Fashion Your Niki de Saint Phalle Demons!

When critically-acclaimed artist Niki de Saint Phalle died in May 2002, I was shocked by the lack of retrospective analysis and dialogue around the pioneering body of work she left behind. It was only after several years had passed that retrospective shows began to emerge.

Fortunately, in the last six years, some of the best art schools in the world have been producing lots of talented women curators.  This means that, at last, the art world is beginning to change.  The narrative, analyses and contexts of female artists, their perspectives and stories are finally being de-mystified and freed from the “is she physically attractive enough for us to show interest in her work?” tradition.

In fashion, it has taken the first female designer at Christian Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri (appointed Creative Director in July 2016), to address these questions on the international stage last week asking openly the provocative question on her slogan Breton t-shirt, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (citing Linda Nochlin, 1971) and dedicating her collection (SS18, pictured here) to the inspiration and narrative of Niki de Saint Phalle’s art.

Just as most artists suffer emotional abuse or neglect in their early years, (for instance, Louise Bourgeois and Yayoi Kusama), so too did Saint Phalle. In her many illustrated poems, she wrote, “As in all fairy tales, before finding the treasure, on my way I met dragons, witches, magicians and the angel of temperance.” For anyone familiar with Dante or RD Laing, they know that ‘dragons’ are not just attractive watercolours in a bedtime storybook but experienced as very real agencies in adult mental health. Of course, the western cultural tradition has been to put women who experience hallucinations and hear voices into workhouses or set them on fire.

Maria Grazia Chiuri evidently identifies with these questions of female cultural anonymity and deprecation through the work of Linda Nochlin and Niki de Saint Phalle. The beauty of Chiuri’s creative expression here is that her thoughts are made performance in the theatre of fashion. This is a sign of progress as it allows the anonymity and silence at the heart of this collection to be seen, discussed and worn.

In the photo shown above, the porosity of the skirt shows us the vulnerability of boundaries expressed in Chiuri’s fabric. The green dinosaur represents the demonic symbol that can ambush the artist’s mind at any point and the fishnet top echoes a similar porosity and susceptibility to disruptive influences. The shattered mirrors covering the cavernous walls, floor and ceiling of the catwalk environment symbolize the perceived fragmentation of Niki de Saint Phalle’s Self. The effects of the artist’s suffering and the open manifestation of its symbols in this fashion house’s collection can be seen clearly and this, I believe, is a step in the right direction. It has taken a woman designer to bring this dialogue into high fashion where other designers may have kept the underlying questions and complexes oblique. For an analysis on ‘autistic sites’ and destructive chaos in the fashion industry, see my essay in Sandy Black’s most recent book.

For further dialogue, why not link up with us and the Royal College of Art and London College of Fashion at the Freud Museum this week for their Fashion & Psychoanalysis conference taking place on  14th – 15th October 2017?

P.S. Here’s Suzy Menkes’ analysis of the Dior SS18 show.