Google has honoured the artist Niki de Saint Phalle 1930–2002 with today’s doodle to celebrate her talents on her 84th birthday. Saint Phalle was a French/American sculptor, model, writer, stage designer and filmmaker. She was a self-taught artist, who on her return to Europe she began to work in a style similar to art brut.
Born in France, Catherine Marie-Agnes Fal de Saint Phalle, Niki – her preferred name – was brought up and educated at convent school in New York. In her early career, she modelled for Vogue, Life and other magazines while experimenting with different art-forms and media. She returned to France at the age of twenty-two with her writer/musician husband and young daughter, and studied theatre and acting. Travelling around Europe, she developed an interest in sculpture and architecture – particularly the work of Gaudi and Le Facteur Cheval. Whilst in hospital recovering from a serious nervous breakdown, she started making collages from pebbles, leaves and found materials. A friend brought her some assorted gouaches and brushes and she began to develop her own style through the combination of painting and assemblage.
Following a series of gouaches she experimented with oils and various commercial paints, addressing a range of subject matter and enthusiastically studying the work of twentieth century masters, such as Miro, Klee, Leger, Picasso and Matisse for inspiration. Her highly original form of self-expression helped her to overcome her personal crisis and health problems, and throughout her life, art became her means of coming to terms with feelings, emotions, dreams and nightmares.
Saint Phalle first came to public attention through ironic parodies of Art informel painting, comprising plaster reliefs incorporating pockets of paint, which burst when fired at by visitors to the exhibition, thus staining the surface. Through these works Saint Phalle became associated with Nouveau réalisme. She produced reliefs and sculptures made of objets trouvés and plastic toys; these were always playful and imaginary. Monsters and other fantastic creatures were also among her favourite themes, while other assemblages were in the form of iconoclastic altars.
Niki’s next series were concerned with the representation of women. This led to the Nanas series, begun in 1964; daubed in bright colours, the larger-than-life athletic females glorified an art of play and festivity. The apotheosis was the monumental She: A Cathedral (1966; Stockholm, Mod. Mus.; destr.); constructed in collaboration with Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultveldt, it was a huge shell of a reclining woman, 28 m long, inside which were rooms, including a cinema and a bar. Thereafter Saint Phalle devoted herself mainly to monumental sculptures, sometimes intended more directly for children. Saint Phalle also produced several illustrated books, designed sets for the ballet and made films, including Daddy (1973). In 1986 she published Aids, You Can’t Catch it Holding Hands (Munich), a combination of words and images.