5 Fast Facts: Niki de Saint Phalle

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002), whose work Pregnant Nana (1993) is on view in NMWA’s newly reinstalled collection galleries.

1. Art Therapy

A self-taught artist who had previously studied theater, Saint Phalle turned to painting after being hospitalized for a mental breakdown in 1953. Shortly after being discharged, she decided to abandon acting to pursue art more seriously.

Nikie de Saint Phalle - Pregnant Nana

Niki de Saint Phalle, Pregnant Nana, 1993; Carved and painted marble, 31 in. high; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift from the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Gift of Jeffrey H. Loria); Artwork © Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

2. With a Bang

While experimenting with materials, Saint Phalle created “Shooting Paintings.” She embedded hidden paint pouches in large assemblages under plaster. Shooting these works with rifles and pistols—and even cannons—caused explosions of color that completed each piece.

3. The Every(wo)man

In 1965, Saint Phalle started creating “Nanas,” abstract sculptures of women in varying poses, colors, and sizes. While nana means “chick” or “dame” in French, the artist viewed these works as modern archetypal figures of “Every(wo)man.”

4. Larger than Life

Saint Phalle opened her most famous exhibition, Hon—en katedral (She—A Cathedral), in 1966 at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. The interactive installation consisted of massive, reclined construction of a Nana, which visitors could enter through her open legs. Inside, visitors found a milk bar, aquarium, small theater, a kids’ slide, and other hidden surprises.

5. Artist/Activist

While many of her works are playful, Saint Phalle also tackled serious sociopolitical issues. Pieces like AIDS, You Can’t Catch it Holding Hands (1986), Guns (2001), and Daddy (1972) respectively deal with the AIDS crisis, gun violence, and sexual assault/abuse.

—Erin Allen was the winter/spring 2019 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.