Admittedly, I came to this exhibition thinking that I didn't know her work at all, only to be reminded once there that she was (of course!) one of the creators of the Stravinsky Fountain, next to the Centre Pompidou, in Paris, which I'd seen and enjoyed so many times in the past. She collaborated on this public fountain with her long term partner in life and art, Jean Tinguely, whose impact on her work is charted in the section Spiritual Path and in works such as the dazzling yet deeply poignant silkscreen, Jean in My Heart, created in 1992, a year after Jean's death. This section, explored her inner world and included a large number of the California Diary silkscreen prints created during the 1990s. Charting her daily thoughts in a graphical jumble of words and images these pieces are a fascinating insight into what made Niki de Saint Phalle tick and are both moving and humorous, often within a single piece. When in Christmas, for example, which deals with the joys of laughter and love of life, she includes a reference to a sudden illness, we are saddened too by this intimate and shocking revelation. I spent ages pouring over them, following the circuitous route of her sentences written in her distinctive swirling font, determined to savour every word!
If the Shooting Paintings of the 1960s brought her notoriety - she quite literally shot at paintings with a rifle, thus opening bags of pigments which would then run down the canvas – for the most part her work is joyous and life affirming. She wore her heart (and influences) on her sleeve and whilst her own references to Gaudí and Miro are immediately apparent, the influence of her work on others wasn't mentioned – I saw shades of early Julian Schnabel, Keith Haring and most strikingly, the Beatles' animated movie Yellow Submarine.
The final spaces in the gallery were dedicated to the works for which she is arguably most famous - the brightly painted and curvaceous celebrations of the complexities of womanhood, the giant Nanas, and the sculptures built for the Giardino dei Tarocchi in Garavicchio, Tuscany (complete with sound effects of the wind blowing through trees and real autumn leaves scattered around the exhibits). Tragically, most of these figures were created in polyester resin, a substance known to give off highly toxic gases – although aware of the dangers, Saint Phalle continued working with this material until she eventually succumbed to emphysema in 2002, cutting short the life of this unique artist. Large scale stills from her art films covered entire panels throughout the show and a short sequence of film clips running on a loop completed this fine introduction to a fascinating artist and an extraordinary body of work.
This is a wonderful show, closing soon – catch it if you can!
Niki de Saint Phalle at the Museo della Fondazione Roma is curated by Stefano Cecchetto and continues until 17th January 2010.