PARIS (Reuters) - Shooting a .22 caliber rifle at a plaster-covered canvas concealing bags of paint launched Niki de Saint Phalle to the height of the avant-garde international art world in 1961.
The demolished results, with its splattered paint liberated through the violent act, were an apt metaphor for the French-American artist's feminist rage and trail-blazing imagination that was to propel her through four decades of work.
Beginning on Wednesday, the Grand Palais in Paris begins a major retrospective of Saint Phalle, who died in San Diego in 2002 after spending her prolific career between the United States and her birthplace of France.
Whether painter, sculptor, filmmaker or designer of public art, Saint Phalle - who modeled for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar as a young woman - brought both a joyful ebullience to her work at the same time as a more radical strain of social criticism.
"Painting calmed the chaos that shook my soul," explained Saint Phalle of her early work in the 1950s, in which she dripped paint in the vein of Jackson Pollock onto landscapes created from small found objects glued onto wood, whether bottle caps, nails or plastic toys.
Born in 1930 to a banking family in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, Saint Phalle moved to New York as an infant, modeled during her teenage years, and returned to Paris in 1952.
Inspired by the philosophy of Simone de Beavoir's "The Second Sex" and unafraid in the pre-feminism era to attack issues such as patriarchy, bourgeois sensibilities and the constraining roles of mother and wife, the young self-taught artist found fame with her "Shootings" series, which combined performance art with painting, sculpture and film.
The concept of the photogenic Saint Phalle shooting a rifle at her art was radical for the time, and the 31-year-old artist was invited to join the "Nouveau Realisme" (New Realism) movement, the only woman in the group created by painter Yves Klein and critic Pierre Restany.
In 1965 followed the first oversized resin and plaster women for which Saint Phalle is today best known and in whose fantastical undulating forms and expressive color can be seen the influence of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi.
These giant fleshy "Nanas" (French slang for woman) represent powerful women who celebrated their bodies and their creativity, in sharp contrast to the male-driven "scientific spirit that is crushing us," said the artist, who alleged in a 1993 book that at age 11 she was molested by her father.
Saint Phalle was one of the first artists of her time to focus on women, and often black women, as her subject. The Nanas were part of the feminist battle Saint Phalle was waging, but their sheer jubilance often obscured their social message.
"It was a desire to see men smaller than these enormous women," said Saint Phalle during one of the many taped television interviews shown throughout the exhibit.
The artist began a series of projects for public spaces beginning in the 1970s, including the "Stravinsky Fountain" outside Paris' Georges Pompidou Centre in 1983.
But the Tarot Gardens in Tuscany, Italy was her most ambitious sculpture park, representing the 22 cards in the Tarot deck and financed by revenues from a perfume she created.
A civil rights activist who spoke out against AIDS, Saint Phalle brought in references to Native American art and Mexican culture into her later work before dying of pulmonary failure in 2002, exacerbated by exposure to toxins from her art materials.
The show runs through to Feb 2, 2015.
(Editing by Mark John)