Allons-y! Exploring Francophone Sculpture in NMWA’s Collection

On Saturday, April 6, NMWA held its first-ever Language Immersion Conversation Piece. Based on the same framework as daily 30-minute discussion-based experiences, visitors from the Young Women’s Francophone Meetup Group explored the collection galleries to learn more about Francophone women artists while practicing their French. Together, the group found common threads among three sculptures on view in the collection: Après la tempête (After the Storm) (ca. 1876) by Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), Pregnant Nana (1993) by Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002), and Spider III (1995) by Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). While these pieces differ greatly in style, they’re tied together by a common theme—the artists’ depiction of maternal love.

Sarah Bernhardt, Après la tempête (After the Storm), ca. 1876; White marble, 29 1/2 x 24 x 23 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Sarah Bernhardt, Après la tempête (After the Storm), ca. 1876; White marble, 29 1/2 x 24 x 23 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Viewing the first sculpture, Après la tempête, the group took a few moments to look closely at minute details. They noticed the contrast between the smooth skin of the young boy and the rough, wrinkled face of his grandmother, as well as the careful carving of the fishing net draped between the figures. Despite the somber tone of the piece, some visitors discussed the grandmother’s strength as she cradles her dying grandson. Others noted the possibility of a hopeful ending to the otherwise tragic scene, suggested by the power with which the young boy grasps his grandmother’s robes.

Following this solemn piece, visitors explored the uplifting themes in Saint Phalle’s Pregnant Nana. The group noted the vibrancy of this piece in comparison to the first—the bright patterns of color adorning the breasts, stomach, and buttocks of the figure drew their attention to these stereotypically feminine parts of her form. They also discussed the meaning of the title, and learned that nana is actually a slang term for “chick” or “broad” in French. The figure’s celebratory, carefree pose, combined with an informal title, speak to the joy of motherhood, rather than the pain that Bernhardt depicts in the first sculpture.

The last thematic piece immediately stood out from the others, and the group questioned what Bourgeois’s Spider III had to do with the concept of motherhood. Some mentioned Charlotte’s Web as a possible connection, and learned that Bourgeois associated spiders with her own mother due to their fierce protectiveness and ingenuity. The abstract portrayal of motherhood in this work urged the group to think outside the box when it comes to what maternal love can look like, and also provided the opportunity to learn a new word—tisserand—meaning “weaver” in French.

Louise Bourgeois, Spider III, 1995; Bronze, 19 x 33 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; Photo by Emily Haight

Louise Bourgeois, Spider III, 1995; Bronze, 19 x 33 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; Photo by Emily Haight

Discussing these sculptures in French prompted an engaging conversation about the significance and cultural context of the artwork. This Language Immersion Conversation Piece offered visitors the opportunity to practice speaking a second language, and also provided a platform for creating new dialogues between works by Francophone women artists.

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

Art Fix Friday: August 19, 2016

Nan Goldin asks, “I’m not responsible for anything like social media, am I? Tell me I’m not.”

The New York Times draws parallels between Goldin’s signature work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, and the current culture of image sharing.

Front-Page Femmes

Hyperallergic writes, “We should all be inspired by Alma Thomas’s optimism.”

Niki de Saint Phalle’s sculpture garden in Tuscany contains 22 “massive, globular forms of divine goddesses and strange beasts.”

Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, will travel to four additional museums in North America. The Art Newspaper and artnet share the excitement.

Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo tours Bogotá and her studio for the Guardian.

Polixeni Papapetrou uses flowers from a cemetery to explore themes of mourning and remembrance.

The Brooklyn Museum will celebrate the tenth anniversary of its Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

The Art Newspaper explores Shirin Neshat’s two new video works.

Artsy profiles the Neo Naturists, a “body-painting trio of female flashers” that started an underground art movement in the 1980s.

The Huffington Post shares a list of ten exceptional women photographers.

In LACMA’s new video series, Catherine Opie discusses a painting by Thomas Eakins in the museum’s collection.

Alexandra Berg’s pencil drawings “would fool anyone into thinking they were black and white photographs.”

