The underground film Daddy (1973), a collaboration by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle and British countercultural filmmaker Peter Whitehead, is a sexually explicit surrealist pop-art Freudian rape revenge fantasy. It stems from de Saint Phalle's autobiographical narrative of parental abuse and the development of a young girl's sexuality. Deploying a performance studies lens to focus on performance practice and process, this article takes a new methodological approach to the film that could be applied to other avant-garde cinematic practices. Drawing on previously unseen materials and examining a key and frequently underexplored element of female labor within film, this essay traces the skills, training, and experiences shaping female performative labor, and demonstrates that Daddy's interrogation of sexual politics and displays of female sexual expression depended on this labor. Dissecting it offers revealing insights into the complex and frequently hidden dynamics of control and agency underpinning Daddy's artistic and sexual collaborations.
In 1973, an explosive artistic and sexual collaboration between the French action artist and sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002) and British countercultural documentary filmmaker Peter Whitehead (b. 1937) resulted in the unreleased underground classic film Daddy.1 A Freudian rape revenge fantasy, Daddy expresses de Saint Phalle's autobiographical narrative of parental abuse, and still retains the power to shock. It features de Saint Phalle and other performers reenacting archetypal and personal family scenarios rooted in both trauma and desire, and reclaims the development of de Saint Phalle's sexuality as a young girl. The critical attention given Daddy has concentrated on the trauma it explores and has often taken a psychoanalytic approach, either ignoring the acting or baldly denigrating it as “amateurish” or “poor.”2 Little thought has been given to a wider appreciation and more nuanced contextual understanding of the performance skills of the film's female performers, and thus there has been no consideration of how their labor shapes Daddy's sexual experimentation and expressivity. Deploying a performance studies lens to focus on performance practice and process, this article takes a new methodological approach to this film, which could be applied to other avant-garde cinematic practices. In this case, it examines a key and frequently under-explored element of female labor within film. Drawing on previously unseen materials from De Montfort University's Peter Whitehead Archive, it traces the skills, training, and experiences shaping the performed labor of the three main female figures.3It demonstrates that Daddy's interrogation of sexual politics and displays of female sexual expression depended on this labor. Moreover, given that its performers and collaborators were family members and lovers, Daddy provides a fruitful case study for examining artistic and sexual collaboration. Dissecting the labor of female performances provides revealing insights into the complex, and frequently hidden, dynamics of control and agency underpinning such collaborations.
Exhibited at film festivals and in galleries, most recently the Guggenheim in New York as part of a 2015 retrospective of de Saint Phalle's work, Daddy originally premiered at the New York Film Festival in April 1973, then showed at the London Film Festival that November. It remains, however, commercially unreleased. It began life as an attempt to make a short semidocumentary about de Saint Phalle, but evolved into a fifty-minute film involving de Saint Phalle playing her current and teenage self, with other performers as her five-year-old self, mother, and father/fiancé. A further section was later added, with another performer brought in to play the fifteen-year-old de Saint Phalle. The final product is a work of nonlinear surrealist pop art suffused with de Saint Phalle's grotesque but celebratory drawings, sculptures, and performative actions, facilitating, Whitehead declared, an examination of “The Liberated Woman as Artist Today.”4 Indeed, its rebellious feminist force is evident in the primacy and centrality of de Saint Phalle's desire, art, and voice. She worked through and poetically narrated her experiences of childhood trauma as a means of regaining control over those experiences. Daddy enabled her to play at ritually humiliating and killing her abusive father seventeen times.5 Such ritual anticipated her later published letter to her daughter, Mon Secret (1994), and her autobiography, Traces (1999), which explore how her father tried to “make me his mistress when I was eleven.”6
Joanna Bourke emphasizes the “tension between real sexual assault and fantasized Oedipal urgings that provide[d] Whitehead and de Saint Phalle with the creative tension necessary for their radical interpretation of incestuous desires.”7 That radical interpretation, heightened by the film's experimental aesthetic, is manifested through transgressive and violent sexualized acts and images examining domestic violence, rape, and incest; BDSM-inflected scenarios; female masturbation (clothed and nude); abusive male roles; striptease; voyeuristic observation of these acts; and grotesque phallic representation. Veering from discomfiting pedophilic overtones between father and five-year-old daughter to the suggested impregnation of Daddy with a jauntily painted plaster phallus, the performative tone oscillates in an unsettled fashion between daily task-based acts to quiet realism, and from presentational performance to oversize role-playing that mocks its own performativity.
