I was first introduced to Niki de Saint Phalle through my art teacher back in high school, who was a big fan of those “voluptuous feminine qualities” of the artist’s well-known Nana figures. She showed us a documentary about Saint Phalle’s life which, I believe, everyone found rather boring, too esoteric perhaps, or too feminist. I, however, was fascinated, not so much by the brightly coloured, round sculptures my teacher loved so much, but by those wicked collages, the so-called “Shooting Paintings”. Tir à volonté, she called the series from 1960-1963, “Fire at will”.
Niki in action
These works consisted of assembled things, seemingly random artifacts, that hid pockets filled with different-color pigments. The artist then would position them, so that they could be shot at with a rifle. The bullet would explode the pockets, causing the paint to splatter and run all over the collage. Saint Phalle would later describe her motivation as follows:
“In 1961 I shot at daddy, all men, small men, large men, important men, fat men, men, my brother, society, the Church, the convent, the school, my family, my mother, all men, daddy, myself, men. I shot because it was fun and gave me a great feeling. I shot because I was fascinated to see the painting bleed and die. I shot for the sake of this magical moment. It was a moment of scorpion-like truth. White purity. Victim. Ready! Take aim! Fire! Red, yellow, blue, the painting weeps, the painting is dead. I have killed the painting. It has been reborn. War without victims.” (Kempel, Ulrich: The Political Universe in the Art of Niki de Saint Phalle)
Not only is this the statement of a visionary artist, it is also the testimony of a woman, a woman who had to deal with and overcome immense restrictions and suffering at the hands of the men in her life, as well as her health, her faith…
Nike de Saint Phalle was born in 1930 close to Paris and grew up in New York. She got married at the tender age of eighteen and had two children. The marriage was a happy one as long as it lasted, according to her former husband Harry Mathews, but recurring illnesses turned her into an invalid for long periods of time. She suffered a nervous breakdown and underwent electroshock therapy, and she was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism in the late 1950’s, all of which affected her marriage as well as her artistic development. She and Mathews separated in the early 1960’s, around the same time as she started firing at canvases.
Harry Mathews in an interview from 2008:
“During all that period of illness I had to take over everything. I thus developed a habit of trying to run her life for her – something that, when she was healthy again, she didn’t need or like. The subsequent hostility towards men, and me, began expressing itself at this point, and it manifested itself in her work […].”
While Mathews can tell only his side of the story, I see a certain truth at the core of his statement: the artist’s frustration about her lack of agency, which was certainly heightened by her state of illness. At the same time, however, one needs to take into account the constraints placed on her by the society of the 1950s, her conservative family and her catholic upbringing and education, followed by the difficulties of being a female artist at a time that was not at all welcoming towards women’s endeavors outside the home, artistic or otherwise. Later in her life, Saint Phalle also came out about the sexual abuse she was subjected to by her own father.
Niki as an icon of female empowerment
In order to attain her empowerment, she seized a powerful tool: a weapon with the ability to kill all of what was holding her down. However, she did not resort to brute violence, appropriating “the militaristic tools of the patriarchy”; instead she “shot” a painting which only came alive after being shot. The aim of the shootings thus became not only a symbol of her oppression, but also a stand-in for the artist herself who, in the liberating act of shooting, killed herself only to be revived in the process: the (re-)birth of an artist. Her majestic, larger-than-life Nanas can be seen as the result of a successful healing process, generated by the power of creation and destruction, the assertive act of reclaiming agency.