What do the girls (of Niki) represent?

What do the girls (of Niki) represent?

A young woman from a very privileged background in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Niki de Saint Phalle became a self-taught artist, at the end of a first life. Indeed, while she had been a model, she had married the American poet Harry Mathews with whom she had had children, she was struck by a deep depression, and it was during her process of healing that she begins to paint. Following this triggering event, his work will quickly go beyond the sole therapeutic scope, but it will remain all his life filled with painful, even traumatic autobiographical references, as well as the concern to translate feelings and phantasmagoria into concrete forms, where joy spawns. always with the anguish, the game with the monster and the bright colors with the deep darkness.

In his series Shots, the artist or people who are invited to pierce doses of paint with rifles that spread over compositions of objects knowingly assembled by herself and previously painted white. By proposing with this gesture to “make the paint bleed”, Niki de Saint Phalle does not only propose to express an intimate relationship to violence or to offer a commentary on the violence of his time (which can sometimes be precisely circumstantiated, as when ‘she titles one of these works Altar OAS in the midst of abuses by the Secret Army Organization in Algeria): by playing on the border between performance and painting, and by mobilizing in her works the manufactured objects of the booming consumer society, she joins in several aspects the aesthetic concerns of New Realism, a movement born under the designation of Pierre Restany in which Yves Klein, Arman, César or Yves Tinguely participate.




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The most vivid trace left by Niki de Saint Phalle in the collective memory, however, resides in his Babes, statues of monumental and colorful women who still appear in the streets of many cities around the world. In contrast to his Shots with degraded faces, its Babes consist of silhouettes in shimmering colors and strictly drawn, frozen in playful, harmonious and often zany poses. Inspired by relatives in whom Niki de Saint Phalle places her trust and friendship, as well as by ancient divinities or prehistoric Venus sculptures, the Babes make up the most radiant and peaceful part of his autobiographical work. Does this mean that they are entirely devoid of the anxiety that irrigates the rest of his work? This is the question that our guest of the day helps us to shed light on.

In his first thriller, author Jean-Patrick Manchette draws a scene that is very reminiscent of Niki de Saint Phalle… Romain de Becdelievre evokes this influence in his Attachment.




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  • Catherine Francblin is an art critic, independent curator, and former editor-in-chief of the journal Art Press. She has devoted a book to the work of the sculptor Bernar Venet (Bernar Venet, A whole life for art, Gallimard, 2022), and also wrote a biography of Niki de Saint Phalle, the revolt at workpublished in 2013 by Hazan.

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