Niki de Saint Phalle: a great feminist artist on the French Riviera
Estefanía Radnic

In October 2001, the Franco-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle made an important donation to the MAMAC (Musée d’art Moderne et d’art Contemporain) in Nice joining the collection of the emblematic museum of the French Riviera *. This collection is articulated, since the creation of the museum in 1990, at the crossroads between the European Nouveau Réalisme, of which Niki was an eminent member, and the American assemblage and pop art. The generous gift came to complete the museological account of the institution located in the city that was the cradle of the Nouveau réalisme. The MAMAC had few isolated pieces of the artist. The set of 170 pieces -63 paintings and sculptures, 18 engravings, 40 lithographs, 54 screenprints valued at that time at 17 million euros- was perfectly inserted in “this new historical system” that the museum director Gilbert Perlein was building militant for the visibility of the artists of the ’60s. This militant nuance is perceived in the quick and skillful political response of the museum’s director to the donation: the acquisition, with the endorsement of the city of Nice, of La mariée sous l’arbre only missing piece to reconstitute the production of Niki de Saint Phalle.

La mariée sous l’arbre. ©Ville de Nice / Muriel Anssens

The entry of an important part of his work to a museum classified as “Musée de France” located in a lighthouse region for the development of modern and contemporary art such as the Côte d’Azur constitutes an undeniable instance of legitimacy for an artist.

Around Niki de Saint Phalle the MAMAC builds a story that validates and legitimizes this artist by linking it to the image of the city of Nice and the art history of the Côte d’Azur. The legend about art in this region is ancient, it begins at the end of the 19th century with the idea of ??art historian André Chastel of the Côte d’Azur as the «great atelier of modern art». L’École de Nice extended the modernist regional legend and constituted a label that was created in the 50s’ to bring together the varied artistic experiences that took place in the region.

The donation was a gesture of affection for Nice, and at the same time the artist denied this gift to the Centre Pompidou, the lighthouse institution dedicated to modern art in France but responsible for the loss of one of her works. It is suspected that Die Waldass, 1966, a three-meter-tall sculpture weighing 100 tons, was destroyed by negligence within its packaging. It was an unforgivable mistake for Niki. But there are other reasons that can be evoked to explain the decision to make the niçois museum the most important space for the conservation of her works in France. In Nice, Yves Klein and Arman, two of his friends and members of the Nouveau Réalisme, were born. On the other hand, the MAMAC is completely devoted to the current of the 60’s and the artistic relations between France and the United States. With an American mother and a French father, the artist’s life was similarly crossed by round trips between both continents.

Niki de Saint Phalle was born in 1930 in Neuilly-sur-Seine in a family of bankers. She spent her childhood in New York where his father was director of the family bank and Niki attended Catholic schools. At 11 she is raped by her father. Niki was a fashion model and appeared on the cover of the renowned Life magazine. She was married very young with a music student and they left for Paris together where Niki studied theater. She was admitted several times in psychiatric institutions due to nervous depression. During her convalescence in Nice, in 1953, painting is imposed to her as a vital attempt to say the unspeakable and interrogate the incomprehensible. She begins to produce art prolifically.

Niki searches, invents, manufactures, destroys, builds without pause. Hardly classifiable: painter, sculptor, recorder, architect, performer, experimental filmmaker, set designer. She finds a way to express all the violence contained, thereby the Tirs (1961-1963) appeard, compositions on which the artist shoots with a firearm exploding paint, grain or food sachets on an immaculate white plaster surface. She shoot to express the aggressiveness she felt, to “see the picture bleed and die, hurt it as people can be hurt.”

Shoot  impasse Ronsin ©Ville de Nice / Muriel Anssens

In the same way her Mariées seem dead before they got married. Also Daddy, a film about his relationship with his father to avenge the drama that marks his childhood. His paintings with tortured iron structures characterize this first stage. Around 1965, their Nanas and Venus dance happily. Their monsters are no longer bloodthirsty but multicolored dragons built with mosaics.

The wound never healed but art was the vehicle to transcend the unmentionable incest. Through his monumental sculptures she intends to bring joy and color to the public space, these living spaces like enchanted gardens such as the Jardin des Tarots in Tuscany, the Golemin Jerusalem, the Hon  in Stockholm, The Dream of the Birdin The Massif des Maures, Var, France. Niki de Saint Phalle is one of the first female artists dedicated to making a public, monumental, and habitable art, an art that exceeds the physical limits of museums and accessible to all.

MAMAC’s mission since its foundation is to link regional and international artistic history. The Nanas, the fantastic creatures, jazz musicians, American athletes, strategically scattered throughout the city’s public spaces offered an attractive international tourist image of the French city. The creation of a room with the name of the artist to display the donation in the museum, is a way to pay tribute to Niki and a motivation for the public to visit the institution. The fact that museums are not neutral containers that offer a transparent experience is evidenced by analyzing the management proposed by the MAMAC director of the donation. The courtyard between the museum and Theater of Nice is renamed: Place Niki de Saint Phalle, a public space  where one of its monsters is placed.

The artist died in San Diego, California, on May 22, 2002, after a long illness caused by the inhalation of toxic materials with which she worked. At that time the great retrospective was exhibited at the MAMAC had a record of visitors who approached to honor and  say goodbye to Niki.

She was the only woman member of the Nouveau réalisme, movement that claims «the poetic recycling of the urban, industrial and advertising realities». Founded in 1960 by Pierre Restany together with Yves Klein, Christo, Arman, César. Niki shared with them the rejection of traditional forms. From the late 1960s, she became a couple with the swiss artist Jean Tingueley (married in 1971) together they will produce works such as the Stravinsky fountain in Paris  and collaborate with each other on their individual projects.

Niki  defended with passion her convictions regarding feminism and cultural minorities, always ready to fight for them. This is linked to the contestant background  of the time but also to her personal experiences. After his first collages, his work evolves towards assemblages of recovered objects where she explores the ambiguity of the feminine condition, wearing bright colors and lively dolls with their violent bodies surrounded by heteroclite objects. Her Mariées embody an impaired purity. Niki’s rebellion against hypocrisy and family, religious and social perversities finds its origin in his dramatic personal history.

Popular artist of the twentieth century who could capture her feminist universe contradicting the heroic narratives of the patriarchal system of art. Her different and differentiating language allowed her to enter the western canon through a marginal place: that of a female artist. The MAMAC was able to skillfully introduce into its collection, and thus complete the story about the links between France and the US, the valuable donation that this woman artist decided to give to the city that marked the beginning “of what should be [her] real life “.

* At this moment in the neighboring city of Cannes takes place the exhibition: “Niki de Saint Phalle: The shadow and the light” unfolded at the La Malmaison Art Center (from July 6 to November 6 and at the Villa Domergue ( from July 7 to September 22).

MAMAC’s facade. © Ville de Nice / Julien Véran
Up side down ©Ville de Nice / Muriel Anssens
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Room, MAMAC ©Ville de Nice / Julien Véran
La Toilette ©Ville de Nice / Muriel Anssens
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Room, MAMAC ©Ville de Nice / Julien Véran
Lock ness monster ©Ville de Nice / Julien Véran
Jardin des Tarots, Toscana
 Niki de Saint Phalle’s Grotto, Hannover, Alemania.
Three Nanas, Hannover, Alemania
Jardin des tarots, Toscana.
About Proyecto PAC: Artistic endeavor in Contemporary times