In 2015, outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Louise Bourgeois’ enormous Maman – a monumental, matriarchal representation of a spider – was joined by several of Niki de Saint Phalle’s leaping, joyous Nanas. A celebration of the museum’s staging of the first ever retrospective devoted to Niki – one of the most pioneering and significant artists of the 20th century – the exhibition painstakingly unpicked the extraordinary diversity of a career that is also testimony to the way in which art can be used to overcome the most horrific of life events. As powerful as the overbearing yet protective spider, Niki de Saint Phalle’s voluptuous female figures celebrated all that Louise Bourgeois also sought to highlight: harnessing female strength and maternal life forces drawn from mythology, both artists explored female archetypes as a means to question patriarchal values enshrined in western capitalism.
Both Niki de Saint Phalle and Louise Bourgeois had every reason to take patriarchy to task. As a child Louise Bourgeois had been disturbed by strained family relations and the errant behaviour of her father within the family home, which also served as the base for their textile business. French by birth, Niki de Saint Phalle moved to New York from her aristocratic home in France at a very young age due to her wealthy, upper-class banking family experiencing financial difficulties in the 1930s. Life was not kind to her: when she was 11 years she was raped by her father. Equally, relations with her family were strained as she was unable to conform to the ideal of the pristine debutante against which girls of her background were measured. Home, therefore, for both artists had been far from the space of sanctuary and protection which society promised them it would be. Yet they would go on to explore maternal space throughout their artistic careers – challenging myths of domesticity whilst opening out the definition of home to one far more inclusive and less dependent on supporting Western values and the complicit relationship between patriarchy and Capitalism. Both, in very different ways, contested the easy equation of home with the comfortable model of the bourgeois family unit, transforming the idea of the family home into one far more fluid and flexible. Rooted in the body, these new architectonic structures that hovered between sculpture and architecture offered more possibilities than the houses that symbolically and structurally upheld a strict gendered division of labour that did not favour women.
Niki worked through her childhood trauma through performances and happenings in Paris in the 1960s as a member of the Nouveau-Realistes circle that enjoyed close overlap with American Pop Art and Neo-Dad. During this time, Niki created collages out of discarded toys, fabrics and metal tools; deliberately painting these sculptures white, she used them to critique a white culture of which she was inevitably part but also felt deeply hostile towards. Once she had seemingly exorcised herself of the trauma of sexual abuse as far as she could, Niki moved on to a happier phase in her life and began to work on the ‘Nanas’ – enormous sculptures of primordial goddess-like figures that bounce and leap in the air as they celebrate the joy of their voluptuous, female form. In 1966, with the help of her adored partner, the sculptor Jean Tinguely, she produced the largest and most significant of these figures. Hon (She) was installed in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm and able to house hundreds of visitors as they entered her protean, protective body from a circular opening between her bent legs. The visitors were encouraged to tour and explore Hon’s interior as it twisted and turned, secreting them safely in her concave and convex recesses.
The theme of the maternal body as a site of solace and nurture was explored further in Niki de Saint Phalle’s public sculpture park in Tuscany. The Tarot Garden would have been impossible without the support of her wealthy and generous friends, the Agnelli family (who had founded the Fiat industry in Turin) or the practical assistance of her creative and romantic partner, Tinguely, who helped her create the massive metal exoskeletons of the sculptures before the plastic surface layers were applied. During the creation of the Tarot Garden, Niki lived in the largest and most important figure, a vast sphinx-like female entitled The Empress. It was here, too, that she cared for the local workmen who were also assisting her in the park’s construction by providing them with tea and speaking to them in the Italian which she had bothered to learn on arrival in Italy.
Niki de Saint Phalle experienced the ultimate betrayal by her father during a time in her life when the domestic and familial should have represented safety. She was subsequently expelled by her boarding school due to her ‘difficult behaviour’ (she painted a Classical statue belonging to the school red) which they did not understand. She sought refuge in her art, using her matriarchal transformations of space through the use of the archetypal female form to bring comfort and happiness to anyone in need. In film footage from 1969 that captures Niki happily painting a floral design onto the rear of one of her Nanas, she smiles wryly. She seems to make a clarion call for change that must be understood in relation to the context of desire for social justice that was powerfully present in France and America at the time: ‘black power and women power – they get together and take over everything – that’s the solution – a new world of joy’. Niki was actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement for the whole of her life and she also supported AIDS charities. She strongly associated Afro-American culture and identity with positivity and optimism: she sought to celebrate the black women who had looked after her as a child and was grateful for the ways in which they had shown her more love and care than her own family had done.
As critical of whiteness as she was attracted to cultures beyond the one which had almost destroyed her, Niki de Saint Phalle was drawn to difference because she had experienced the most brutal form of estrangement of all. In order to heal, she had to reach outside of herself and the bourgeois family unit that was propped up by western society’s idealisation of the domestic realm. It was imperative that she reconnect with her interior to become whole again – to return home.
Dr Penelope Wickson, Head of History of Art
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