It really is a crying shame that Niki de Saint Phalle wasn’t crooked of back, thick of brow, dull eyed with pustulant skin, lank hair, an uneven gait, and a voice that sounded like a hoarse crow hacking its lungs up. At a push I’d even settle for poor and dull witted, but she wasn’t; she was pretty and rich and aristocratic.
Now, there is nothing wrong with this—she wasn’t the first and she won’t be the last artist to come from this milieu—but there is a problem when her huge and comprehensive retrospective is so liberally plastered with her, it must be said, quite adorable mug (fine-boned, clear-skinned etc.) that it gets in the way of taking the work seriously. Oh the irony!—I declaimed internally—that an artist so engaged in her own charmingly naïve brand of '60s feminist utopianism should so enamour the curators of her own exhibition that one wonders just what we’re all here to see. I ask, was it really necessary to include her face adorning the cover of Vogue, or in a swimsuit (LIFE), or sporting those wonderful Cartier diamonds? Did we need to see quite so many earnest, paint-splattered interviews displayed so prominently? The brave (and cute) Niki staring dead-eyed down the barrel of her rifle?
Niki de Saint Phalle; image sourced from here.
The difficulty, of course, is that it makes it hard to take the work seriously. No, I don’t believe that pretty girls can’t be talented at something other than being pretty, I just think that if they are talented then we perhaps don’t need quite so much of the pretty. Oh, world…
But what of the show? That’s a difficult one. As a body of work it’s coherent, colourful—joyful even—naïve, striking: it has something to say. It reflects its time and it addresses issues both personal and private, and, as a retrospective it is comprehensive. There are lots of rooms, covering the whole of de Saint Phalle’s work and output.
The problem for me is that the work itself feels derivative. It’s good, enjoyable to look at, not a waste of time; but maybe it’s as simple as the fact her influences are too apparent. There’s a touch of Gaudí, a pinch of Miró, a hint of Matisse, and not a little of Heinz Edelmann thrown together—and they never quite become her own.
Niki de Saint Phalle, Leto ou La Crucifixion, 1965, 236 x 147 x 61,5 cm, objets divers sur grillage, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Centre de création industrielle, Paris, achat en 1975; © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN- Grand Palais / Georges Meguerditchia
The strongest works are unsurprisingly the "Nanas" and particularly the earlier ones, before they became smooth and shiny. It’s here, with the adornment of found objects, that she demonstrates her talent with colour and composition. And it is a real talent. I found them to be complex and moving pieces of work. Although, in contradictory fashion, my favourite of all was a later one: it had the expression of a disgruntled granny. And what more fitting example of feminine power can be found in the world? I’m not sure.
In a final sad irony, and continuing the contradictions of this show, I was struck by the fact that the term "Nana" has relatively recently appeared in French slang, meaning "tits." It is also used, invariably by gel-haired, tracksuit-and-fake-Vuitton-Man-Bag-toting types, to mean "girlfriend" or "girls" in general (normally while they stand casually vaping on the platform of Gare du Nord—this, or in a gang on the Champs-Elysées mocking the rollerblading cops).
Among the general joy of this show I did get the feeling that de Saint Phalle was a tragic character, albeit a brave one. We should all offer thanks that she didn’t experience this final indignity.
(Image on top: Niki de Saint Phalle, Installation view © Grand Palais, Paris)
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