NIKI’S WRATH Live Drønen on Niki De Saint Phalle at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Høvikodden
Throughout the previous decade, the art wold witnessed a renewed interest in Niki de Saint Phalle’s work. By locating her famed Nanas or “shoot paintings” in the broader context of her practice and art history, a range of comprehensive retrospectives took a nuanced approach to what had previously been a very limited interpretation. While the exhibition at Henie Onstad does not significantly differ from these previous iterations, Live Drønen identifies a particular emphasis on the violence and anger that fueled so much of Saint Phalle’s work, which is framed as a painful, transformative, and powerful potential – perhaps even as a feminist claim to aggression in face of both universal and personal violence.
Since I can remember, the waiting room walls of my doctor’s office in central Oslo have been covered with pictures taken in Il Giardino dei Tarocchi (The Tarot Garden) in Tuscany. This group of tortuously hung photo prints on cheap canvases are mounted onto wooden stretchers in order to be presented as the masterpieces that the photographs from the garden themselves display. Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Nanas” sparkle, dance, and smile in water fountains, hovering aboveground with their voluptuous breast and butts, supposedly – according to the artist herself – putting everyone in a good mood.  Fittingly enough, in a room dedicated to sickness and health, waiting and uncertainty.
Niki de Saint Phalle at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, a private museum in one of Oslo’s bordering municipalities, Bærum, is the first time Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002) has been presented in Norway, despite her conspicuous connection to neighboring Sweden and Stockholm’s Moderna Museet via its acclaimed director Pontus Hultén. The latter commissioned Saint Phalle’s monumental work Hon – en katedral (She – a cathedral) in 1966: a giant, colorfully painted sculpture of a woman lying on her back and filling the room to the brim, which audiences could enter through her vagina. That this exhibition didn’t travel across the border in the mid-1960s could be caused by a lack of interest, due to the near absence of feminism in Norwegian society at that time, but it more likely had to do with a lack of understanding of ongoing international artistic movements, and a downright poor Norwegian economy not able to take on such costly projects. Being presented only through models and sketches, the artists’ two most renowned works today, the mentioned garden and cathedral take up a delightfully small amount of space in the Henie Onstad exhibition, which is a comprehensive retrospective that tackles Saint Phalle’s practice chronologically with the aim of creating a more nuanced reception of her work.  A complex task, as Saint Phalle blurred the lines between her self and her art, creating a public figure through her modeling career, writings, and media appearances – in good company with, and often in advance of, contemporaries such as Andy Warhol.
The fact that her persona can’t be ignored is clear upon entering the exhibition, where I encounter a video clip of an irresistibly charming Saint Phalle uttering “Moi, je suis Niki de Saint Phalle, et je fais des sculptures monumentales” (Me, I’m Niki de Saint Phalle, and I create monumental sculptures). Audibly surrounded by the constant repetition of this sentence, the first part of the museum’s Prisma Galleries contains the artist’s early works. Born into a bourgeois French family that settled in New York, Saint Phalle got married at 18 and soon moved back to France with her husband to escape her conservative relatives. She was self-taught and came to art after being hospitalized and treated with electroshock therapy following a nervous breakdown in 1953. The paintings created in this aftermath are figurative and abstract representations of the psyche through the forms of humans and landscapes, combining a mimicry of the postwar abstract expressionist style with the creation of a distinct decorative visual language, using mosaic and patchwork techniques. In Autoportrait (1958–59), for example, a woman whose face is worn out as if imprinted by trauma is painted on a Jackson Pollock–like background, wearing clothing made of colored stones and glass fragments, with pearls, buttons and necklaces covering her breasts; in the even earlier La féte (1955), a conglomeration of intoxicated faces and what seems to be a dancing child are naively and colorfully composed.