Where critical attention has addressed Daddy's performances, it has deployed slightly confused or overly broad terms, or taken a very narrow focus.8 Mark Jones, for example, usefully highlights the Surrealist influences on the film and de Saint Phalle as the “expressive centre,” but then sweepingly points to the “melodramatic performativity” in evidence.9 Echoing Ara Osterweil's claim that 1960s and 1970s underground cinema operated “on a continuum with other artistic movements of the period,” the contexts of the genealogies of performance labor displayed by the women in Daddy include the intersections of feminist performance art and actions, Happenings, Soho striptease, realist actor training, Warholian underground art practices, and drag.10 The film ranges across practices in Britain, Europe, and particularly the United States—appropriately echoing de Saint Phalle's French and US transatlantic positioning. Daddy enables the female performers, in collaboration with one another, to joyfully display and play with these multiple interdisciplinary performances, overtly signaling their labor and its essential place in the film.
Building on Osterweil's argument that the “pioneering representation of alternative sexualities” in underground US cinema of the 1960s and 1970s would not have existed “without the peculiar, non-normative forms of kinship that inspired and sustained their creation,” this essay examines the complex mix of sexual, familial, and artistic collaborations that shaped this performance labor.11,Daddy was molded by an intense love affair between Whitehead and de Saint Phalle, but also by Whitehead's simultaneous relationship with Mia Martin, who played the fifteen-year-old de Saint Phalle. Clarice Rivers's mother figure and Rainer von Diez's Daddy further complicated the mix.12 Rivers and von Diez had been friends since 1961, and in 1971 had entered a relationship. She was a former lover of de Saint Phalle. He, an experimental German theater director, had also previously been involved with de Saint Phalle. The five-year-old version of de Saint Phalle was played by Rivers's daughter, Gwynne, who was at the time being informally stepparented by von Diez, which produced a further family dynamic to underscore the film.
Yet the little scholarship that engages with Daddy in the context of de Saint Phalle's practice only ever very briefly mentions Whitehead's involvement, and references to the other performers are even more scant.13 Despite this, in a vulnerable preproduction letter to Whitehead, de Saint Phalle described how Daddy would be “your film for even though I have been your palette and your muse it is you that has painted the picture.”14 Comparatively, in a joint contemporaneous interview for The Guardian de Saint Phalle explained that “when we did the credits, we put ‘a film by Peter Whitehead and Niki de Saint Phalle,’ with Peter first because we felt it was more his film.”15 However, as discussed further below, de Saint Phalle's suggestion that Whitehead had a more dominant role was contradicted by both artists' investment in dialogic collaboration, and by Whitehead's later accounts. For instance in a 2010 email to Osterweil, Whitehead stressed:
I am so proud to have made this film FOR HER … much more than to myself. I always said this. I had in my heart of hearts given up on films! But made this film FOR Niki. … It was SHE who wanted it—who wanted FILM to become something new in her body of work.16
Whitehead's description positions the film as a self-sacrifice and love offering to de Saint Phalle as inspirational muse: “a very fascinating and beautiful woman with whom I had fallen in love.”17 Yet it could also read as a generous collaborative gesture, stepping back so that she could make her central claim over the work. It also displays awareness that de Saint Phalle considered the film, both specifically and more generally as a mode of practice, a key shift in her body of work. Indeed, this article argues that an alternative perspective on this radical, sexually adventurous film offers important new insights into Daddy and the women involved with it. It also highlights how the film sits significantly within a network of underground artists and practices. Additionally, the film plays an important role within, and showcases examples from, almost the entire range of de Saint Phalle's body of work (fig. 1).18 Thus, this article calls for a contextual repositioning of Daddy as feminist autobiographical performance art. This is a film that demands wider viewing, release, and consideration.
