Finding Joy In Life And Art

This month the Niki Charitable Art Foundation is marking the occasion of Niki de Saint Phalle’s 90th birthday!!!

Joy is a major subject in Saint Phalle’s art that is rarely addressed, if only to make a dismissed reference to it being whimsical, which it is not. 

I used to think there was a need to provoke, to attack religion, and the generals. And then I understood that there is nothing more shocking than joy.” 

Catherine Francblin, renowned art historian, author and biographer of Niki de Saint Phalle, explored this topic in her essay Niki de Saint Phalle: The Joy Factory, published in the Beaux-Arts Mons exhibition catalog of 2018 titled Niki de Saint Phalle: Here everything is possible. Francblin is the first and only author to write a scholarly biography on Saint Phalle: Niki de Saint Phalle. La Révolte à l’oeuvre (Editions Hazan, 2013).

clock, Nana, flowers, heart, plate, dream machine  and the calligraphy in the artist's famous style saying "I  would like to give you everything"
I would like to give you everything, 1970. Photo: © Niki Charitable Art Foundation

The idea of joyous art was first discovered by Saint Phalle in 1955 during her visit to Antoni Gaudí’s Park Güell in Barcelona, Spain. 

That day, my life changed. I told myself that one day, I too would build a garden of happiness. I saw the mothers with their children, and felt an air of freedom; the people seemed to have left the worries of their daily lives far behind. Adults and children were there in an atmosphere of dreams, and of joy, and I thought that one day, I too would make a garden like that.” 

Francblin explained that even from Saint Phalle’s early days as an artist, she had a desire to make her art for the public; to connect spectators with her art and with her life.

Saint Phalle went through a long creative process and several phases of creation to expel her anger: her infamous Shooting Paintings, followed by her figurative assemblages made of toys and creepy imagery, such as BirthsBrides and Têtes.  Francblin noted that even though Saint Phalle was performing the violent act of shooting at her Tirs, there was still a sense of positivity for the crowd that was watching, sometimes participating in the event.

Having been a long-time rebel with a rifle, and after a long career in art, I am giving something back to society. I want to bring people joy." 

This is the time when she started creating her first Nanas. Francblin described Niki’s Nanas in her essay: ‘They demonstrate a solidarity between the different moments of her evolution and allow us to understand the manifestation of joy in her work as the fruit of having conquered the painful, oppressive feelings that brought her desire to fly high in the sky crashing down.’ 

Joy is expressed in Niki de Saint Phalle’s art through many ways; monumental artwork, colors, curves, arabesque, dance. The use of color is one of the first things that one notices about Niki de Saint Phalle’s art. As Francblin stated ‘…colour has always been a part of the artist’s basic arsenal; it is one of her primary resources in the manufacture of joy.’ 

La Femme et L’Oiseau Fontaine, 1967-1988. Installed at La Petite Escalère. Photo © DALiM  via Christies.com

Niki de Saint Phalle created art that was large, loud, bursting with colors as equally as it was containing layers of details, symbolism, and secrets. She chose joy to be at the forefront of her artistry; turning sometimes serious subjects into playful experiences.

Saint Phalle also used her colorful style to address various social, political, and environmental issues that she was passionate about. One of these causes was raising awareness about AIDS during the height of the virus’ impact globally. For Saint Phalle it started on a personal level when people she loved were dying all around her from the disease. AIDS was a topic that spread fear and death as the world faced this new and unknown virus.

As Saint Phalle’s granddaughter Bloum Cardenas explained, ‘In the mid 80’s condoms had been out of use for some time and were not easy to reintroduce to the public. Saint Phalle tried endlessly to create colorful ones to make their use “fun”. The condom designs then became sculptures called Obelisks from which Saint Phalle made trilogies. The idea took a life of its own within her art, reflecting a certain sense of humor.’

Niki de Saint Phalle’s 1986 illustrative book AIDS: You can’t catch it holding hands was published in English, French, German, Japanese, Italian and Romansh. Saint Phalle used her vivid colors and playful images to teach the world about AIDS in a simple yet informative way.

Excerpt from AIDS: You can’t catch it holding hands. Verlag Bucher (1986)

Catherine Francblin further examined Saint Phalle’s various artworks and their symbolization of joy. She noted Saint Phalle’s fondness for arabesques, her preference for rounded shapes, and her love of trees.

Francblin pointed out the arabesque form of Saint Phalle’s Nanas with arms outstretched and one leg up in a twirling-like position and the roundness of their curves serve to express joy, happiness, and sensuality of the female body. Saint Phalle’s upside down Nanas look as if they are doing a hand stand or somersault. Francblin compared this to an acrobat, reminiscent of a circus, creating joy in nostalgia.

Photos: NCAF Archives

The monumentality of her works, and of the Nanas in particular, makes an essential contribution to turning the art of Saint Phalle into a kingdom of joy. Like love, joy touches the hyperbolic; it grows us, augments us, and increases our sense of expansion and power.’ (Francblin, C. The Joy Factory)

Due to the major impact that visiting Gaudí’s Park Güell had on her art, it is apparent that Saint Phalle created sculptures with outdoor display in mind. Throughout her time living in France many of the sculptures could be found sprawling in the grass. During her time in California she created many sculptures and installed them in public venues throughout San Diego County.

In 2006, the Niki Charitable Art Foundation worked with the Atlanta Botanical Garden to bring a major outdoor art exhibition of Niki de Saint Phalle to the City. Niki in the Garden was a six month exhibition featuring approximately 30 of Saint Phalle’s life size sculptures that visitors could enjoy in harmony with nature. The exhibition drew 225,000 visitors during its installation.

Nana Maison II, 1966-1987. Installed at Atlanta Botanical Garden, 2006. Image by Holly Smith via Flickr.com

The show then traveled to the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago in 2007, and continued to St. Louis where it was shown at the Missouri Botanical Garden in 2008.

What is glorious about her is the way in which she engaged with the social and therefore the political terrain, through work that is far removed from any realistic perspective. The joy that electrifies, the joy that defies gravity, the joy that energizes, the joy that connects and subtly confronts power, and turns her art into a realized utopia.’ (Francblin,C. The Joy Factory)

Niki de Saint Phalle with Lili ou Tony, 1966.  Photo © E. Hubert
I felt my new message was to give joy. […] I feel that what I’m supposed to do is bring joy into people’s hearts. And if people tell me that they’ve had 5 minutes of joy looking at my art, it makes me feel good an it makes me feel that my art is worthwhile. 

Niki de Saint Phalle, Interview with Kazunori Tsujikawa and Yoshiro Toriumi, Sankei Shimbun Newspaper: June 2000

Niki Charitable Art Foundation would like to thank Catherine Francblin for her insight and help with this blog.

Happy Birthday Niki!