IN NIKI DE SAINT PHALLE’S HANDS, PLAYFULNESS ITSELF COULD BE A RADICAL TOOL…

Plenty of modern artists have been gifted with a flair for the dramatic, and Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002) could hold her own with the best of them. The French sculptor and multidisciplinary artist created a brightly colored cast of characters over the course of her long career, and both she and her work possessed an unmistakably theatrical energy. In her colorful sculptures, the artist combined intellectual ambition with pronounced playfulness.

Nana on a Dolphin, by Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002), on display on the bank of the Elbe River in Hamburg, Germany. MARKUS SCHOLZ/PICTURE ALLIANCE VIA GETTY IMAGES

The Start of the Extreme

Born in the suburbs of Paris, Saint Phalle was self-taught as an artist. From the start, her work exhibited a heightened sense of drama that at times bordered on the absurd. Among her earliest works to gain notice were her “shooting paintings,” the creation of which involved blasting away at bags of paint with a .22-caliber rifle.

Niki de Saint Phalle at work on Nanas in her studio on the outskirts of Paris, in 1971

Niki de Saint Phalle at work on Nanas in her studio on the outskirts of Paris, in 1971 (JACK NISBERG/CONDÉ NAST/GETTY IMAGES)

Female to the Max

In 1963, she achieved both acclaim and a degree of notoriety for her 80-foot-long sculpture Hon, a garishly painted form of a reclining woman. The sculpture was hollow, and viewers were invited to walk inside, with the entrance located in the figure’s nether regions. Aside from being an impressive exercise in provocation, the sculpture is notable for being a rare example from its era of a monumental sculpture by a woman, depicting a woman—indeed, one that flaunts its femininity to the max.

The Nanas

As Saint Phalle’s career continued, she became best known for another interpretation of the female figure— the colorful, bulbous sculptures she termed Nanas. Made of materials ranging from papier collé to polyester to balloons, they were often exhibited in lively arrangements and seemed to dance and lounge around galleries and gardens.

Saint Phalle’s sculpture Les Baigneuse on display at the Museu Coleção Berardo, in Lisbon

Saint Phalle’s sculpture Les Baigneuse on display at the Museu Coleção Berardo, in Lisbon (JEFFREY GREENBERG/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Like her earlier work, the Nanas can be interpreted as complex investigations of art and gender yet are notably lacking in self-seriousness. In Saint Phalle’s hands, playfulness itself could be a radical tool.

Let Curiosity and Joy Be Your Guide

Provocation was certainly part of Saint Phalle’s artistic purpose. But it was not her only guide. There is a clear and effervescent joy in the work she created. Embrace your own joy in the creative process and let it guide you in unexpected and surprising directions. With New Creative Artist: A Guide to Developing Your Creative Spirit you will find 110 fun activities to exercise your creative muscle. Get your New Creative Artist now!

Article written by Austin Williams and published in Artists Magazine. Get a subscription to keep the two-minute art history rolling in.