PSYCHOANALYSIS AND TRAUMA: DOMINANT APPROACHES TO
In response to “object[ions] to ideas and attitudes expressed in the film,” Spare Rib magazine organized a special screening of Daddy in March 1975, and Laura Mulvey reviewed it for the magazine.19 As might be expected from Mulvey's interest, alongside reviews from Molly Haskell and Isabelle Jordan, previous writings on Daddy have unsurprisingly focused on the oedipal and Electra-influenced psychosexual drama suffusing it (fig. 2).20 Echoing Whitehead and de Saint Phalle's own emphasis on this approach, it is apparent in contemporaneous critical responses as well as those collected in the 2011 Framework journal focused on Whitehead.21 In 2011, reconsidering her 1975 piece on Daddy for Framework, Mulvey stated, “I still feel that it is impossible to understand Daddy without approaching it from the point of view of psychoanalysis.”22
Within this framing, Daddy has frequently been critiqued as condemning de Saint Phalle's daughter figure to inescapable entrapment within an Oedipal paradigm and the mutually reductive binary structure of oppressor and oppressed. Joanna Bourke calls the film “utterly pessimistic and conservative,” with “transgression [that] cannot be sustained: the Daughter never leaves the Monster-Daddy. She can't.”23 Mark Jones points to the impotence of the “radical explorations of sexual potential” in Daddy, and Whitehead himself highlighted that the daughter is hopelessly caught within a Freudian compulsion to repeat.24 That state of entrapment and ceaseless dominance by a monster-Daddy who represents patriarchy and its institutions—the pillars of the church and landed and loaded gentry—appear magnified by de Saint Phalle's reliance on Whitehead's interpretive control as the filmmaker. Whitehead reflects that “I was the filmmaker who had authority and power over Niki, which she reluctantly had to admit in public in front of all her ex-boyfriends and girlfriends.”25 This power was amplified by Whitehead “set[ting] out to psychoanalyse her on film.”26
This was not the first instance of de Saint Phalle creatively mining her childhood pain in her art. She first achieved international fame through her Tirs séances (shooting performances), which provided a critical commentary on personal experiences and public acts of male violence. Mostly occurring between 1961 and 1966, these involved the artist shooting at canvases or grotesque altars decorated with found and broken items and implanted with paint or foodstuffs that would explode upon the impact of the bullets. Audience members were frequently allowed to step in and replace de Saint Phalle as the shooter, and to decide when a painting was complete. Nicole L. Woods points out:
In accounts of Saint Phalle's shooting performances, the trope of creation through ritualized destruction as a set of aesthetic choices that function as signifiers of her traumatic childhood is the most consistently evoked interpretive framework. She certainly encouraged these often over-determined interpretations and asserted that her bellicosity and her interest in participatory experiences had a particular therapeutic aim.27
This focus on autobiographical trauma and the therapeutic is comparably and understandably evident in the critical writing around Daddy. However, this writing demonstrates a tendency to pathologize de Saint Phalle and forget the actual labor at work within the film. The exceptions to this are Martin Walkner's thoughtful, if brief, reference to de Saint Phalle's art actions within the film and Bourke's excellent essay.28 While predominantly concerned with the actual assault and a psychoanalytic positioning, Bourke does consider the aesthetic and poetic practices that express and challenge the sexual politics underpinning that assault.
The prevalent discursive emphasis on pain is enhanced by the fact that the possibilities of pleasure for the female figures in Daddy seem to hang in the balance. Examining one scene's gossipy but negative exchange between mother and daughter, Bourke highlights that “women sell themselves for gifts or security; sex is not an act of pleasure but something grubby, to be done hurriedly.” Thus, when Mummy advises the daughter to “get [her]self a nice girlfriend,” it is only in order to avoid the nasty attentions of men, rather than in pursuit of sensorial delight.29 Elsewhere an orgasm slips out solely by accident when de Saint Phalle teaches Martin (as her younger self) how to fake and withhold her pleasure from men. Yet there is undeniable relish in both de Saint Phalle's excessive acting out of her fantasies and furies and the various joys of performing itself displayed by the women, which has never been acknowledged by the literature on the film. The following analysis will show that resistance can be found in these performances of pleasure and play and in the intermingling of different performance genealogies and approaches. These performances rupture the coherence of the film's emphasis on oppressive, inescapable, oedipal, gendered paradigms by drawing attention instead to how the family scenarios in Daddy are performed.
