by Dilpreet BhullarJun 14, 2023
'Enough…' I found myself pleading. I had arrived at the final corner of what seemed like a boundless, colourfully painted room filled with sculptural assemblages and two-dimensional paintings by Niki de Saint Phalle, the French American artist, sculptor and a legend, over various moments within the span of her lifetime. I had had enough. Not in a nauseating sense. Not in a glutinous, over-stimulated sense. Not in a triggering, traumatised or painful sense. Rather, the way you imbibe a delicately balanced 12-course culinary masterpiece, thankful for the mindfulness of each portion that left you feeling sated but not stuffed, exuberant but not exhausted, in a state of bliss as against comatose.
It was difficult to conceive that it was just a regular day at an art exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany. The stream of people coming and going felt colossal, not all of them able-bodied or the kind you usually see at the museums. There were groups of people with Down Syndrome; senior citizens with walking sticks; armies of regular men and women, not necessarily from the art world. Watching each body that was present being lured, drawn, seduced and overcome by the works on display was one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had in either an art museum or an art gallery. This level of euphoria I hadn’t even encountered at the Venice Biennale’s 2022 edition, which was the last time I had seen Saint Phalle’s work, specifically her Nana sculptures.
The whole experience felt like a ‘happening’ in itself, and I wondered what the atmosphere must have been like when Saint Phalle held one of her legendary ‘shootings’ during which she encouraged her audience to target her white-plastered two-dimensional paintings with firearms so the gunshot would trigger the explosion of concealed paint or soup cans, summoning the artifice that only chance could produce and inviting the kind of spontaneous collaboration the art world had never before known. The exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle focussed on some of these paintings, even displaying the shooting costume she once wore, but it wonderfully allowed for that to be a point of origin and departure, not making of it the central narrative but using the genre to establish the avant garde nature of Saint Phalle's artistic imagination and her radicality as a woman inhabiting a male-dominated art world as a self-trained or ‘outsider’ sculpture artist.
The exhibition embraced colourful walls instead of a white cube set up, transforming the site into a theatrical entity, mimicking the kind of frenetic energy that has characterised Saint Phalle’s most monumental installations, like her Tarot Garden in Southern Tuscany. This accommodation of bright colours enabled an electrifying atmosphere, doubly enunciating the explosiveness of Saint Phalle’s aesthetic against the minimalist grain that was the norm during the beginnings of her artistic career. The Nana sculptures, the body of work she began doing when she relinquished the shooting paintings to which she confessed she had become addicted, were displayed in the centre of the room in what felt like a grand assemblage. This army of buoyant, jubilant, acrobatic, heavy, fleshy bodies had such an enormous presence, you could see the viewing audience feel dizzy almost, the guards having to constantly remind people to maintain a distance. To be part of such a disoriented viewing public felt like such a high!
Viewing the works, one really got a sense of the fleshiness of Saint Phalle’s aesthetics. Her insistence on building works that were not only visceral but whose production demanded so much from her own body. She suffered all her life from the consequences of inhaling toxic fumes from the materials she was working with, many of which were being used in artistic production for the first time. Glimpsing her temples, her tea party, her woman in the midst of make up, her meditative temples, her temple to multiple religions and her grotesque bride on a horse, all of it in such close and heady proximity to each other enhanced the physicality of her works, their multi-dimensional nature, their political overtones and Saint Phalle’s general audacity as an artist and a woman.
The exhibition contained a fraction of her life’s work, but it was enough, carefully enough, deliciously enough to infect you with the kind of jouissance that she seemed to embody until her death. I left with this feeling of rapture and euphoria. I am sure I wasn’t the only one.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)