Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Gothic Art in Spotlight: Monsters of Niki de Saint Phalle

In the end of August I went to see the exhibition of Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 - 2002), that had just been opened in the art exhibition space called Taidehalli. It took me this long to write about it because September was a tremendously busy month for me.
A detail of a work by Niki de Saint Phalle
If you google Niki de Saint Phalle, the first images you'll get are photos of big, colorful, energetic and positive sculptures of female figures. And that was my narrow perception of her works before I went to the exhibition in August. In there I learned that a Monster is a reoccurring theme in Saint Phalle's works and many of her sculptures are dealing with negative experiences and trauma. Seeing this exhibition made me want to read Saint Phalle's autobiography.

Saint Phalle was a controversial and a brave woman, who had the courage to question narrow structures of the society and of the ways of making art. Instead of becoming an obedient housewife in the 50's, she started to create art and in the 60's she invented the "Shooting Paintings". They were large 3D structures with bags of paint inside them. Then the artist Saint Phalle and often the person who commissioned the work would shoot at the painting with a gun and thus break the bags of paint, which would create colorful areas on the painting. They would stop shooting when the work looked ready for them.

Even though Saint Phalle's working techniques are intriguing, the works produced by shooting were not the ones that interested me the most. For me some collages of found objects and paint and other materials were the ones that somehow reeked of grim and sinister aesthetics. One of them was a work with various names: Tyrannosaurus Rex/The Monster/Tir Dragon (Study for King Kong).
Saint Phalle has a distinguishable naïve style and this huge lizard is in a way quite cute. The details make it more sinister. The creature is constructed of crocodile figures, skulls, toy guns, and dismantled baby dolls. Unfortunately the close-up is blurred, the exhibition was very crowded and it was not easy to take photos. I hope you can still see there are crocodiles, a skull, and some toy guns.
As mentioned, monsters are a reoccurring figure in Saint Phalle's works and many of them deal with a childhood trauma. Saint Phalle has revealed that her father sexually abused her when she was 11 years old.

Occasionally Saint Phalle also depicted herself as a sort of a monster in her art, but that was about her own life choices and how they affected her family. After all, she pursued a career that in the 50's and the 60's was not for women and during that time period some people (many people!) thought she was a bad wife and a bad mother.

The work I liked the most in the art exhibition was named Le Château de Gilles de Rais (The Castle of Gilles de Rais). Gilles de Rais was a French nobleman from the 15th century. He fought in wars and was honored as a brave and righteous man. He retired from his duties as a young man and almost twenty years later he was sentenced to death as the first serial killer. According to the history books, after his heroic career he had abused and killed at least 200 children.

Saint Phalle herself is a distant relative of Gilles de Rais through her fathers side of the family. She was fascinated by how a man who was almost a saint could also be or become a satanic creature who enjoyed the suffering of children. The photo in the beginning of this post is a detail of this Castle. If you look closely to it, it features molested baby dolls and lizard-like creatures. The sculpture is much more grim if one knows the story of Gilles de Rais.

It would be highly inappropriate to say that "I hope you enjoyed this post!" but I do hope you found it at least interesting and maybe it will encourage you to explore the not-so-well known works of artists you know. There might be fascinating surprises!


  1. I quite enjoyed reading this post. At the time it's very radical and brave to go against the norm conventions of the time. I tend to prefer smaller artists and try to purchase original art rather than prints permitting on price.

  2. I thought this once more must have been a fascinating exhibition! Seems a lot of creativity comes from negative experiences...