Niki de Saint Phalle

Shooting Paintings


Niki de Saint Phalle constructed altars and cathedrals out of crucifixes, guns, rats, knives and Madonnas. She mixed these with other small plastic objects that had flooded the French market in the early 60s. She began to create these altars after producing her first Tirs, or “Shooting Paintings,” in which she fired a rifle at her canvases. She invited friends and colleagues to participate in these shootings, which soon became legendary happenings.

She developed this theme of violence at a time when the world was rife with violent political events. As she was living in Paris, the wars in the Congo and Algeria were immediately real to Niki. “Shooting” was a way for her to come to terms with her memories and her religious upbringing. Through her discovery of this adventure, she was able to unleash her creative forces. After the shooting paintings, anything was possible. Shooting at a work of art with a rifle, to give it new life, was a subtle way of expressing a dilemma.

 The paint was granted a new kind of freedom as it was spread around at random rather than being deliberately applied with a brush. Chance was permitted to rule, just as it does in life. This tied in with the idea of unifying art and life, which was so prevalent at the time.

Her shooting paintings soon evolved into the reliefs, and once this outburst of violence had run its course, she moved on to creating her first “Nanas.” Niki de Saint Phalle explored an imagery entirely her own at a time when the anti-representational sentiments of the 50s were still too widespread for her to have any interest in using conventional painting. The neo-realism of the 60s was a response to the abstract expressionism of the 50s.

Pontus Hultén described Niki de Saint Phalle’s work from this period in his preface to the catalogue for the solo exhibition at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, 1981. 


Any claim that Niki de Saint Phalle’s art coalesces with her life is merely a statement of the obvious. The fact that she turned to art resulted from her overwhelming need to come to terms with herself. She didn’t begin painting in order to become an artist; rather, she did it to form an identity. To her, there was nothing self-evident about the idea that art was something else than paintings and sculptures, to be respectfully observed from a distance. The realisation that art might be something else dawned on her gradually, in part as a result of her travels across Europe. She began to understand that art is a kind of life force, which you can involve yourself with as you see fit. Her first works reveal the violence and aggression that was beginning to stir within her. When she invested her energy into a field where her freedom was unbounded, her creative force took on boundless proportions. Art became her way of life; an all-encompassing experience that was simultaneously intellectual, emotional, technical, and practical. Each piece by Niki de Saint Phalle resulted from an existential struggle, in which she was creating the means for her very survival.

From a conversation between Niki de Saint Phalle and Pierre Restany:

“My life began in an asylum. I discovered insanity, and the path to recovery: work.”

“Niki resides in myth with no pretence; she stepped into the world of symbols entirely without artifice: symbols are her reality, and therein lies the infinite wealth of her imagination. This abundance of themes is that of play, of visionary play, which is the world’s essence, and also its poetry. Niki demonstrated to us that human culture was born out of play.”

On shooting: “Some ideas provoke emotions. My ‘shooting’ was an emotion that evoked an idea. Thus, my rage was expressed through a victimless death ritual.”

“Shooting can be play as practice. Play produces the artwork, the kind of play that adapts to reality in order to make it theatrical, or turn it into an idea, a metamorphosis. When Niki shoots, she is adapting to reality through this fundamental gesture; a gesture which gives rise to a language, but also to a stage.”

“I have never shot at God. I feel a great sense of resistance and a powerful attraction. I shoot at the church. I exalt the cathedral.”

Cathedrale du mangeur d’enfant” / “Petite Cathédrale”
Signed Niki de Saint Phalle, dated 1962 verso.
Assemblage, 63 x 67 cm.
Provenance: Gallerie Burén, Stockholm.

Gallerie “J”, Paris.
Museé d’Art et d’Industrie Saint-Etienne, “Cinquante Ans de Collages”, 1964, no. 355.

Included in the Niki Charitable Art Foundation archive, and in Niki de Saint Phalle’s Catalogue Raisonné, no. 383.