A new solo exhibition presents three recent bodies of work by Barbara Kasten.

Photographer Lisa Minogue creates stylized portraits of Australian women of color by using vibrant face paint.

In her “Reading Women” series, Carrie Schneider photographs and films women artists reading works by their favorite women authors.

artnet shares five interesting facts about Italian artist and activist Tina Modotti (1896–1942) on the anniversary of her birth.

A rare letter by pioneering travel writer Mary Wortley Montagu goes up for sale.

Lisa Hannigan’s latest album “sneaks up and envelops listeners in cocoons of sound.”

The Guardian discusses revolutionary Australian feminist films of the ’90s.

After her directorial debut, Natalie Portman discusses the status of female directors in Hollywood.

Hyperallergic delves into Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film, Je tu il elle.

Shows We Want to See

Paola Pivi: Ma’am at Dallas Contemporary features Italian artist Paula Pivi’s “multicolored polar bears, an upside down plane, a giant inflatable ladder, and a film of live goldfish on an airplane.”

NPR finds “a brave sense of modernity and freedom” in The Art of Romaine Brooks at Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Eau de Cologne at Sprüth Magers gallery presents works by Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Rosemarie Trockel, and Louise Lawler. The exhibition is “rooted in an appreciation for these women who are rare in the field of contemporary art: strident and singular and commercially successful.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: April 15, 2016

The New Yorker traces French sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle’s unconventional life and art through her Tarot Garden—a project she had “envisioned in a dream . . . when she was locked in an asylum.”

For the two decades that Saint Phalle worked on the sculpture park in Tuscany she lived inside a house-sized sculpture of a sphinx. The artist wanted to create “a sort of joyland” where visitors could have “a new kind of life that would just be free.”

Front-Page Femmes

French street artist Mademoiselle Maurice arranges candy-colored origami works in unexpected places.

Kit King’s hyper-realistic and abstract work conveys the artist’s struggle with agoraphobia.

Italian artist Chiara Fumai “channels the ghosts of marginalized women” in an exhibition that “scandalizes and unsettles the viewer.”

Conceptual artist Maria Eichhorn’s next show gives gallery staff five weeks off from work.

Carrie Mae Weems reflects on her kitchen table series and says, “I knew what it meant for me, but I didn’t know what it would mean historically, within the terms of a graphic history.”

Marilyn Minter will sell 50 editions of her portrait of Miley Cyrus to support Planned Parenthood.

The New York Times asked female architects to talk about their experiences in the field and the professional challenges they face.

Work by female artists will make up 36% of all the work displayed in the redesigned Tate Modern.

Designated as a national monument this week, the formerly-named Sewall-Belmont House & Museum commemorates women’s history.

Salima Koroma creates Bad Rap, a documentary about four Asian-American rappers.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet celebrates Maya Angelou during National Poetry Month.

Mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn performs an experimental 75-minute opera about science—complete with lyrics drawn from famous scientists.

The Guardian asks, “Why, in 2016, are women still (mostly) silent film stars?”

Cartoonist Julie Doucet’s Carpet Sweeper Tales combines images from Italian novels and magazines to create “a narrative of male-female power relations.”

Wikipedia edit-a-thons help improve the visibility of women artists. Only 13–23% of Wikipedia’s contributors are women and only 15% of its biographies are about women.

The Argonauts author Maggie Nelson says, “The important thing is that whatever baggage you have from your life that you bring to intellectual scenarios is not going to keep you from being able to focus on the intellectual work being done.”

Slate celebrates the 100th anniversary of Beverly Cleary’s birth by highlighting the author’s four mostly-forgotten novels.

Shows We Want to See

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Hyperallergic examines works by Elise Ansel (left) and Sarah Braman (right)

An exhibition at Bowdoin College Museum of Art, showcases how Maine-based painter Elise Ansel re-creates, re-visions, and re-presents paintings from the past.

