On ViewHenie Onstad Arts Center
Niki de Saint Phalle
September 16, 2022–February 12, 2023
At the end of the 1950s, Niki de Saint Phalle created a self-portrait in shards of ceramics. In Autoportrait (1958–59), the French-American artist’s body is shattered, as if in a state of becoming. And yet, Saint Phalle stands defiantly towards the viewer; her kohl-framed eyes, full lips, and high cheekbones instantly recognizable as a model from the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Life Magazine. It is a powerful image of intent, which reflects Saint Phalle’s embrace of painting and collage as part of her recovery from a mental breakdown in 1953, as well as her own vulnerable psychic and physical state. It captures a moment of profound transition, when Saint Phalle’s marriage to Harry Mathews and her acceptance of domestic womanhood was fracturing, and she would devote herself to life as an artist.
Saint Phalle’s retrospective at the Henie Onstad Arts Center is the first of its kind in Norway, although Scandinavia held a warm place in her heart. Significantly, in 1966, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm hosted Saint Phalle’s cathedral-like Hon—a gargantuan version of the voluptuous pregnant figures known as the “Nanas.” The Henie Onstad show sits alongside recent surveys at MoMA PS1, New York (2021) and the Grand Palais, Paris (2014–15) that have asserted Saint Phalle’s importance in art history, having long been underestimated for her jubilant celebration of the female body, her commercial endeavors of making jewelry and perfume, and her own beauty. As Saint Phalle explains, “Art to most people is something terribly serious and people refuse to realize that joy is something terribly serious, too.”
In comparison to MoMA PS1’s focus upon Saint Phalle’s later, monumental works, Henie Onstad does not shy away from the less familiar and glamorous parts of her career. Early paintings give way to Saint Phalle’s radical assemblages, which curator Caroline Ugelstad places in the context of Nouveau Réalisme in Europe and Neo-Dada and Pop in America, highlighting her appearance in The Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1961).
The exhibition includes significant examples of the “Tirs (Shooting Paintings)” (1961–63), which Saint Phalle made by firing a rifle at white plaster reliefs embedded with hidden bags of paint. When punctured, these bags erupted into streams of color, like blood or tears. Saint Phalle was taking aim at her old life, at her religious upbringing, at the violence of her youth, at politics, at history. Her urgent voice from video footage of the “Tirs” echoes through the galleries: “My problem is creating. It’s creating now, it’s creating beauty, it’s creating something … which has to do with … bombs and everything exploding and the end of the world!”
Three leaping and pirouetting “Nanas” mark the decisive shift into the second half of the show and Saint Phalle’s mature career. These are the gatekeepers of Saint Phalle’s magical world, their plump silhouettes emphasized by colorful concentric circles over their breasts and bellies. But within the context of Saint Phalle’s wider oeuvre, the childlike joy associated with the “Nanas” is made more complex. These are the vengeful rulers of a new matriarchy, reclaiming the female body. The exhibition also highlights Saint Phalle’s often overlooked “white period” of women in the guise of brides, devouring mothers, and witches. A particularly fearsome figure is the embodiment of Charles Dickens’s tragic Miss Havisham, dressed in white and seeming to dissolve into dust as she waits for her wedding day. Shrouded in a veil, her body is encrusted with children's dolls that threaten to consume her.
The final spaces are devoted to the extraordinary public sculpture parks to which Saint Phalle devoted so much of her energy, including Noah’s Ark (1990–94) in Jerusalem and Queen Califia’s Magical Circle in California (opened 2003). Drawings, photographs, and film footage reveal the making of Saint Phalle’s magnum opus, the Tarot Garden in the Tuscan countryside, with its monsters and goddesses. For Saint Phalle, it represented the realization of a lifelong ambition to create her “own garden of joy.” While this exhibition gathers a tremendous number of loans together, it seems a shame that there are not more of the monumental works on view in the surrounding forests of the Henie Onstad, which houses a sculpture park of its own on the edge of the fjord, though a magnificent standing bird by Saint Phalle welcomes visitors to the museum.
Perhaps Saint Phalle’s greatest trick has been to hide the darker truths of herself and her work in plain sight. We feel we understand the radiant palette and fertility of her female bodies, and yet we do not. Saint Phalle once said, “I’m condemned to show everything. Put it all in my work. But luckily most people have no idea what they’re looking at.” Henie Onstad reveals the marvelous entirety of Saint Phalle’s career, beyond the exuberant surface to the dark and twisted edges of the avant-garde.