I just got back from 10 days in Europe where I was immersed in the work of French American Artist, Niki de Saint Phalle. A friend of mine works for her foundation and among other things we went to the opening of a museum retrospective of her work at the Grand Palais in Paris and then her Tarot Sculpture Garden in Tuscany.
I can honestly say I am inspired by her. Not so much by the late work that made her famous (above), but more so by her early work and the process of her life, the progression of her art and the sacrifices she made. Her work crosses the trajectory from the purging of the darkness of early wounds to the reaching for something universal and joyful in her well known “Nana” sculptures.
This photo of one of her brides is hard to appreciate if you don’t see it in person. It’s a collage of plastic spiders and babies and other disturbing things. A dark commentary on the limitations imposed on women when forced to uptake the role of wife and mother by conditioning rather than choice.
She was molested by her father as a child and much of her early work is purging the anger and sadness and sense of betrayal this caused her as well as divesting herself of society’s expectations of her as a woman to be a wife and mother. Some of her earliest work, the Shooting Paintings, express outrage against injustice of all sorts especially against the innocent.
Why am I so taken with this woman’s story? It is the parallels that validate my own path as an artist that make is so powerful for me. I too have seen my work move from the dark, violent and personal to something purer, simpler and more universal or illuminated.
I too have struck on simpler, purified work that seems to have more commercial viability.
I too knew and released the confines of traditional marriage and family. I too have had an on again, off again lover and muse who I simply can not shake despite the best efforts and advice of my friends and therapist. I too have sacrificed my health and wealth to create art.
But perhaps more than all of that was my appreciation for her early work and how it caused me to appreciate mine. What I saw in the retrospective at Le Grand Palais was not only the accomplishment and appeal of the later work, but how much the humanity and the personal struggle of Niki’s early work spoke to me. It was like watching the progression from the human to the divine condition. It was the human condition that spoke to me, stayed with me, haunted me. And it seemed much of that early work is still in the possession of her foundation. Niki, perhaps more than I up to this point, understood its value and spent the money and effort to warehouse it, never discarding or destroying it.
Meanwhile I have been balking at storing my early work because it’s too confusing to market to art industry people as I try to make a name and a living for myself. It has felt like a weight on me, a burden, not just because of the physical space it takes up but because it represents old, now dead, released painful emotional experience. Stacks and stacks of canvases that chronicle my personal pain and grief as I released my marriage, my emotionally abusive relationships with my parents and of course my on again off again relationship which triggers all of that old stuff every time it ends.
Learning about Niki and her work made me appreciate myself. She validated my struggles as an artist and confirmed the courage it takes to give everything else up. She caused me to appreciate the journey from personal pain to universal illumination. Even at the end the beginning is present. We hold its hand as we walk into the light.