You Are Everything features Sarah Braman’s sculptures combining salvaged objects—like bunk beds and campers—with colorful prisms.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907), a lesser-known German painter who “exalted women in her paintings,” receives a retrospective in Paris of her brief ten-year career.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Feminism and Daring: Cataloguing Niki de Saint Phalle

“Very early on I decided to become a heroine . . .” said Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002). “What did it matter who I would be? The main thing was that it had to be difficult, grandiose, exciting.”

That quote, which adorns the back cover of Niki de Saint Phalle (La Fábrica / Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2015), captures the ambition and bravado of the French-American artist. The lush catalogue was published for a recent retrospective of Saint Phalle’s work that was shown at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the RMN-Grand Palais in Paris.

Saint Phalle may be best known for exuberant mosaic sculptures known as her “Nanas,” several of which were showcased as the inaugural works in NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project. This retrospective celebrates and contextualizes her Nanas while shedding light on her other work—from paintings to sculptures to experimental films—as well as her boldly cultivated persona and the political and feminist subjects that her art addressed.

In this catalogue, Saint Phalle’s work is presented in four sections—“The Beginnings,” on her formative work; “Shooting, Performances, and Commitment,” which traces her public persona and action-based Shooting Paintings; “Feminine Imagery,” highlighting her vibrant and sometimes aggressive portrayals of women; and “Sculpture and Public Art.” Numerous contributors include Bloum Cardenas, the artist’s granddaughter and trustee of the Niki Charitable Art Foundation, and Camille Morineau, lead exhibition curator.

Morineau’s introductory essay asserts Saint Phalle’s status as a feminist and risk-taker with a “mixture of coherence, complexity, and courage which distinguishes great artists.”

All are welcome to look at this catalogue, which is available in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. If you’re touring the museum’s exhibitions, the library is open to the public and makes a great starting point on the fourth floor. In addition to beautiful books and comfortable chairs, library visitors enjoy interesting exhibitions that feature archival manuscripts, personal papers by women artists, rare books, and artists’ books. Reference Desk staff members are always happy to answer questions and offer assistance. Open Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1–5 p.m.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: September 18, 2015

Women, Arts, and Social Change is NMWA’s new initiative to address gender parity in the art world. NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling spoke with artnet about the inspiration behind the program and its cross-disciplinary series Fresh Talk. Conversations will feature figures like Carrie Mae Weems and Guerrilla Girl Alma Thomas.

Sterling says, “Current discourse focused on women and social change typically do not include any depth on the arts and programs focused on arts and social change tend to underrepresent women’s contributions. With our mission to champion women through the arts, no organization is more uniquely poised to take up this conversation.”

Front-Page Femmes

ARTnews shares that the The Protector of Home and Family is the “first known visual art work by Dr. Maya Angelou to be publicly exhibited or offered for sale.” Angelou’s art collection also sold for nearly $1.3 million on Tuesday.

The Huffington Post lists 10 historic women photographers, including Nan Goldin, Shirin Neshat, and Diane Arbus.

“I am strong. I am a woman. And I bite like a Mamba!” says a member of the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit to photographer Julia Gunther. Gunther chronicled the work of the majority-female patrol in South Africa.

ARTnews visits artist Natalie Frank in her Brooklyn studio.

ARTINFO includes Joyce Kozloff among the list of 25 most collectible midcareer artists.

Marilyn Minter discusses Photoshop, feminism, fashion, and fine art. A supporter of other women artists, Minter says, “When a show is curated, it has to have other women in, too, or I won’t do the show.”

The New Yorker compares the divergent paths of two Iranian artists, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and Shirin Neshat.

In honor of the author’s 125th birthday, BBC archivists released lost Agatha Christie radio plays.

Rachel Cassandra’s upcoming book incorporates the work of 20 women street artists in South and Central America.

Women’s Voices Theater Festival is an initiative by 50 of the D.C. region’s professional theaters to present at least one world-premiere play by a female playwright during a six-week period.

Television is as male-dominated as the film industry. This year, women make up 42% of all speaking characters and 27% of behind-the-scenes roles like creators, writers, and producers.

