Niki de Saint Phalle: a story of art and mental health

Emily Breedon, Learning Assistant, GoMA

“My mental breakdown was good in the long run, because I left the clinic a painter.”

Niki de Saint Phalle, 2009

Disclaimer: If you or anyone you know is affected by mental health issues, you might find this article distressing. Look for resources at the end of this page. 

Lockdown has had an unprecedented impact on our mental health and wellbeing; whether that’s from the anxiety of coronavirus, not being able to see loved ones, or the uncertainty of the future, it’s fair to say that it’s been a challenging time for all of us. Many have turned to creative ways in an attempt to remain positive and there has been a real surge in organisations providing online art activities for their audience. This piece is going to tell the story of how one woman channeled her struggles to become an iconic artist, and in doing so, overcame her darkest moments. 

Mental health has a striking presence within the practice of contemporary art. At GoMA, this is expressed through the artworks of Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), a French-American sculptor, painter and filmmaker. During her lifetime, she became a heroine, not only for herself, but for a whole generation of women. She was a woman who broke away from the traditional role placed on her by society, by achieving self-fulfilment through her art.

Currently on display here at GoMA are her colourful perfume bottles and her Vache Vase sculpture. Yet, behind this bright exterior, there is a darker story that captures her lifelong battle with her mental wellbeing. 

Niki de Saint Phalle, Vache Vase, © Niki de Saint Phalle Charitable Art Foundation / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020.

Niki de Saint Phalle was born in 1930 near Paris to a wealthy family, subsequently growing up in New York. She had a distressing childhood, as she was sexually abused by her father from the age of eleven. Her mother was also temperamental and violent, and would often physically abuse Niki’s younger siblings, Elizabeth and Richard. Both of them would go on to commit suicide in their adulthood. As a result of her abusive childhood, Niki suffered from a behavioural disorder and had to change schools several times (Levy 2016). At the age of eighteen, she ran away from home and married a childhood friend, Harry Matthews, and began working as a photo model (de Saint Phalle 2009).

After having children, Niki and Harry’s relationship began to deteriorate. In 1953, when they were living in Nice, Harry began having an affair with the French wife of an English Lord; Niki retaliated by having an affair with the Lord, who was twice her age and shell-shocked from the Second World War. He often talked of suicide, which she found exhilarating: she often fantasised about drifting out to sea on a rubber float with a “large safety pin in hand” (Levy 2016). She also began hoarding razors, knives, and scissors under her mattress.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Perfume Bottles, © Niki de Saint Phalle Charitable Art Foundation / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2020.

One night, Harry’s mistress came to their home, and Niki attacked her. Then she ingested a bottle of sleeping pills, but, she recalled, she was so manic that they had no effect. Soon afterward, Harry discovered Niki’s collection of sharp objects, and took her to a mental clinic in Nice. Niki, at the age of just 22, would undergo ten rounds of electroshock therapy and was told her treatment would take five years. She began walking in the garden and collected twigs and leaves to create collages (Artsper Magazine). She also asked Harry to bring in paints and began using art as a form of therapy.

“I started painting in the madhouse, where I learnt how to translate emotions, fear, violence, hope and joy into painting. It was through creation that I discovered the sombre depths of depression, and how to overcome it”. 

Niki de Saint Phalle, 2009

She was out within six weeks. 

It was during this turbulent period that Niki de Saint Phalle began her career as an artist, reconnecting with herself and overcoming her mental trauma through painting and sculpture. Although she feared for her mental wellbeing, she reflected on her experience positively: “my mental breakdown was good in the long run, because I left the clinic a painter” (Niki de Saint Phalle 2009).

Niki de Saint Phalle’s story perhaps has resonance with many of us during this challenging time; many of her mental health issues came from a feeling of being restricted, whether that be from society or from the male figures in her life. Even though this sense of restriction applies more to us in a physical sense just now, there is still this shared experience of feeling trapped and uncertain. Her life as an artist shines a light on the power of the arts to heal, to change and to inspire; a gentle reminder that even in those dark times that life throws at us, creativity can still flourish. 


If you’ve been struggling with your mental wellbeing during lockdown, here are some useful resources

Mind for resources on Coronavirus and how to cope

Breathing space for information and chat or phone support

Room for Art, a social prescribing project with weekly arts workshops for improving health and wellbeing

Place2Be for wellbeing activity ideas for families

You can also check our Adult Activities and Family Activities sections in this blog, with several simple projects and mindful art sessions to do at home.


References 

Niki de Saint Phalle, Harry and Me: The Family Years, Benteli Verlag, 2009

Ariel Levy, ‘Beautiful Monsters’, The New Yorker, April, 2016

10 Things to Know about Niki de Saint Phalle, in Artsper Magazine https://blog.artsper.com/en/a-closer-look/10-things-to-know-about-niki-saint-phalle/, accessed in June 2020

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