‘From the beginning, the Nanas, who became an expanding population, had tiny heads and voluptuous fertility goddess bodies with bulging breasts, buttocks and bellies. Their forms resembled the cavorting bathing beauty blimps in Picasso’s beach paintings of the 1930s’ – B. Rose
‘I have made many black figures in my work. Black Venus, Black Madonna, Black Men, Black Nanas. It has always been an important color for me … Black is also me now’ – N. de Saint Phalle
‘Niki de Saint Phalle is known in the art world especially for her Nanas ... It is certain that she found a way to create an apotheosis of woman in all her aspects that gave her great freedom, joy and the power of conviction. The word “Nana” had nothing respectful when it was used in French vernacular, but Niki de Saint Phalle has somehow ennobled it’ – P. Hulten
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nanas are among the twentieth century’s most iconic reinterpretations of the female figure. Bold and magisterial, curvaceous and voluptuous, they confront the viewer as unabashed celebrations of feminine power. First conceived in the early 1960s, they stand among the artist’s very first creations, capturing the zeitgeist of sexual revolution that swept post-War France during this period. Dominating her output for the next three decades, they have come to represent the largest and most important body of work within her oeuvre. Alongside artists such as Yves Klein, Martial Raysse and Arman, de Saint Phalle was a key member of the Nouveau Réaliste movement. As a child, she told herself she would make ‘the greatest sculptures’ of her generation, ‘bigger and stronger than those of men’. Inspired by the pregnancy of her friend Clarice – the wife of the artist Larry Rivers – the Nanas became the ultimate realisation of this vision. The artist’s previous depictions of women had been monsters: damned and decadent specimens of humanity, born of the same violent impulse as her ‘shooting’ paintings. The Nanas, by contrast, were empowered goddesses: symbols of fertility, matriarchy and liberated sexual prowess. In French, the word itself – a colloquial term for ‘girl’ or ‘woman’ – invokes a certain brashness, a spirited streetwise attitude embodied by the eponymous female protagonist of Émile Zola’s 1880 novel Nana. In de Saint Phalle’s hands, the word is elevated to almost mythological heights, laden with spiritual potency and primal, visceral charge. Described by the critic Barbara Rose as ‘mutant alter egos’, the Nanas are extensions of de Saint Phalle’s artistic persona: irreverent expressions of beauty and strength, they stand as totemic monuments to female creativity (B. Rose, ‘Niki as Nana’, in Niki de Saint Phalle, exh. cat., Tate, Liverpool, 2008, p. 86).
Executed in 1968, Black Dancer is a signature example of the brightly-coloured Nanas that evolved from de Saint-Phalle’s earliest hand-made examples. Whilst her initial figures were vulturine in their appearance, imbued with overtones of dark magic and sexual aggression, Black Dancer is vivacious and playful, clad in a contemporary ensemble evocative of 1960s flower-power fashion. Her physique, however, bears all the hallmarks of de Saint Phalle's early Nanas: a tiny head, devoid of all facial features, exaggerated breasts, buttocks and thighs, and a fluid musculature that ripples and coalesces like viscous liquid. By rendering her black, as with so many of her Nanas, de Saint Phalle demonstrates her solidarity with the fight for racial equality. One of her earliest black Nanas, Black Rosy – executed in 1965 – was conceived as a tribute to Rosa Parks, whose refusal to vacate her bus seat in 1955 came to represent one of the major milestones of the civil rights movement against segregation laws. De Saint Phalle was fervently against all forms of oppression – whether racial or sexual – and the black Nanas sought to confront the prejudices that pervaded contemporary society at that time. ‘I have made many black figures in my work’, she wrote. ‘Black Venus, Black Madonna, Black Men, Black Nanas. It has always been an important color for me … Black is also me now’ (N. de Saint Phalle, Black is different, 1994, Collection MAMAC, Nice).
Standing over two metres in height, The Lady Sings the Blues of 1965 is one of de Saint Phalle’s earliest Nanas. Included in the inaugural showing of the series at Alexander Iolas’ Gallery the same year, and later in the artist’s major retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, in 1980, it belongs to de Saint-Phalle’s original grouping of hand-made Nanas. Rendered from a combination of raw, coarse materials, including fabric, lace and thread, she is simultaneously songstress, prophet and predator: bewitchingly seductive yet profoundly untouchable. Arachnids crawl across her electric blue bodice, primal and deadly. Like a sorceress brought to life from some ancient legend, she is both alluring and powerful: a femme fatale of mythic proportions. The use of materials formerly associated with women and handicraft is undermined by the artist’s complete subversion of traditional female stereotypes, replacing classical notions of beauty with graphic carnal imagery. The base of the sculpture was created by Jean Tinguely, whom de Saint Phalle would marry in 1971. In 1966, the year after the present work was created, the two would collaborate again on the creation of de Saint Phalle’s seminal installation Hon at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Translating to ‘she’ in Swedish, Hon was the ultimate Nana: a giant, 28-metre-long reclining sculpture of a woman, with a hollow interior that viewers could enter through a door. Predating this colossal structure, The Lady Sings the Blues marks the birth of an enquiry that would go on to define de Saint Phalle’s career.