Shows We Want to See

Jewelry and related drawings by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle will be featured at Louisa Guinness Gallery.

A survey of American installation artist Ree Morton is on view at Madrid’s Reina Sofia. Hyperallergic says Morton’s late works “have waded into the contested feminist debate about “women’s art”…by deliberately overstating a girlish, kitschy aesthetic in order to lay bare its gendered stereotypes.”

The Silversmith’s Art: Made in Britain Today at the National Museum of Scotland showcases 150 silverworks and half of the artists are women, “showing the increasingly pivotal role women represent in contemporary British silversmithing.”

(Em)Power Dynamics: Exploring the Modes of Female Empowerment and Representation in Americaan all-woman show—is on view at The Gateway Project Space in New Jersey.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Niki de Saint Phalle: Her Work

Niki de Saint Phalle, whose work will soon be on view as part of the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, worked in varying scale and a range of materials throughout her career. Though Saint Phalle did work in more traditional media such as oil paint, she first gained the attention of the art world in 1961 through her Tirs or “shooting paintings.” Through these works, she expressed her anger toward patriarchal power and conservatism. To create her Tirs, Saint Phalle filled containers with paint and embedded them in plaster assemblages—three dimensional collages. Niki de Saint Phalle and others shot at the works with a rifle, bursting the containers, and sending paint down the surface of the plaster.

Saint Phalle’s Tirs illustrate that destruction can lead to creation, a principle she applied in subsequent mosaic sculptures with pieces of broken glass, ceramic, and mirror. She had discovered mosaic in the 1950s with visits to Antonio Gaudí’s Park Güell in Barcelona and Joseph-Ferdinand Cheval’s Le Palais Idéal in southern France and was inspired by the use of stone and mosaic work but also by their participatory nature. Saint Phalle wrote to her husband and fellow artist Jean Tinguely about Gaudí and Cheval: “They represented the beauty of mankind…without any intermediary, without museum, without galleries.”

Queen Califia's Magical Circle Sculpture Park in Escondido, California

The New York Avenue Sculpture Project will feature four examples of her monumental public sculptures with mosaic done in polyester, mirror, ceramic, and glass. These already exuberant sculptures are further enlivened by the texture and reflection created by their mosaic surface. Some of her mosaic sculptures are single figures displayed along or in small groups but she also created large scale environments. Between 1978 and 1998, Saint Phalle and a team of collaborators worked on the Tarot Garden or Giardino Dei Tarocchi in Tuscany.  Inspired by the symbolism of the Tarot, 22 large scale sculptures were created. Some of the sculptures included interior space, and Saint Phalle lived and worked in The Empress for a period of seven years. In 2000, Niki de Saint Phalle began work on a second sculpture garden: Queen Califia’s Magical Circle in Escondido, California. Completed in 2003, a year after the artist’s death, the Garden consists of nine sculptures as well as architectural elements and landscaping “inspired by California’s mythic, historic and cultural roots.”   

You can save yourself a trip to Tuscany or Southern California by visiting the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, opening in late April 2010!

-Anna Allegro is Associate Educator at NMWA.

When NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling visited Queen Califia in 2008, she knew Saint Phalle's work would be the perfect sculptures to inaugurate the New York Avenue Sculpture Project.

Niki de Saint Phalle: Her Life

In Niki de Saint Phalle’s sculptures, light seems to dance as it reflects off mosaic surfaces made from glass, mirrors, and colored stones. The sinuous curves and massive forms of the sculptures themselves radiate a sense of movement and a tangible dynamism. Saint Phalle’s sculptures are individualistic, coinciding with the care-free attitude of the artist.

Niki de Saint Phalle painting Le Monde, c. 1981 Photo by Laurent Codominas © 2010 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved.

Saint Phalle was born in France and in her early years exemplified her defiant attitude through the creation of her art. While attending a convent school in her youth, Saint Phalle painted the fig leaves covering the classical sculptures on campus red, illustrating an early love of color and a disregard for following the rules. In her late teens, she married writer Harry Mathews, began a career as a fashion model, and also studied to become an actress. But in 1953, she was hospitalized for depression, and it was then that she began to delve into painting and collage.

