Niki de Saint Phalle’s Rifle Art Storms the Grand Palais

The artist would take metaphorical aim at things that enraged her most.

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Niki de Saint Phalle aiming; colored Film-Still of "Daddy" (1972). © Peter Whitehead.
Photo: Courtesy of the Grand Palais.
Saint Sébastien/Portrait of my lover (1960-1961). © 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved.
Photo: Laurent Condominas.
Skull (méditation room) (1990) © 2014 Niki. Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved / Photo : Michael Herling
Dolorès, circa 1968-1995. © 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved. Photo courtesy of the Grand Palais
Niki as a young model.
Les Trois Graces, 1995 - 2003. © 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved / Photo : Philippe Cousin
Elisabeth (1965).
Pink Nude in Landscape (1959).
Leaping Nana (1970) © 2014 Niki. Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved. Photo courtesy of the Grand Palais
La Toilette 1978. © Niki Charitable Foundation / ADAGP, Paris 2014 / photo : MAMAC / Muriel Anssens
Le Reve de Diane (1970) © 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved.
Photo: Laurent Condominas.
Cat Head Totem, 2000. © NCAF / Thomas Marlow. Photographed at the exhibition «Niki in the Garden» at Garfield Park Conservatory, 2007
Vive l’amour (1990) © 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved.
Photo : Ed Kessler.

The Grand Palais in Paris delivers a colorful and mythological world through the lens of avant-garde French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle. And it kind of outdoes itself. The retrospective of the self-proclaimed heroine, who died in 2002, entices with children’s toys, amorphous figurines, bullet holes, and skulls.

Armed with a militant feminist attitude and ferocious creativity, Saint Phalle engaged in a type of artistic exhibitionism. Themes of childhood, which give Saint Phalle’s work its pulse, are evoked in a display of tainted stuffed animals, sculptures in aggressive neon colors, and photographic imagery, evidence of her life-long struggle with her father (like the portrait of herself aiming a gun, entitled Daddy).

The courtyard at the entrance boasts a fountain out of which emerges a multi-headed snake, a surrealist teaser of what awaits inside. Sexually abused by her father, Saint Phalle’s most violent works—like the broken toys on wooden plaques—open the show and reflect this difficult childhood. “Painting calmed the chaos that shook my soul,” Saint Phalle once wrote. “It was a way to tame these dragons that have appeared throughout my work.” The graphic violence in these works is echoed in the Jackson Pollock-esque splattered paintings she would undertake in the late 1950’s. Inspired by Pollock, De Kooning and Kline, the self-taught artist would soon find her raison d’etre: an unbridled female role model. Of note in this exhibition is the physical juxtaposition between female corpses, such as the morbid Brides (Les Mariées), and the black-and-white video imagery of the young and beautiful artist in her studio.

The radical representation of women in Saint Phalle’s subsequent works, whether brides, prostitutes, witches, or goddesses, led to the emergence of her most famous works: her plump Nana sculptures. Rounded symbols of fertility on the one hand and fierce manifestations of female power on the other, these paper maché and wool sculptures steal the show. Her models take center stage in the most impressive room of the exhibit, an enchanting and surreal space housing three twirling Nana’s (Les Trois Graces). Accompanied by an overhead piano concerto, the three mosaic giants spin as gracefully as ballerinas. While they are abstract, romantic, and absorbing, according to a video recording of the artist, these gargantuan figures are meant to be abrasive and imposing in size to overpower men.

Saint Phalle also coveted performance art, typified in her “shooting pictures,” for which she filled Polythene bags of paint and encased them in layers of plaster, then shot at them or invited spectators to shoot themselves. Her rifle art is unapologetic and raw. While shooting, the iconoclast would take metaphorical aim at those things that enraged her the most: hunger, religious extremism, AIDS, her father, herself. It is a painfully self-aware exorcism of injustice captured on dripping, punctured canvases.

Saint Phalle’s Gaudí-inspired mirrored garden sculptures end the exhibition. This fantastical public art ranges from totem poles inspired by Native American culture to prescient Damien Hirst-like skulls.

The exhibit of over 200 works runs through February 2nd after which it will move to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. In light of the recent attack on Charlie Hebdo, the museum has taken on added security measures. “Following recent events, the museum has enforced security,” Pauline Volpe, press attaché at the Grand Palais, told artnet News. “We have increased surveillance and entry checkpoints, and barred luggage or bag storage in the lockers.”

While initially, the Grand Palais planned to open its doors overnight on Saturday January 31st for La Nuit Niki, that event has been canceled.

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