DADDY AS AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL FEMINIST PERFORMANCE ART
In positioning Daddy as filmed multimedia performance art, this article builds on Jill Carrick's argument that rather than considering de Saint Phalle a “precursor” to the feminist performance artists who emerged in the late 1960s and particularly the 1970s, her practice (especially from her 1961 Tirs séances onward) should be viewed as feminist performance art. This necessitates, Carrick propounds, a reconsideration of the historicization of second wave feminist art as a whole.30 I would argue that Daddy could be appropriately viewed in a context of feminist performance art investigating rape, such as Yoko Ono's film Rape (1969), where cameramen followed an increasingly panicked woman selected to be the protagonist without her knowledge. We might also see it alongside Suzanne Lacy, Judy Chicago, Sandra Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani's mixed-media performance Ablutions (1972) for the collective project Womanhouse, which featured audio recordings of women recounting assaults while performing body art engaging with abjection and excess. Ana Mendieta's prone, tied, bloodied, half-naked body in Rape Scene (1973), a series of performance installations and photographs of those installations responding to the rape and murder of a fellow student at the University of Iowa, might be productively placed in dialogue with Daddy's processing of personal trauma.
Even more pertinently, Daddy should be positioned within the politicized use of autobiographical approaches within UK- and US-based feminist performance art from the early 1970s onward. Interwoven with second wave feminist experimentation with consciousness-raising groups and a focus on the relation between women's individual lived daily experience and collective culturally conditioned oppression, in these performances “personal history was being ransacked, analyzed, displayed and reinvented.”31 Lenora Champagne points to the rage underpinning the taboo-exploding nature of this work, where “home is no haven, but a dangerous place, a suffocating enclosure, a cage to fly from,” and escape is enabled by “looking into ourselves, looking at the world around us, and letting our monsters out.” The rage and release through which de Saint Phalle ransacked her childhood history displayed “the raw emotional intensity and sincerity” of feminist autobiographical work from the 1970s. However, in aesthetic and performance style, the film anticipated the increasing shift of performance art from the gallery to the theater space in the 1980s and the “grittier” “use of explicit revelations and imagery … to provoke and shock audiences out of their complacency.”32 Through this recontextualization of Daddy, this article also contributes to a recent emphasis on “de Saint Phalle's almost forgotten theatrical legacy.”33 The artist's transition into film further developed the skills already evident in her theatrical work. Focusing on that transition provides new insights into her practice.
AN INTERIOR WORLD
Given the direct overlap between performance influences in Daddy and activity stemming from Warhol's Factory, the latter provides a pertinent point of reference. Warhol superstar Ultra Violet, describing the context of the Factory, noted: “The whole game is people; meeting them, getting them involved, asking them for money, pulling them into our orbit, being invited to their parties and events. Every new person is a new possibility, a link in an ever-lengthening chain, an ever-climbing ladder.”34 As will be highlighted later, individuals in Daddy provided those links and possibilities for Factory members and vice versa. The trope of the ever-lengthening chain is a fitting description of the social and artistic relations surrounding Daddy. Such relations might be more precisely understood as a mutually creative game, fleshed out through different forms of romanticized love, sex, affection, and familial connection. There were many precedents, of course, for this sort of creative incestuous mélange in artistic circles, ranging from the pre-Raphaelites to the Bloomsbury Group to the New York film underground and the 1960s art world, which point to a rejection of bourgeois and (later) patriarchal hetero-centric institutional frameworks. Echoing feminist artistic collectives focused on community building, as in Womanhouse, such circles recognized the potential in these modes of living, sharing, and interacting for a more intimate, supportive, mutually beneficial cross-fertilization of practices.
