The Evolution of a Woman Artist

Throughout her career, Niki de Saint Phalle was labeled a ‘woman artist’ and had to prove her art was to be held at the same level as her male counterparts. As a female, sometimes her art wasn’t what was discussed, rather the discussion focused on her appearance, marriage, and children.

“So you’re one of those writer’s wives that paint,”… I felt it 
disavowed a really worthwhile life, doing my work quietly 
with passion. I considered myself an artist, putting in full 
days, working as much as I could on my art. I could not see 
how the fact that I was married and not earning a living 
from my art reduced my work to a “housewife’s hobby”.
Excerpt quote of Niki de Saint Phalle from ‘Harry and Me


Saint Phalle wanted to combat the notion of women in their assigned roles, as wives, mothers, and caretakers of the household. She started her shooting paintings, and focused her anger and rage into these paintings/performances.

“Performance art did not yet exist, but this was a performance. 
Here I was, an attractive girl (if I had been ugly they would 
have said I had a complex and not paid any attention), 
screaming against men in my interviews and shooting.”
Niki de Saint Phalle on her shooting paintings


Many articles in the 60’s, while Saint Phalle was doing her shooting paintings, would comment on her appearance and looks, rather than discussing her art.

Newspaper clipping from the Independent, Long Beach, March 22, 1962


Saint Phalle transitioned from her shooting paintings to her works of brides, births, and whores.


         Accouchement Rose (Pink Birth), 1964                              Detail of Bride or Miss Havershems Dream, 1964


“I could not identify with Mother, our grandmothers, our aunts, 
or Mother’s friends. Their territory seemed too restrictive for 
my taste… I want the worldthat belonged to men… Very early 
I got the message that men had the power and I wanted it. 
Yes, I would steal their fire from them. I would not accept the 
boundaries that Mother tried to impose on my life because 
I was a woman.”
Excerpt quote of Niki de Saint Phalle from ‘Traces


From there, Saint Phalle’s women evolved into her nanas, large curvy colorful women that dramatized their spiritual independence.

“Why the nanas? Well, first because I am one myself. Because my 
work is very personal and I try to express what I feel. It is 
the theme that touches me most closely. Since women are oppressed 
in today’s society I have tried, in my own personal way, to 
contribute to the Women’s Liberation Movement.” 
Niki de Sant Phalle, La Metropole, Anvers, 23 February, 1972


Niki de Saint Phalle with unfinished Nanas, 1965, Photographer Unknown


One article, titled ‘Her Sculpted ‘Nanas’ Create a Big Furor’, discussed Niki de Saint Phalle’s attire and what her guests were wearing at the opening of one of her shows. Niki de Saint Phalle continued making her nanas, expanding with materials and in size.

“Long before Women’s Lib became fashionable, or even plausible, 
Niki de Saint Phalle was performing her own acts of liberation.” 
Brussels Times, March 2, 1972


Many female artist dealt with similar scrutiny and the problems of being a woman artist in the male dominated art world. Artists like Miriam Schapiro and Jann Haworth were artists during the same time as Saint Phalle, working to establish more a  female artist presence.

“The assumption was that, as one tutor put it, ‘The girls were 
there to keep the boys happy.’ He prefaced that by saying, 
’It wasn’t necessary for them to look at the portfolios of the 
female students… they just needed to look at their photos’. 
From that point, it was head-on competition with the 
male students.”
Quote of Jann Haworth from interview with Tate Magazine, 2004


Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois in Paris present through October 21st, more than a dozen feminine figures created by Niki de Saint Phalle between 1963 and 1990. The exhibition titled, “Belles! Belles! Belles! Les femmes de Niki de Saint Phalle” (Beautiful! Beautiful! Beautiful! The Women of Niki de Saint Phalle) explores what it is to be a woman according to the artist.

Galerie Vallois entrance, Photographer: Philippine De Merac


In the two gallery spaces (33 & 36 rue de Seine) women sculptures with revolutionary and unconventional shapes welcome the visitors. Ending the exhibition is a video interview of the artist which gives the public one answer. “Are these Nanas a portrait of yourself?” a journalist asks Niki de Saint Phalle. The artist answers, “Yes of course, I am all of them”. Saint Phalle wants women to be free from what she calls the “conneries” (bullshits) of sentimentality, marriage, etc. The video provides a beautiful end to a very rich show. Be sure to check out the show before it comes to an end this Sunday, on October 22, 2017!

Niki de Saint Phalle with Lili ou Tony, 1966, Photo: © E. Hubert