Niki de Saint Phalle in all its glory

Niki de Saint Phalle, 1930 – 2002. A destiny broken down from childhood, falling into the irreversible at 11 years old; its intimate and initially blinding trencadis (‘Mosaic of ceramic and glass shards’), that she would soon recompose with rifle shots – she invented, at her beginnings, the explosive brushstroke – then with giant multicolored women (her powerful Pineapple) and, finally, colossally embodied mystical blades: the monumental Tarot garden, in Tuscany, “The most insane work of all its existence”.


Immediate feminist (you have to see her, in 1965, responding to a journalist who judges that her work is not “Feminine”), figurehead with delay, woman free to hurt herself (she will leave husband and toddlers to be able to exercise her art), frontal beauty and rebellious, unclassifiable artist, finally unbreakable, endlessly recomposed, Niki de Saint Phalle has spread its forms and its figures, often of women, often extreme, always liberating, through a good part of the XXe century, which is grateful to him. And today comes this novel in real pieces of her, beautiful and well deserved. A faithful and luminous homage, to the Babylonian style, to the woman, to the work, unbreakable. This is Caroline Deyns’ third novel, and undoubtedly the most ambitious: it is a question of doing justice to a spirit seriously free, elusive and troubled in principle, to mosaic him a total biography (which Saint Phalle envisaged besides it – even towards the end of his life), color the shadow areas, arrange them finely with the documented material, which is lighter. Connect, glue, plaster? An acrobatic biography, necessarily embodied – probable mimicry of the author, who is engulfed in her subject madly.

We rewind, we recompose. At 19, the Franco-American Niki married Harry. “With no other goal than to blow up the family environment with the only homemade bomb they were able to manufacture: a secret wedding.” She gives birth, twice, in stride. But the family life imposed in the 50s literally drives her crazy; it is a pale mirror which smooths her, encloses her, soon extinguishes all brilliance in her. “In 1953, a brutal depression, a suicide attempt.” And a long silence, “Zipped like a cover, like those you place on sleeping furniture or corpses”. Because there are monsters in Niki. Daddy.


He is prescribed electrical therapy, internment. Where it nestles, paradoxically, as in an unprecedented space of freedom. Where she finds, above all, the time to create. She will never hide from it: “I started to paint with the mad.” Then it is the flight, far from the family cocoon-prison and this “Fordism of mothering” which no woman escapes then. “What kind of mother is she to desire something else?” Mental load questioned before the hour. “I am something other than a writer’s wife who paints. I love my children but I have chosen to abandon them. ” It already shatters the frame, the imposed form. She is then quickly noticed with her “Shooting tables”, “Performative massacre games unique enough to attract attention” ; in short, the first bursts of a “Deviant work” who seems to refuse “To the male grip”. They call her furious, hysterical, witch; we are overwhelmed. “I was fortunate enough to meet art because I had, on a psychological level, everything it takes to become a terrorist.” In truth, “Niki remains a turbinating instinctive in turmoil. It is only once the work is finished that the theorization comes, the intellectualization of the gesture. “

Jean Tinguely emerges on his cross road. A stretched out dinner with friends, ordinary, where the Swiss artist who faces her suddenly crushes, while staring at her, her butt in the lump of butter glistening between them. A fusion of dare-dare, love and art. We will remember “The uniqueness of their artistic companionship […], this formidable creativity with two backs ”. But Niki will finish her big alone trencadis, “Brief journey from dislocation to reconstruction. Crushing the unique to develop the composite, crushing the frozen to give birth to movement, breaking the everyday to invent the fairy, is that it? “ To create, finally, “An architectural language that would speak the language of lullabies” and no longer fear the perpetual night within her, her very real old monsters.

Antonin Iommi-Amunategui

Caroline Deyns Trencadis Some, 364 pp., € 22 (eBook: 14,99 €).


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