However, in contrast to this emphasis on intimate cross-fertilization, in a letter to Whitehead, penned presumably upon the latter's suggestion of introducing his new lover, Mia Martin, into the film, de Saint Phalle protested both Martin's involvement and the speed at which Whitehead had started talking about producing Daddy:
Suddenly we must film immediately do it all in one month—why? and on top of that bring strangers to make the film! … How can you hope to make the interior film we want to make if you want to go about it in an exterior way. I can't do it like that Peter. It takes all the fun away. … If you don't want Tamsin then let's take Laura. She would be thrilled. Let's not take anyone exterior to our interior world.35
Despite de Saint Phalle's apprehensions, Whitehead evidently overrode the suggestion that his daughter, Tamsin, or de Saint Phalle's daughter, Laura, play the role eventually undertaken by Martin.36 Yet, in an interview with this author, Whitehead described how de Saint Phalle “knew I'd seduced Mia in London and was determined to seduce her as well” while all three were living together in France making Daddy.37 This exacerbated an already-complicated set of feelings catalyzed by love, sex, and rivalry, which further fueled both Whitehead and de Saint Phalle's interest in the relationship between destruction and creativity. Moreover, Whitehead's account of events suggests, if not a consent issue, then troubling power dynamics in their shared pursuit of Martin. This reflects contemporary critiques of the gendered power structures underpinning the countercultural commune environment and the supposedly freer sexual relations within it.38 However, in a later interview Whitehead suggested that de Saint Phalle looked after Martin.39 Her actions also absorbed Martin into that interior world by intimately linking her with two key figures within it. Martin's performance subsequently strikes a complex balance between molding and being molded by the film's interior world.
Responding to Martin's very different background as a professional actor, frequently within popular-cultural contexts, de Saint Phalle's letter to Whitehead continues by emphasizing that “A ‘GOOD actress’ or ‘actor’ isn't going to make the movie better. I thought we had decided that.”40 Indeed, that particular decision does underpin Daddy, which Whitehead described as “a documentary fantasy.”41 “Good” acting, implicitly suggestive of the dominant Western performance paradigm of psychological realism, is in evidence at points, but mixed with the whole range of performance labors interwoven with this interior world of people. This mixing is suggestive of Deirdre Heddon's description of the deliberate collapse in autobiographical feminist performance art of “the binary between the aesthetic and the social, or art and politics,” “art and life,” and “private and public.”42 This collapse was built on Allan Kaprow's assertion of a blurring between art and life in the avant-garde form of Happenings.
Exemplifying such blurring, Gwynne Rivers's role in Daddy just required her to participate in buoyant rough-and-tumble play with and moments of quiet listening to von Diez, or unconcernedly swim nude in the chateau's pool. These moments, particularly now, disturb at what they suggest. A game of blind man's buff, for example, provides an opportunity for Daddy to roll around on the ground with his young daughter in what appears as increasingly sexualized modes of close, very tactile body contact. Rivers's short dress consistently rides above her underpants during this contact, and her striped socks are repeatedly pulled down by Daddy in a manner suggestive of a teasing and then violent denuding. At the same time, de Saint Phalle's narrator urgently intones, “Don't tell Mummy. Don't tell Mummy.” Yet in pragmatic terms, Gwynne Rivers is just carrying out simple task-based performances that engage with and respond to her surrounding environment and familiar figures.43
Michael Kirby's well-known depiction of a continuum between “acting and not-acting,” theorized in response to many of the New York–based performance experiments from the long 1960s, may be useful here. Kirby explains that “although acting was sometimes used, the performers in Happenings generally tended to ‘be’ nobody or nothing other than themselves.” He argues that acting involves “feigning, stimulation, and so forth that is done by a performer. But representation, stimulation, and other qualities that define acting may also be applied to the performer” on the basis of costumes worn, the environment in which they are situated, or tasks undertaken.44 While Gwynne Rivers's performance is constructed through tasks undertaken, Martin's professional background places her performance nearer to Kirby's depictions of “simple” and “complex” acting, as she applies varying degrees of feigning and stimulation.45 Yet, returning to the focus on autobiographical feminist performance, an overlap between art and life and a negotiation of different modes of performing the self underpins all of these performances. Therefore, while Gwynne Rivers enacts her daily tasks alongside family members and Martin knowingly draws on previous training that only she has undergone, both de Saint Phalle and Clarice Rivers's performances present heightened personae that focus on aspects of their personalities, emotions, and past experiences.