Further into the exhibition, a grand hall congregates Saint Phalle’s more violent, and lesser known, phase. Here are clusters of readymades – often with an inherent damage potential, such as scissors, kitchen tools, and stones, as well as deranged-looking toys, paintbrushes, puzzles, and pearls – cast in plaster. With these vigorously assembled relics of a supposed woman’s life, encompassing childcare, cooking and beauty, Saint Phalle approached a feminist argument that she would later expand, refusing a passive female role and claiming violence and anger as something not reserved only for men. In this, she was influenced by, but not restricted to, contemporary feminist writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.  These readymades were created between 1959 and 1961, around the time that Saint Phalle made the radical choice to leave her husband and two children to independently pursue her artistic career in Paris. There, she became one of only a few female artists, surrounded by male colleagues such as Daniel Spoerri, Yves Klein, and Jean Tinguely – the latter also becoming her longtime partner. Saint Phalle’s movement toward a violent artistic liberation continued with her “shooting paintings,” which in the exhibition are accompanied by three projection canvases hanging in a triangle from the ceiling, presenting video footage from their creation. These sessions, or performances, were televised and frequently mentioned in the media, becoming Saint Phalle’s serious breakthrough as an artist, although in hindsight, they have fallen into the shadow of her later work. Consisting of found objects fixed into white plaster – in a recurring iconography of Catholic symbolism, babies, skulls, political characters, firearms, and roses – the readymade paintings were filled with small bags of oil paint which exploded when shot. While at the time contributing to a renewal of painting and consciously pushing the borders of how a woman could behave publicly, these works also create an extreme artistic imagery sublimating Saint Phalle’s anger with both universal and personal worldly violence; from the Vietnam War to the Catholic church’s abuse of power, and from the suffocating role of motherhood to the trauma she was subjected to by her own father, who sexually abused her repeatedly at age eleven – which she disclosed in her book Mon Secret in 1994. 
Signifying a significant shift in Saint Phalle’s practice, Henie Onstad’s main galleries tackle the years from 1965 to the artist’s death. Entering these, I meet Les Trois Graces (1995–2003): three sculptures in colored and mirror mosaic tiles standing on a big, red platform, each with one foot in the air as if they were larger-than-life ballerinas, sparkling in the daylight shining onto them from a corner window. These versions of the female figures that Saint Phalle called “nanas” also inhabit the rest of the galleries – from pregnant “goddesses” such as in the drawing Portrait de Clarice Rivers enceinte (1964) to stumpy little conservative ceramic mothers (often representing Saint Phalle’s own), as in the sculpture Femme (1970). Reading Saint Phalle’s artistic journey with the sound of shooting from the room prior still resonating in my ears creates a crucial understanding of the psychoanalytical approach that Saint Phalle had to creating art. While she abruptly went from clear violence to feminine iconography and joy, both her sociopolitical and particularly feminist project as well as her ambivalent relationship to her parents are more poignantly expressed, as if her wrath became a portal to enter a different freedom of mind, which also contained an abundant creativity. Here, colorful letters to friends and political posters advocating for abortion and gun control, or taking a stance in the AIDS crisis, are also presented as wall works and in vitrines. Considering today’s world of accelerated and permanent crisis, this call for art as a space for both continued resistance and therapeutical effects brings a slight hope. Perhaps lacking – and perhaps too much to ask for a show that is already very comprehensive – is a dive into Saint Phalle’s visual legacy, and how her line and patterns still travel through the worlds of design, fashion, and art. One need not go further than to the municipality Jevnaker, a bit deeper into the Norwegian countryside and the site of another big private institution, the Kistefos Museum, and its newly acquired colorful and monumental outdoor sculpture by the Norwegian Ida Ekblad to see a powerful creative output visibly conversing with Saint Phalle – whether distinctly inspired by her or not.
In the mid-1970s, at the height of her career, Saint Phalle left altogether the work she had made thus far and dedicated herself fully to working with art in public space, and in particular, the Gaudi-inspired Tarot Garden in Tuscany, which she worked on from the end of the 1970s until her death in 2002. While making this, Saint Phalle had entered a spiritual phase, creating figures such as the tree of life, the devil, the sphinx, and snakes to go along with the nanas. Presented archivally with documents, sketches, and models, this section rounds up the exhibition together with another late sculpture, Bird Head Totem (2000), which was inspired by Indigenous religions and aesthetics as well as Saint Phalle’s fascination for birds. In a text in the exhibition catalogue about the Tarot Garden, Saint Phalle is quoted: “It is not an accident that I am making this garden in Italy. There is a reason. My hand is guided. I follow the path chosen for me.” 
