Her early works move from eerie, plaster-coated assemblages full of doll pieces and kitchen instruments, or figures with targets for heads, into her famous Tirs series, paintings and performances both, where she and others would fire at the works, allowing paint to bleed violently onto the page. They are playful, and they're angry too. They might represent Saint Phalle taking pot-shots at the structures that allowed her male contemporaries total freedom, while she had already suffered a breakdown, and was struggling with both childhood abuse and her expected position in family life. So she took a gun to her chaotic, violent works, made them bleed, and made others participate in the spectacle alongside her, and in the process found recognition. Art allowed her this.
We're not fond of the hysterical woman when it comes to art; we’re not historically sympathetic to women’s pain generally. As a society we both simultaneously scorn confessional modes, and ghoulishly demand women spill their trauma. With every retrospective of a female artist, every life's work displayed, I can’t help but find myself thinking about the other roles they had to balance. How do these roles, these experiences, make themselves known in the work? But also, how do they, and we, hold onto ourselves; to balance the centring of these vital experiences with vulnerability and scrutiny? Saint Phalle found art while she was in a psychiatric hospital, and it gave her both a way to express herself and a vision for her entire future. It gave her back control of her own story.
But pain and the working through of it has a transformative power. Centring subjects seen as less important for so long has power. And the playfulness and joy with which Niki de Saint Phalle brings to this centring is subversive, too, in its simplicity. The vast monumental women of her Nanas, her later work, seem at first native and celebratory. However they are also vast, solid sculptures which take up space, which can't be ignored. (She once told an interviewer, “I think that I made them so large so that men would look very small next to them.”)