Saint Phalle was a self-taught artist who experimented with creative techniques that were distinctly her own. Harry Mathews, her first husband, said, “When she found work she liked, she absorbed and devoured it; rather than analyzing it rationally, she remained instinctive and developed her intuitions patiently and observantly.”[1] Due to the unique methods Saint Phalle used to create her “Tirs” (Shootings) works of the early 1960s, she was associated with the Nouveaux Réalistes group in France, whose members included Jean Tinguely, who would become Saint Phalle’s second husband. In the mid-1960s, Saint Phalle began to focus on figures of women. She called these sculptures “Nanas,” which translates to “broads” or “chicks” in English. These works epitomize Saint Phalle’s fascination with both conventional and progressive ideas about femininity. The voluptuous figures allude to historical fertility symbols and are celebratory of the female form.

Niki de Saint Phalle shooting Tir tableau, parking lot on Sunset Strip Blvd., Los Angeles, California, on March 4, 1962 © 2010 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved. © Photo William Claxton

Saint Phalle died in 2002 but left behind a legacy of unique and fascinating works that explore a number of different themes including Animals, Totems, and Black Heroes. Come see Niki de Saint Phalle’s work at NMWA beginning April 28th. Visit www.nmwa.org/sculptureproject to learn more and find out how you can participate in the Opening Celebration!

Niki de Saint Phalle, Les trios grâces (The Three Graces), 1999 © 2010 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved



[1] “Portrait of a Woman; La Hachoir; Face/Self PortraitPortrait of a Woman; il: La Hachoir; il: Face/Self Portrait; Living With Niki.” Tate Etc.(Spring 2008): 44-51. Art Full Text, WilsonWeb (accessed March 11, 2010).

About the Author-Breezy Diether is currently an education intern at NMWA.

Contemporary Sculpture Dances Down New York Avenue

An artist’s rendering of the New York Avenue Sculpture Project

NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project is a bold new art installation that will beautify Washington for years to come. Through an innovative private-public partnership among NMWA, the DC Office of Planning, and the Downtown DC Business Improvement District (BID), sculptural works will line the medians along New York Avenue, NW, from Herald Square at 13th Street to Mount Vernon Square at 9th Street.

On April 28, NMWA will unveil the first installment of contemporary sculptures along New York Avenue from 13th Street to 12th Street, right in front of the museum. Upon the completion of all four phases in 2015, the sculpture project will provide a unique cultural attraction as the first and only major outdoor sculpture boulevard in the city. Each sculpture will remain on display for one to three years and then will be replaced by another artist’s work. NMWA hopes to create a dynamic space for the works of female artists to be displayed and celebrated.

The New York Avenue Sculpture Project will eventually stretch from NMWA at 13th Street to Mount Vernon Square at 9th Street.

The New York Avenue Sculpture Project’s goals align closely with the plans established for Washington, D.C., in 1791 by architect Major Pierre L’Enfant. L’Enfant envisioned the city with wide tree-lined avenues that connect open spaces and offer grand vistas. New York Avenue, when lined with important sculptures, will complement L’Enfant’s layout.

The first phase of the project features works from the oeuvre of French-born artist Niki de Saint Phalle: Nana on a Dolphin, 1998, L’Arbre serpents (Serpent Tree), #23 Basketball Player and Les trois grâces (The Three Graces), all from 1999. Each monumental sculpture is a splash of exuberant color that will revitalize downtown D.C. These 12- and 15- foot high figures were created with fiberglass then covered with mosaic glass, mirrors, and colored stones. Saint Phalle’s joyful works celebrate women, children, heroes, cultural diversity, and love.

Detail of Niki de Saint Phalle's Three Graces, 1999

Niki de Saint Phalle’s colorful Three Graces, 1999

Visit www.nmwa.org/sculptureproject to learn more and find out how you can participate in the Opening Celebration!