“In 1961, I shot at daddy. I shot because it was fun and it made me feel the happiest.” Although it looks like a confession from a person of the despicable crime, it is actually what Niki de Saint Phalle who gained fame for her “Tirs (a French word for shootings or shots)” paintings said. Why did she say she held a gun, rather than a brush? Was the gun aimed at her father?
Saint Phalle burst onto the French art world with Tirs without any prior art education. These are avant-garde pieces that were inspired by her childhood trauma and produced by her shooting at white objects holding a bag of paint to make it sprayed and dripping all over the place.
Saint Phalle’s father was a French noble and her mother was a beautiful rich American. She started her career as a model for popular fashion magazines with her mesmerizing looks, got married, and had children at an early age, but was never happy. She had a burning pain hidden from others but following her constantly. She suffered from worsened depression and was hospitalized later. Although her childhood from a rich family seemed to be a happy one, she had a great deal of suffering. Her mother who also had severe depression due to her father’s extramarital affairs was often physically violent to young Saint Phalle. Her father was also very strict with her, and even started sexually abusing her starting at the age of 11.
Her anger and sense of betrayal toward her father constantly followed her for 20 years since then. She began to paint Tirs at the age of 30 to openly share her hellish experience. Shooting a gun was her way of revenge and expression of anger toward not only her father but also the entire patriarchy that had been oppressing her. At the same time, it was how she healed herself by releasing the violence in herself through artistic channels.
Following the success of Tirs, Saint Phalle kept challenging herself with new domains of art with successful results. Without her active efforts to reveal and heal her wounds by shooting a gun, we would not have met one of the most important female artists of the 20th century.