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Now on view (Until 24th April 2021), at Salon 94, 89th Street New York, “Joy Revolution” - the safe space of provocative and desiring French-American sculptor, painter and filmmaker Niki de Saint Phalle, curated by Fabienne Stephan of Salon 94 alongside the Niki Charitable Art Foundation.

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Transforming the anger and pain into a call to joy. This is the radical philosophy of Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 – 2002) who, precociously, assembled an egalitarian and visionary matriarchal society through the Nanas (French slang for girls)- her jubilant, bold and large-scale female figures, that mark the triumph of femininity. 

Whith no formal training in art, the rebel, outsider and playful Niki de Saint Phalle is considered one of the most significant feminist artists of the 20th century, and one of the few to receive recognition in the male-dominated art world during her lifetime.


Niki de Saint Phalle, Gwendolyn, 1966–90, Painted polyester on metal frame, 252 × 200 × 125 cm, Sprengel Museum, Hanover, gift of the artist, 2000 © Niki Charitable Art Foudation, Santee, USA.


A sculptural pantheon of empowered womanhood”, the Nanas are emblems of Niki de Saint Phalle’s transition from her initial monstrous archetypes, made of dismembered baby dolls, plastic toys and fake flowers, to the liberated and exuberant “chicks”, grown in stature and scale. 

In 1964, Niki de Saint Phalle found “herself making joyous creatures to the glory of women”. Combining innovative (and toxically dangerous)materials, such as polyester plastic and paints, polyurethane foam and glass fibers, with childlike papier-mâché, brightly colored beads, ceramic tiles and polished stones, and traditional steel, iron, cement, Niki de Saint Phallehad built the most fantastical, fourteen-acre sculpture park: the Tarot Garden (1979-2002), in the Italian village of Capalbio, Tuscany. A sort of joy land on a monumental scale inhabited by Nanas, dragons, snakes, animals,andesoteric symbols.


Niki de Saint Phalle, Black is Different, California Diary 1994. © 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foudation, Photo Ed Kessler.


The concept of the garden as a space for growth and freedom - initially presented in her first retrospective exhibition, “Les Nanas au pouvoir" ("Nana Power”), at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in the summer of 1967 - marked Niki de Saint Phalle’s lifelong practice in outdoor and public spaces. Amid sumptuous plants and trees, Saint Phalle’sacrobatic Nanasplay and dance in a timeless Garden of Eden, conveyingthesamefeelings of emotional liberation andhedonism of Matisse’s well-known Dance.  

Inspired by the diverse use of materials and found objects in Gaudi’s Parc Güell in Barcelona and in the mannerist Garden of Bomarzo (“Park of the Monsters”, Italy), Niki de Saint Phallehad transformed the public space into a magical realmA Dream Longer Than the Night, as her 1975 screenplay was titled - and her oeuvre into a phantasmagorical taleof mythical creatures, in which wild animals coexist equally with humans. But also she has shaped a mass of incandescent matter, political and feminist. To be provocative, you have to present positive counterexamples of the oppressed reality of most womenin the 1960s and explorethe truths of female freedoms. The sense of wander and joy, the personal history mingled with political convictions, the process of self-discovery are also evident in Niki de Saint Phalle’s practice of letter writing, drawing, and storytelling- the primary way toexorcise some of her most painfultraumas andpersonal demons. Saint Phalle’s vast opus of autobiographical works on paperbrought her love, peace and solace.


Niki de Saint Phalle, Peril Jaune, resine polyester paint, 1995, with base 55 ¼ x 45 ¼ x 24 in, © Niki Charitable Art Foudation, Santee, USA.


In her exuberant vignettes everything is possible. The Nanas - symbolizing any women in the world - with their heavy belly, hyperbolic curvesand bulbous formsuggest a similar totemic function as the archaic Venus of Willendorf. They could boldly liberate and rejuvenate the female inner and fertility power, as the first (1966) giant and shocking Saint Phalle’s architectural sculpture,entitled HON (“she” in Swedish), “a Pagan cathedral” at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, forces to do. Transforming the orthodoxiesand puritanism around the maternal body into empoweredand abundantfemale forms, always in the tension between the ludic and the utopian vision.


Niki de Saint Phalle, The Tarot Garden, Photograph by Peter Granser for The New Yorker. Copyright © 2021 The Tarot Garden. All Rights Reserved.


Visitors entering Hon(1966). Image Courtesy of Hans Hammarskiöld Heritage. © Hans Hammarskiöld. 


Cover image: Niki de Saint Phalle, Creator: Norman Parkinson Credit: © Norman Parkinson/Corbis, Copyright: © Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Written by Petra Chiodi

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