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When Mental Breakdown Makes You An Artist: Niki De Saint Phalle

Niki de Saint Phalle, Shooting Picture, 1961, Tate Modern

20th century

When Mental Breakdown Makes You An Artist: Niki De Saint Phalle

Many artists are known to struggle with depression or mental disorders (sometimes I feel that truly happy people won’t ever make great art…). Sometimes art aggravates the state, sometimes it helps to recover. In the case of Niki de Saint Phalle, a French-American artist and the only woman within the Nouveau Réalisme group including Arman, Christo, Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, and Jacques de la Villeglé, art was a cure.

The rebellion

Niki de Saint Phalle with her sculptures Nanas. Photo by Kurt Wyss, 1985

Niki de Saint Phalle with her sculptures Nanas. Photo by Kurt Wyss, 1985

She was born in France to a French father and American mother. Her family used to be wealthy but they lost everything in the stock market crash that began in 1929, a year before Niki was born. She spent most of her childhood in New York where she became a model for Vogue and Life. She was a rebellious soul, for example she painted the fig leaves of her convent school’s classical sculptures red, and at 18, she eloped with childhood friend Harry Mathews.

The breakdown

Niki de Saint Phalle making one of her bas-reliefs, 1963. Photo: Dennis Hopper

Niki de Saint Phalle making one of her bas-reliefs, 1963. Photo: Dennis Hopper


While Harry studied music at Harvard, Niki began studying acting. But two years after having her first child, she had a serious mental breakdown and needed to be hospitalized. It was in the hospital that she discovered that painting helped her recover. She gave up acting, moved to Mallorca with her family and kept on painting in her unique self-taught style. In Spain, she discovered Antonio Gaudí who was her first great inspiration. She began to use diverse materials and found objects as essential elements in her art.

Shooting Paintings

Niki de Sainte Phalle, Shooting Picture 1961, Tate Modern, London

Niki de Sainte Phalle, Shooting Picture 1961, Tate Modern, London

Then, Niki and Harry returned to Paris where she met Jean Tinguely, who would become her future artistic collaborator (and after Niki had separated with her husband, they moved in together, sharing the same studio and living in an artists’ colony), and where she studied art of Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Rousseau, as well as the work of contemporary artists like Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Rauschenberg (whom she later befriended).

You are a Nana

Niki de Saint Phalle, Hon (She), 1966, Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Hon (She), 1966, Moderna Museet, Stockholm.


In 1961, Niki had her first solo exhibition in Paris. She showed works produced by shooting concealed paint containers with pistol, rifle, or cannon fire, the so-called “shooting paintings” (Tirs). As Niki and Tinguely moved to an old country inn outside of Paris at the end of 1963, she began making a new type of works: figurative reliefs of women, brides, dragons, and monsters. In 1965, Niki made her first sculptures for which she became most famous, the Nanas, with “nana” meaning in French “dame” or “chick.”

They were archetypal female figures, the updated versions of “Everywoman” A year later, Niki came up with Hon (Swedish for “she”), as she worked for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Hon would be a building-size reclining Nana with an interior environment that one could enter from between her legs…

Image by © Norman Parkinson/Corbis


Since the 1960s until her death in 2002, Niki explored the themes of femininity in her colourful and fantastical works. She devoted herself to large-scale projects, such as Tarot Garden in Tuscany, Italy, which houses multiple house-size sculptures inspired by the Tarot cards.

One of the critics said about her: “The French-born, American-raised artist is one of the most significant female and feminist artists of the 20th century, and one of the few to receive recognition in the male-dominated art world during her lifetime”.

Find out more:


Niki de Saint Phalle and the Nana Statues

 


Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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