There has been a renewed interest in Niki de Saint Phalle’s practice internationally since the large eponymous retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2015 – an exhibition which also travelled to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao later that year. In 2016, Arken Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen presented a large-scale exhibition of the artist, and last year, MoMA PS1 in New York hosted her first major US exhibition. While the latter focused on her public and architectural endeavors, the other exhibitions mentioned have all seemingly aimed at giving Saint Phalle’s broad practice the attention it deserves by comprehensively presenting it and nuancing what had previously been a limited interpretation. The Henie Onstad exhibition does the same, and it can be difficult to get a clear view of whether it wants its survey to differ from the exhibitions prior, and if so, how. Rather, more than setting itself apart from previous shows, there seems to be an urge to present Saint Phalle to a new audience. As often, there is an overwhelming aspect to such a large retrospective, and while it at times feels as if the show wants to do too much, it also leaves a certain openness for interpretation. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, there are texts circling around themes such as Saint Phalle’s feminist and sociopolitical project, her commitment to public art, and her involvement in fashion. Seen against the exhibition, the text I find most interesting is written by Kimberly Lamm, associate professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies at Duke University, analyzing the anger that fueled so much of Saint Phalle’s work, arguing that her oeuvre can be understood as a feminist claim to aggression.  As I see it, this anger is indeed present throughout the exhibition, and the chronology of the presentation manages to express an overarching journey where anger is framed as painful, transformative, and powerful – while coexisting with femininity and joy.
My recurring encounters with Saint Phalle’s externally-guided hand in her unintended wall decor of my doctor’s waiting room – most certainly placed there by someone believing in its relieving remedy – yet again comes to mind. Reminiscing about the dozens of times I’ve been staring at these shabby canvas prints, I now – given the opportunity to revisit the exquisite and agonizingly complex practice of Niki de Saint Phalle at Henie Onstad – observe the uncanniness I’ve previously found in them as, in fact, the destruction and pain of sublimated violence that never completely escaped Saint Phalle’s imagery.
“Niki De Saint Phalle ,” Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Høvikodden, September 16, 2022–February 12, 2023.
Live Drønen is a writer and editor based in Oslo. She recently graduated from the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London and is currently a writer and critic for the Nordic art journal Kunstkritikk. Her writing has appeared in several exhibition catalogues and publications.
Image credit: 1. photo Øystein Thorvaldsen / Henie Onstad Kunstsenter; 4. photo André Morain; all images © 2023 Niki Charitable Art Foundation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023.
|||Niki de Saint Phalle, “Niki by Niki,” in Niki de Saint Phalle, ed. Caroline Ugelstad (Høvikodden: Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, 2022), 31.|
|||Caroline Ugelstad writes in her introduction to the catalogue that the aim of the exhibition is both to create a more nuanced reception of Saint Phalle’s work as well as to “re-write her into art history.” Ibid., 9.|
|||In her text “‘I Felt I Had Been Assassinated’: Niki de Saint Phalle’s Imaginary and the Feminist Claim to Aggression,” Kimberly Lamm writes that Saint Phalle read Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) in 1952 and was inspired by this “treatise on the long-standing and entrenched investment in women’s subordination.” Ibid., 26.|
|||Questioning her own motives behind the shooting paintings, in a letter to Pontus Hultén, Saint Phalle wrote “Daddy? All men? Small men? Tall men? Fat men? My brother JOHN? Or was the painting ME? Did I shoot myself during a RITUAL which enabled me to die by my own hand and be reborn? I was immortal!” in Pontus Hultén, Niki de Saint Phalle (Ostfildern-Ruit: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1992), 147.|
|||Niki de Saint Phalle, “Niki by Niki,” 31.|
|||Kimberly Lamm, “‘I Felt I Had Been Assassinated,’” 22.|