UNTIL recently, if you had entered through the front door of Eric and Jean Cass’s Surrey home you would have found a bit of a surprise hanging on a nearby brick wall: a brightly hued, wriggling serpent of near human proportions.
Somewhere between friendly and lethal, a crimson smile playing on its lips, this creature can now be found in Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art. It’s a sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle, the artist responsible for the mosaic design of St Mungo for that gallery’s tympanum, and the disorientating mirrored interior of its entrance.
In fact Serpent (Last Night I Had A Dream) is just one of 14 of Saint Phalle’s works that Eric and Jean Cass recently gifted to Glasgow Museums along with books and ephemera when, with the help of art charity The Contemporary Art Society, they decided to distribute more than 300 works from their art collection to museums and galleries across the country.
Their modernist 1960s house, archly named Bleep in reference to Eric’s electronics business which marketed pagers, had been filled with works by modern and contemporary artists including Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, Ivon Hitchens and Michael Craig-Martin.
The gift to Glasgow is the most significant private gift to the gallery in living memory. A former New York fashion model, once expelled from her upscale private school for painting the fig leaves on their statues red, Saint Phalle was a rebel whose most famous work, Hon, was a reclining female form containing a shop and cinema, for Sweden’s Moderna Museet, which you entered between the sculpture’s legs.
From current perspectives there’s much at first glance about Saint Phalle’s sculptures and drawings that can seem rather icky. On the surface they are colourful, brightly naïve: a bit too childish for a grown woman. Her signature sculptural “nanas”, rotund mother figures, look a bit like the famous Venus Of Willendorf statue decorated by a hyperactive toddler. Her own signature, prominent on books and artworks, resembles the curlicues and curves invented by a saccharine schoolgirl. Her sculpture of the Devil, inspired by Tarot cards, is more Rocky Horror than genuinely sulphurous Satan with his three-pronged upturned penis.
When Glasgow Museums director Julian Spalding commissioned Saint Phalle to decorate the gallery façade back in 1996, after giving her a show in the city in 1993, it seemed an odd choice given the context. Sure, the Centre Pompidou in her birthplace, Paris, has a pond and fountain created by Saint Phalle and her husband and collaborator, the French sculptor Jean Tinguely, but in the context of the contemporary art scene in Glasgow it seemed profoundly out of place.
Time passes and, if I’m still not sure about the original commission, the Cass gift and the exhibition that has opened this week goes some way to contextualise Saint Phalle’s art and it rests not on the jolly mother figures or the cute cow vases on display, but a far darker work of art that Saint Phalle herself donated to Glasgow Museums before her death in 2002.
Altar For A Dead Cat (1962) is an artwork like no other in the show. A vast white plaster shrine of devotional statues and outright tat, it does literally contain a dead cat, as well as a stuffed squirrel, and it is presided over by a sinister-looking fruit bat. Its surface is strewn with coloured paint in black, red and blue, from punctured spray cans, an act of anger and carefully scripted desecration.
Saint Phalle came from a Franco-American marriage and was born in 1933 to a banking dynasty that lost a fortune in the crash, and subsequently left Paris for New York. Her privileged upbringing disguised profound emotional hardship and conflict in her life. As a teenager she began modelling – there is an image of her, wasp-waisted and satin clad, on the cover of Time magazine in 1949 – and soon after she was on the cover of Vogue.
But at the age of 11, Saint Phalle later revealed, she was sexually abused by her father. She found families and her strict education deeply oppressive. At the age of 18 she eloped with a childhood friend, but whilst caring for her own young family in 1953, she had a severe nervous breakdown.
Art-making provided a route out: self-taught, she began a new life between Paris and New York among the French and American avant-garde.
Saint Phalle’s shooting pieces or “tirs” are now recognised as important landmarks in the history of art. Created by secreting pockets of coloured paint in the plastered surface of sheets of board, or by appending spray cans to sculptural assemblages, they were created by firing rifles until the pigment burst and bled on to her surfaces. They were seen as a feminist statement, as a blasphemous act against the church or a parody of the kind of macho abstract painting she had seen in America and France.
Saint Phalle was no fool. She understood the shot pieces had limited purchase, and the shooting itself was disruptive. “I had become addicted to shooting, like one becomes addicted to a drug,” she later admitted. They could not be a sustained avenue for her anger. Eventually, it appears, she simply decided to stop being angry altogether.
It’s in this context that the joyful nanas, the cows and frogs and monkeys, must be seen. Anger and hurt can be useful driving forces in culture. Modern art historians love the shooting pieces, but Saint Phalle’s refusal to keep wounding or to stay wounded is far less fashionable.
Among the works on show in Glasgow are a number that look quite different in the light of recent art. They show the crossing of art and design, the links between object and performance. The little side table or stool, in glossy black adorned with snakes heads, now reminds you of the lacquered aesthetic of Memphis furniture or a shiny sculpture by Jim Lambie. This is great fun, but it would mean less without the reminder that, for Niki de Saint Phalle, the serpent had a certain bite. «
Niki de Saint Phalle, the Eric and Jean Cass Gift is at the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, until 16 November 2013