocoon in which she grew up. And we all know what happens when cocoons are emerged out of.
When danger strikes, Niki has an up-close experience with an abuser who happens to be the most trusted and admired person she knows: her father. A victim of incest, she flees her home but carries the resentment with her into later life, eventually forcing her into a clinic after a nervous breakdown due to family problems.
In the hospital, Niki discovers art, which she later paints to be fundamental to the rest of her life. She recovers quickly, aided by her new-found passion.
Since then, Niki has chance or virtually regular encounters with the men in her life, but admits she has only the one to whom she is engaged and who occupies her whole heart and soul: her work, with which she creates masterpieces that enable her to breathe and get up in the morning and carry her legacy long after her death.
Since, the air of inexplicable tenderness goes wherever she goes, bringing her joy, success, and very (very) friendly new acquaintances. Can we attribute that to her Frenchness or art being the center of her life? A question to contemplate at Kunsthaus Zurich.
Niki started painting with no skills at all, steadfastly refusing to learn art like some of our other heroes who thought art impossible without at least two college degrees, and persevered with incredible dedication until she became a world-renowned and wildly successful artist. Eventually she learns the techniques, but only after proving to herself and others that impossible is nothing.
Niki's work is full of the beauty and the horror of life: among the themes of heroism, female liberation (correct, we’re talking about Nanas), wisdom, and warmth, there are images here and there of patriarchal macro-brutality (as in the figure of the Emperor), atrocities committed by the Church, and the general sense of horror at what humans are capable of.
Niki's rebellion against the system is evident in some of the more notable projects, such as "Brides," which are a protest against blind obedience to tradition. The other side of this repugnant rejection of the enslavement of humanity in meaningless rituals (such as marriage) is a strong and poignant desire to live to the full, which is to be taken to mean “eccentric, emotional, dark and brutal, humorous, enigmatic and often challenging”.
Strength in weakness
Niki's work is imbued with an intuitive tenderness that we SEEM TO feel in everything French. There is a disarming honesty in all of her work. Some of the statues are so candid that they would be considered honestly inappropriate in certain circles, especially in their time. "I am condemned to show everything" is the ultimate power drawn from weakness.
Paradoxically, Niki's work, which some believe founded feminism as a movement and which is undoubtedly influential, has immense power, and this power comes from not wanting any power at all. Her work is a perfect illustration of the old Italian saying "a woman's strength lies in her weakness."
In her revealing career, seemingly spanning several eras, there are endless motifs in Niki's work that undoubtedly testify to her greatness as an artist, about which one could write endless volumes. But we would like to choose one.
There is something so delicately tender about Niki's work, a devotion to art so unwavering and pure that nothing can stand in its way, and no one can resist being immediately captivated by it. We only wish there were infinitely more of this disarmament in our lives.