`I HAVE always chosen moments of great intensity instead of durability," Niki de Saint Phalle once wrote. Her idiosyncratic art, which is in the realm of "sculpture," though never bound by aesthetic conventions, makes a virtue of intensity.
Saint Phalle's work clearly comes out of vivid feelings needing bold expression. It is over the top, larger than life, a reductio ad absurdum. It can sometimes be quite outrageous. It can be gigantically trivial. Some people have been shocked by it, but the more likely reaction is a dawni ng smile at the ridiculous improbability of her conceptions and the blatant gusto with which she realizes them. Her work can be exuberant to the point of ecstasy - or astonishment. And it certainly seems true enough tha t "durability" is not its main purpose.
Much of the potency of Saint Phalle's work lies in its air of spontaneous improvisation. Her multicolored phantasms and monsters elucidate fantasies that invest wild nightmarish visions with a deliberately zany comedy, yet they never display evidence of the laboriousness of their making. They can, however, only be the results of exceedingly exhaustive processes. That they retain, when complete, the intensity of "chosen moments" rather than the solemn monumentality of much public sculpture shows Saint Pha lle's determination not to allow mere technical complexity to interfere with the spontaneous effect of the work itself.
This French-born artist's work branches out from a stream of rebellion that meanders mischievously through 20th-century art. Making art since the 1950s, Saint Phalle found inspirational precedents wherever she liked - being as much an admirer of Matisse as of Picasso, of Duchamp as Miro. Pre-Columbian and ancient Egyptian art have shaped her vision in quite unexpected ways: She absorbed (and continues to absorb) aspects of their magic primitivism and makes them her own.
If there is one influence stronger than any other, it must be that of Antonio Gaudi, the Catalan architect. When Saint Phalle discovered his work, its color, fantasy, and environmental scale became a kind of model or challenge. A sculpture garden in Tuscany that she has been making for a long time, and which is now nearing the point where it might be seen by the public, owes much to Gauds example. But while he was utterly pious and serious, even when he was at his most entertaining, she is rumbustious, p layful, humorous, parodying even the underlying grim themes of death or horror that recur in her work. She outfaces fears by an irrepressible parade of comic invention.
Without the anarchic example of the Dada phase of modern art, and perhaps without the encouragement of such artist friends in New York as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, her bid for freedom, her will to be completely her own person, might have been less startling. On the other hand, an aggressive, resilient dare-all confidence seems to be built so inextricably into her character that perhaps she would have found herself, regardless. What she hasn't done is subscribe tamely to anyone else's aestheti c program or sensibility. Maybe it was the "anything goes," uninhibited atmosphere of the 1960s that conclusively prompted her to follow her instincts.
When you encounter her work suddenly, in all its overstated generosity of scale, in some museum garden or urban setting, or in an exhibition like the retrospective currently in Glasgow, Scotland, (through April 4, to be seen from June to September in Paris), it instantly blows away all the dusty pretensions of too much serious contemplation of art. Her great bulbous female bathing beauties, her so-called "Nanas," inflated grotesques of exaggerated femininity, have few restraints, no self-consciousness, a
porpoise-like playfulness and buoyancy, and a childish innocence. In their color and hyperbolic size, they would be as apt in a fun fair or a kids' playground as an art gallery, if they didn't also sometimes have an anatomical frankness that might be troublesome to the civic dignity or public prudishness of the over-solemn.
Niki de Saint Phalle seems able to be not so much "childlike" as actually still a child. She contemplates the adult world, of which she has necessarily become a part, and she is immediately, by contrast and intuitive protest, the naughty child who doesn't understand - won't understand. The child whose favorite word is why?!! This "why" is not a question that really expects an answer. It is more of a persistent exclamation: Why! Why! Why! Why are certain things taboo? Why are some things allowed and some forbidden? Why are jubilation and loud laughter and ebullient mayhem so frowned upon? Why are some things not said?
In a letter to her mother, written as a kind of tribute, Saint Phalle describes some of the seeds of her rebelliousness. She wrote a number of letters of this kind, which were never meant to be posted. This letter counterpoints the artist's strong affection for her mother with recollections of their conflicts.
"... Mother, Mother where are you? Why did you leave me? ... Will you ever come back? ... I don't need you. I will manage without you. Your bad opinion of me, Mother, was extremely painful and useful to me.... I learned to rely on myself. Other people's opinions of me wouldn't matter. That gave me a tremendous LIBERTY. The liberty to be myself.... I would REJECT your system of values and invent my own."
One of the ideas Saint Phalle rejected was her mother's strictly defined notion of the roles of men and women. Although a woman artist, Saint Phalle prefers not to take part in exhibitions of women's art. Her art unquestionably explores "woman" as variously perceived by society, but she has made it quite clear that she has ambitions for her art to be no different in scale and strength from the art predominantly produced by men. Her brand of feminism, well before the feminist movements of more recent year s, meant not admitting that men's art was anything that a woman's art could not be. She is stimulated by competition with men.
Saint Phalle also rejected her mother's Catholicism. But in this case, there is still an acceptance of chosen aspects of traditions connected with it. In some of her earlier works she treated Christian symbols iconoclastically; but even this amounts to a perverse kind of acknowledgment of their significance.
She is, arguably, in all her bright mischievousness, following an established tradition. There is a whole fantasy world of imps and grotesques, hobgoblins, dragons, and nasties that are firmly entrenched in folk memory. They are to be found in the stone carvings, often obscurely placed on beam ends and water spouts in medieval cathedrals and churches. Saint Phalle is a modern heir to these horrible and delightful inhabitants of some hellish world of the imagination.
The same world, or an extension of it, can be found in the demonic, fearsome paintings of Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) and continue to resurface in different forms of malevolence or funniness, horror or humor, up to our own time. Even Gaudi clearly enjoyed and adopted this fantasy world. And much of Saint Phalle's work comes from a similar fascination for the potential of the human imagination to dream up monsters in joyful abandon.
Her work also relates to a popular phenomenon derived from the same source of the weird and extraordinary: the "giants" and other larger-than-life characters featured in some Spanish fiesta processions - colorful parades celebrating religious occasions. Her giant heads and figures in plaster and papier mache belong to the same family.
It is interesting to see how Saint Phalle's work - made in collaboration with artist Jean Tinguely - outside one of Paris's most modernist buildings becomes an easy part of the lively street-scene of that area. The building is the Pompidou Center.
There is a persistent carnival atmosphere in the spaces around this popular building: Musicians and entertainers attract impromptu audiences. The troubadours of medieval romance are alive and well here.
The Saint Phalle-Tinguely fountains, set in a large rectangular pool, add color, wit, movement, and a kind of festiveness of their own. At one end of this pool of fun is the backdrop of the Pompidou Center itself, a brutally 20th-century building that is not only out of proportion to all the immediate older buildings but also a deliberate affront to the scale and character of central Paris architecture.
At the other end of the pool is a medieval church, not vast in size, and at first sight one might think that Saint Phalle and Tinguely have deliberately made what amounts to an impolite gesture of defiance from the rude 20th century towards this gothic building.
On better acquaintance, though, it becomes plain that the jokey humanity, the folk-appeal, the very high jinks of Saint Phalle and Tinguely, actually mediate between Pompidou and the Middle Ages - because they are quite peculiarly in tune with both.