Calum Colley expresses a strong reaction to Niki de Saint Phalle at the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art. 

Nikki de Saint Phalle

There comes a time when even the most strident advocate of ‘the arts’ is faced with a piece or a collection that leaves them cold, unable to see what others see, unable to be moved in the way others are, or unable to perceive anything to admire in the intentions of the artist. In the upper floor of the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art, in a room marked ‘Gallery 4’, I found myself rendered not only completely unmoved by the objects on display but more than a little irritated by the mind of the artist behind them. That artist was the celebrated ‘Nouveaux Realist’ Niki de Saint Phalle, whose extensive – but by no means expansive – collection of sculptures and images were gifted to the gallery by the collectors Eric and Jean Cass.

Niki de Saint Phalle was born in Paris in 1930. After a tumultuous childhood in New York, where she was sexually abused by her father and harshly expelled from a convent school, she developed an interest in sculpture and architecture, especially the work of Catalan artist Gaudi. For her, art was an unabashed way of dealing with her troubles, which continued to dog her throughout her life. Sadly, the products of this inner turmoil have about as much profundity as the scribbled fancies of a rather silly, rather shallow ten year-old girl.

It doesn’t take long for the wandering aesthete to realise that the artist who claims as her own the upper floor of the gallery views as art the arrangement of what appears to the work of taxidermists and the refuse of refuse collectors on a wall, onto which she then shoots pellets of paint from a gun. “I shoot at anything,” the explanation laments, describing the artist’s feeling of catharsis as she guns down her troubles.

Elsewhere, the ‘Nanas’ are everywhere. These garish pastiches of traditional African fertility figures, fail to resonate with the same prurience, either as sculptures or on paper. For those who have failed to detect the subtexts of female empowerment from the bulbous breasts and bottoms of these gnome-like excrescences, the artist provides the nauseating and utterly vapid commentary: “all women are goddesses , no matter what colour they are,” who presumably borrowed from the rejected notes of an off-colour Germaine Greer.

The final insult was an innocuous image of one of those fucking Nanas leading a dragon by an invisible string (Dragon, 1984). Beside the image is a remarkable piece of text constructed almost in its entirety of rather puerile, rather tired clichés: “A frail maiden leads a ferocious dragon by an invisible thread. The monster the maiden must tame is inside her. It is her own inner demons she must conquer. Through this difficult task she will discover her own STRENGTH”.

Niki de Saint Phalle commands a floor of the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art with what amounts to a rather childish, rather clumsy grapple with the depths of the human condition. Had her fanciful indulgencies been confined instead to an ignored post-it note in the dusty recesses of the Janitor’s broom cupboard it would still, for me, have served as an example of a misguided use of space.


Calum Colley


Image by Art Poskanzer