press release

With her “shooting paintings,” Niki de Saint Phalle dramatically entered the art world of the 1960s, and with her spectacular exhibition SHE, the French artist forever secured a place within the international history of art. Saint Phalle is today strongly represented in Moderna Museet’s collection, thanks to donations from the artist herself and from the former museum director Pontus Hultén. The Girl, the Monster and the Goddess presents a majority of these works, some for the first time, together with archival material, newly produced documentaries and a few carefully selected loans. With the exhibition, Moderna Museet wishes to reflect both the vibrant vitality but also the darkness of Saint Phalle’s captivating work.

In 1959, in an era when few women were allowed to make a professional career, Niki de Saint Phalle left her husband and two small children in order to dedicate herself wholeheartedly to her art. The following year she made her first “shooting paintings,” in which encapsulated sacks of paint exploded when shot with a rifle, causing the paintings to bleed. The shooting paintings made a huge splash in the media and Saint Phalle developed them into large-scale reliefs and altar panels depicting the hypocrisy of the church and the waning hegemony of the patriarchy. In preparation for the shootings, she dressed in a special white pantsuit. Siting down the barrel of a gun at the painting, she appeared like nothing less than a fairy-tale heroine, or perhaps a more contemporary action hero like Emma Peel or Modesty Blaise.

“Throughout her entire career as an artist,” says curator Joa Ljungberg, “Niki de Saint Phalle returned to the personal wounds and traumas that led her to become an artist in the first place. In the film Daddy, for example, or in the artist book The Devouring Mothers, we encounter her as a young girl trying to relate to a father who can’t control his own sexuality. With the help of fantasy and mythology Saint Phalle was able to tame the monsters within her, while at the same time bring them together with global and gendered power structures.”

In the late 1950s and early 60s Saint Phalle managed to establish herself internationally. As the first and only woman she joined the French artistic movement, Nouveau Réalisme, which also included Arman, Christo, Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, and Jacques de la Villeglé. In 1961 she had her first solo exhibition in Paris, got to know the artist duo Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and participated in the influential group exhibition The Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

With the exhibition of SHE - A Cathedral in 1966, Saint Phalle and Moderna Museet made history. Lying on her back with legs spread, this gigantic “nana” filled the entire gallery space. Curious museumgoers could enter through her vagina and wander around inside her body. The rattling and creaking interior, created by Saint Phalle’s fellow artists, Jean Tinguely and Per-Olov Ultvedt, offered amongst other things a milk bar, a planetarium, a goldfish pond, and a movie theater showing Greta Garbo’s first film, Luffar-Petter, from 1922. SHE was referred to as both a pop chick and a fertility goddess, and the exhibition drew headlines like “SHE: a Besetting sin at the Moderna?” “Suggestive First Mother” and “Well, what IS a woman's place?”

Niki de Saint Phalle
The Girl, the Monster and the Goddess.
Kurator: Joa Ljungberg