Such negotiation of these modes of performing the self inflects the whole film, conveying a sense of that interior world and the dynamics of this particular collaboration, and builds on the performers' previous experiences of friendship-based collaboration. As an example of such experimental interweaving, de Saint Phalle was inspired by close friend Clarice Rivers's pregnancy. Her “body was expanding and becoming rounder day by day. Niki ‘was suddenly freed,’ and started to produce round-bodied statues of women full of confidence and power called Nanas, in 1965.”46 Just as Nanas appear in various forms in Daddy (fig. 3; see fig. 1), so does Rivers's confidence and power through grotesque play. Moreover, following a 1962 collaboration with writer Kenneth Koch and artist Jean Tinguely (de Saint Phalle's lifelong second partner) on The Construction of Boston, de Saint Phalle performed alongside Rivers in Koch's The Tinguely Machine Mystery, or The Love Suicides at Kaluka (1965).47 Like Daddy, both of these roughly woven together, playful, experimental, interdisciplinary Happenings combined poetic text, sculptures or other visual art, and performance actions. Consequently, de Saint Phalle designed the costumes and sets for von Diez's 1966 production of Lysistrata at the Staatstheater in Kassel, Germany. She also wrote and produced sets, costumes, and publicity material for the fantastical, oedipally themed ICH: All about Me (1968), which was coauthored and directed by von Diez, instantiating some of the themes (patricide, incest, a woman inhabiting masculine roles and achieving authoritarian power before moving beyond those roles) and stylistic elements present in Daddy.
Thus it's not surprising that de Saint Phalle insisted that Daddy “is not just a film about Niki de Saint Phalle. The structure of the film is Peter's, and the film is also about Rainer, Clarisse [sic], Mia and Gwynne. That's why the film is rather rich, because it contains these people and the structure has made them exist within it, with their own problems and interests.”48 It was, as Whitehead emphasized, a “total collaboration,” a dialogue through “the interface between our two fantasies,” his and de Saint Phalle's, but where those fantasies worked to stimulate the fantasies of all those in their interior world.49 As a result, de Saint Phalle, Rivers, and Martin brought their particular skills, training, and experience to the mix of performed labor in order to express these fantasies.
While de Saint Phalle and Whitehead still appear at the center of their collaboration, it is important not to let his presence overshadow hers, as she was clearly building on a particular role of leadership she had developed in previous collaborations. For instance, she explained her decision as a young woman to pursue painting rather than acting thus: “When I was painting I was master of my ship … with no professors or directors telling me what to do.”50 That position of central command was evident in de Saint Phalle's initiation of the first collaboration between herself, Koch, Tinguely, and her friend Robert Rauschenberg in The Construction of Boston (1962). It was also evident through her role of director in Daddy's 1976 sequel, Un rêve plus long que la nuit (loosely translated as “a dream longer than the night”), and in persuading her collaborators to fully immerse themselves in the reenactment of her nightmares and fantasies in Daddy.51 Indeed, in a letter to de Saint Phalle, Whitehead described himself as having been “ripe for a takeover. … You were the driving energy, but I was happy to be driven.”52 Whitehead explained that his “only way of regaining power in the situation was to egg her on as much as I could.”53 All of this reorients de Saint Phalle's self-recognition as a moldable muse. Rather, she can be perceived as operating within a mutually inspiring dialogue with Whitehead, enabling a pleasurable, overt exploration of the dynamics of power between them. This understanding of their sexual relationship as a creatively motivating force within the film challenges the conventional trope positioning heterosexual relationships within an artistic context as solely serving male pleasure and creative practice.
