Niki de Saint Phalle – une nana pas comme les autres
The Loch Ness monster is alive, well and here in Nice. Would I lie to you? See? Isn’t he – or is it ‘she’? – gorgeous? Glowing,
resplendent, impressive and playful all at once. And here for our amusement, our edification and our constant delight is this fantastic, funny and friendly monster, ready to greet us in his/her own fountain in the centre of the city.
All the credit goes to the one who made him. Niki de Saint Phalle, of course. The late Franco-American artist needs no introduction. All I can say is that her presence in the centre of Nice is hard to miss. Not only do we have her statues of Nessie and Miles Davis, we also possess a substantial portion of her life’s work which she bequeathed to the Musee de l’Art Moderne et de l’Art Contemporaine de Nice (MAMAC – check out the permanent exhibitions/donations by NdSP).
And yet I managed to avoid it all. There’s none so blind as those who will not see, and I was definitely among that unhappily deprived number as regards Niki de Saint Phalle. For a while at least. When I first visited Nice, my friend Eugénie showed me Niki de Saint Phalle’s famous mosaic statue of Miles
Davis outside that local landmark, the Hotel Negresco. “You”ll have heard of this,” she said, “Niki de Saint Phalle’s justly-celebrated …”
“I don’t like Niki de Saint Phalle,” I said (idiot!).
“But why on earth not?” asked Eugénie, mystified (understandably, she being wiser than I).
“Because, what I’ve seen of her work – especially those ‘nanas’ - strikes me as exploitative. I mean, she’s having her cake and eating it, with those gross, lumbering nanas: they’re sexy and
silly, and they turn women’s bodies into objects of frivolity and a particularly garish form of vulgarity.”
“Bah!” said Eugénie. “Don’t hold back, will you?”
So when an Italian friend suggested we go and spend a rainy morning at MAMAC, I was less than enthusiastic. Luciana raised a russet eyebrow, smiling encouragement. “Come on,” she said. “It’s an outing. It may even be fun. What have you got to lose?”
Luciana is excellent company at any time, so I accepted and along we trotted, dodging puddles and other peoples’ umbrellas, and chattering as we went. Once inside, I immediately discovered that Luciana was such a regular that several of the staff welcomed her warmly. As for me, I’d never even been there before – those blasted ‘nanas’ of Niki de Saint Phalle, you see: not really … my thing.
The works on show were fascinating, and Luciana and I found plenty to look at and discuss. Then we reached the space where a number of bas-reliefs by Niki de Saint Phalle, objects spookily encased in white plaster, were on show. The works themselves, with their careful arrangements of meaningful objects, were instantly accessible. At first glance they appeared to be harmonious, even serene; closer inspection revealed tremendous wit, passion- and anger. These apparently simple but in fact extraordinarily comprehensive works, could be de-coded much like medieval carvings. And were equally astonishing in the depth of the emotion both depicted and aroused: a form of communion, where the artist reaches out to the female viewer with a wry smile and a heavy sigh. Existing in tandem with her ambiguous nanas is – to take one example – her entirely unambiguous plaster bas-relief/collage, the portrait ‘d’un bigot’, which has so much so say about the rôle of women, then and now.
Then I returned to the nanas and looked at them with a refreshed and enlightened eye. They’re wondrous! They’re a celebration and an act of assertive feminine defiance, as if for the world they were saying ‘we’re here, we have a right to be here. We have a power all our own, and we’re lovely and, above all, loveable!’ Niki was a great beauty who started out her working life as a fashion model and defied family and circumstances to live as she knew she must. No wonder she produced these works so bursting with courage and rapture and so deeply touching, being both massive and intensely vulnerable at once that they reach out with great generosity to share, to entertain and to comfort.
And no wonder Niki, who suffered the horrors of clinical depression nearly all her too-short life, was able to make art reflecting the agonies of femininity as well as its joys while emphasising that the latter must – and maybe will – prevail. Before she died, Niki finally revealed that she had been sexually abused in infancy by her own father. She left a substantial legacy to an important art project that continues to provide much-needed help and yields unquantifiable cultural dividends. Niki’s monumental works remain, making us smile and think, strangely reassuring in their unselfconscious boldness. Among the many other riches she left us is hope itself, for that warmly playful defiance unique to her vision is instantly recognisable as expressive of all the life-enhancing aspects of femininity.
Niki (and Luciana. And Eugénie): I see what you tried to tell me. I get it! I do – now. There’s nothing like losing a prejudice – the sense of a burden removed is liberating. It’s the only loss to be contemplated not only with equanimity but also with pleasure. So above all, thank you Niki.
Go and see her work if you can. It’s unmissable, and all over the place. And, yes, it really is that big.
All pix sourced from Commons Wiki (click on thumbnails to enlarge).
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