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Complete retrospective of the work of Niki de Saint Phalle opens at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Diana’s Dream (Le Rêve de Diane), 1970. Painted polyester, 280 x 600 x 350 cm. © Niki Charitable Art Foudation, Santee, USA. Photo: © Laurent Condominas.

BILBAO.- The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao presents Niki de Saint Phalle , a complete retrospective of the work of Niki de Saint Phalle (Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, 1930 –San Diego, California, 2002), member of the Nouveaux Réalistes and known around the world for works like her powerful, exuberant Nanas , her impressive Shooting Paintings — Tirs — , and emblematic public artworks like the Tarot Garden in Tuscany.

This exhibition, organized by the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and La Réunion des Musées Nationaux–Grand Palais, Paris, with the participation of the Niki Charitable Art Foundation, is the first major retrospective of Niki de Saint Phalle's work ever held in Spain and takes a comprehensive and original look at the artist through over 200 works and archive documents, many of which have never been published.

This broad selection faithfully documents the multiple facets—painter, sculptor, printmaker, performer, and experimental filmmaker—of an artist with a singular creative universe and a pioneering worldview, punctuated by screenings that show Saint Phalle talking about her work.

As visitors wander through the more than 2,000 square meters of exhibition space, they will come across the milestones and legends that marked the career of Niki de Saint Phalle, an artist who earned international acclaim and acknowledgment in her lifetime and, like Andy Warhol before her, knew how to attract the media's interest.

The pieces in the show arranged in the chronological order and according to subjects, address recurring themes in Niki de Saint Phalle's artistic trajectory, such as the power of the feminine and open defiance of social conventions. In her works, the artist combines her intense political and social engagement and radicalism with color and the optimism of her world-famous Nanas.

The retrospective thus reveals a paradoxical, singular creative universe inspired by Gaudí, Dubuffet, and Pollock.

A Franco-American Artist
Niki de Saint Phalle was born and spent much of her life in France, although she grew up in the United States where she chose to remain for the final years of her career. Always with one foot in each world, she was active on the art scenes of both her homelands.

Known as the only woman artist to join France's Nouveaux Réalistes, she has also been linked to the Neo-Dada artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and their "Combines" and is considered one of the forerunners of Pop Art, to which she brought a new slant.

The First Feminist Artist
Niki de Saint Phalle is also regarded as the first major feminist artist of the 20th century. By choosing to represent the female body, eroticism, and great figures of legend in a new way, she challenged the established norms and promoted the power of women and their role in society. Daughter, wife, mother, warrior, witch, and goddess are some of the labels she gave to her famous Nanas , imaginative portraits of the artist herself and other contemporary women which she reinterpreted throughout her career.

The series of Brides, Births, and Goddesses and —after the Nanas — the Devouring Mothers form a veritable female mythology that is rounded out in the artist's writings and statements and the contents of her films.

Violence and Commitment
Feminism is only one aspect of her struggle against conventions and rigid mindsets. Niki de Saint Phalle was an artist of profound convictions whose works are infused with intense social and political criticism, often expressed through violence and chaos.

Although she is best known for the more upbeat, colorful side of her work, represented primarily by the Nanas , every one of her pieces can be read at different levels and from different angles and have clearly subversive undertones.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in her Shooting Paintings — Tirs —, performances in which the artist or members of the audience used a rifle to shoot at and destroy paintings. The Shooting Paintings , considered scandalous at the time because of their overt violence and the fact that they were orchestrated by a woman, are now regarded as one of the founding works in the history of happenings.

The Shooting Paintings aimed an attack at the traditional views of art, religion, and patriarchal society as well as at the political situation that entwined the Cold War and the war in Algeria in a country—the United States—where carrying guns is legal. This Shooting Paintings are representative of her earlier work, which was almost always inspired by social issues. In fact, Niki de Saint Phalle was one of the first artists to tackle racial discrimination and defend civil rights and multiculturalism, and in her final years she also pioneered the use of art to raise public awareness about the devastating effects of AIDS.

In the Vanguard of Public Art
In yet another example of her ground-breaking tendencies, Niki de Saint Phalle was the first woman to make her mark on the public space on a global scale, as she soon felt compelled to address everyone in the world, not just museum visitors. Her early decision to make public art should be seen as a political choice, and she made it a central focus of her research in the mid20th century. A succession of architectural projects and monumental sculptures marked her entire career: fountains, playgrounds, esoteric gardens, and habitable houses. The majestic Tarot Garden is a major work funded entirely by the artist herself, in part by devising and marketing a perfume, jewelry, prints and art books.

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