Every week, discover stories, anecdotes and secrets from the greatest artists in the history of art! KAZoART invites you on a tour through the lives of our favorite painters and sculptors. Today, we explore the story of artist Niki de Saint-Phalle, who used a rifle as a paintbrush…

The origins behind the concept

Niki de Saint-Phalle was born in France in 1930 and grew up in New York. She returned to France only as an adult after spending time in Madrid. Initially working as a model, she had a nervous breakdown at the age of 22 that spurred her to begin painting. She then moved to Paris, where she met the New Realists and her future Swiss husband Jean Tinguely. There she devoted her life entirely to sculpture and painting.

It was in February 1961, during the exhibition Comparaisons: Peintures-Sculptures at the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art that she devised the idea of shooting a rifle at the canvas. It was there that she first exhibited the collection Portrait of My Lover. The work depicted a male body composed of a shirt topped with a target for a head that visitors could throw darts at.

 Niki de Saint-Phalle, Portrait of My Lover
Niki de Saint-Phalle, Portrait of My Lover, 1961, Sprengel Museum Hannover

As many rounds as you can fire

Shortly after, she decided to take the concept further, organizing sessions of Tirs (Shots), in which paintings were attached to a board, created, for example, with pieces of plaster, bags containing eggs, tomatoes, shampoo pouches and ink bottles that the artist shot at with a rifle. Initially, she did this with friends such as Pierre Restany, photographer Harry Shunk, and Daniel Spoerri. 

Niki was an excellent shot, trained in her youth by her grandfather. In June 1961, she held her first personal exhibition (Feu à Volonté; French for “as many rounds as you can fire”) at the J Gallery. It was here that she officially set up her Tirs series, in which spectators were also invited to use a rifle to shoot at bags of color…

 Niki de Saint Phalle, Tir – 26 June session
Niki de Saint Phalle, Tir – 26 June session, 1961 – Paris, Impasse Ronsin © 2008 Niki Charitable Art Foundation Photo © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation
 Niki de Saint-Phalle, Grand Tir, Galerie J session
Niki de Saint-Phalle, Grand Tir, Galerie J session, 12 July 1961, Private collection; Courtesy of the Galerie G-P & N Vallois, Paris — Photo © André Morin

Victimless violence

The approach was very much in keeping with the time’s trend for “action painting”. A true “happening”, the artist no longer used brushes to paint and even invited others to create with her, leaving much up to chance. Niki called the shots “victimless violence” and said she fired the rifle because she liked “watching the painting bleed and die”. Many other increasingly dramatic sessions were held, notably at the United States Embassy, and then in the United States itself, including in Los Angeles, where Tirs was exhibited to great acclaim in 1962. De Saint-Phalle created many different versions, shooting in 1962, for example, at a replica of Venus de Milo…. a great icon of perfect femininity, murdered in an instant…

 Niki de Saint-Phalle, Vénus de Milo
Niki de Saint-Phalle, Vénus de Milo, 1962, Private collection

Similar artists at KAZoART• Matthias Mergot

At KAZoART, Matthias Mergot’s work recalls Niki de Saint-Phalle’s Tirs.

Matthias Mergot, Sweet Shady
Matthias Mergot, Sweet Shady, 2013