NIKI DE SAINT PHALLE'S PERFORMANCES OF CONTROL
De Saint Phalle overtly played with her positioning as the driving energy in Daddy through repeated use of the explosive Tirs séances, including one for the striking opening where she fires at an altar in front of a chapel (fig. 4). Later, dressed as a bride, she fires at Daddy himself, who is hanging as if crucified from de Saint Phalle's sculpture of a falcon on a cross (fig. 5). Finally, she shoots La Mort du Patriarch (1962/72), a grotesque lumpen sculpture of a man with a large body and tiny head embedded with phallocentric toy guns, cars, and planes. It offers an enhanced display of de Saint Phalle's personal and politicized experience of her Tirs séances:
I shot against Daddy. All men small men tall men big men fat men men my brother society the church the convent school my family my mother. All men. Daddy. Myself. Men. I shot because it was fun and made me feel great. I shot because I was fascinated watching the painting bleed and die. I shot for that moment of magic ecstasy.54
Yet that thrill is also coincident with a skillfulness and expressivity. Nicole Woods outlines how in March 1966, the artist Hollis MacDonald and collector Edgar Nash fired pellet guns at a de Saint Phalle canvas: “As the two men aimed … it became increasingly evident that the small bags of red, black, orange, and yellow paint embedded underneath the plaster would not easily release and that successful shots from multiple viewpoints (at far and close range) required utmost focus, endurance, and dexterity.”55 De Saint Phalle's reenactment of the Tirs séances in Daddy displays that technical dexterity, ecstatic enjoyment, and power to call the shots evident throughout her performance in the film.
Power is embedded in de Saint Phalle's controlled performance of actions and tasks, demonstrated firstly in a commanding engagement with stasis for much of the film. She moves from pose to pose, with contained actions carried out in each. This is reflective of her poised, focused, self-aware performances within the Tirs séances, as she “amplified their theatricality by arranging for their media-documentation in photographs and short films that painstakingly disclose her methods.”56 Indeed, the first shooting performance in Daddy was initially planned as a “re-creation of TV film sequence from Los Angeles etc.”57 Whitehead also intended, when first framing the film as a semidocumentary of de Saint Phalle's work and persona, to produce “shots of Niki in her Dior costumes, modelling them in front of her father's chateau.”58 Modeling between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five, including for Dior, shaped her ability to embody enlivened stillness in the Tirs séances—a skill that she also clearly adopted during moments when ritualistically punishing Daddy by binding him to a wheelchair and tormenting him to the point of tears. Mirroring her imposing performances in her Tirs séances, de Saint Phalle's imperious self-presentation in this moment of stillness eclipses the quieter realism deployed by von Diez as her bound and silenced father.
Daddy is besieged by taunting words delivered by de Saint Phalle to the camera through her presentational, posed performance. She uses nonrealist, over-articulated speech patterns, emphatically hitting the harsh consonants. Jones suggests that “the enactment of father/daughter incest as both parental assault and daughterly seduction forces the viewer into a highly ambiguous relationship with the text,” provoking “a form of psychomythological Verfremdungseffekt.”59 However, while being distanced, we are never in doubt about the rage and pain underpinning de Saint Phalle's performance, thanks to the full spectrum of mocking, sardonic disdain and unbridled contempt and bitterness in her vocal delivery. Broken only by occasional moments of sadness or childlike play, with repetitions in her narrative text suggestive of nursery rhymes, this spectrum conveys simmering, contained fury. De Saint Phalle lingers with evident relish over her narration, savoring each syllable, as the words provide another means through which to attack Daddy:
Daddy was churchgoer / said God could not be dead / but his tastes were not so Catholic with the girls he took to bed. / Especially to virgins he played the host / whom he de-flowered with the Holy Ghost. / And for their first communion / took their bodies and their blood.
The confident delivery of lyrical text was clearly influenced by de Saint Phalle's experiences of childhood poetry recitation and previous involvement in Kenneth Koch's poetic experiments. In addition, Bourke fruitfully points to the connection in both focus and intonation between de Saint Phalle's vocal delivery and Sylvia Plath's recitation of “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through” in Plath's equally furious, and often autobiographically received, 1962 poem “Daddy.”60
The precision and knowingness of her performance in Daddy and the Tirs séances, plus her elocutionary ability, are likely also consequences of de Saint Phalle's year of training at a Paris drama conservatory in 1952. It was during this time, as her first husband, Harry Matthews, stressed, that she entertained the “real possibility of becoming a successful actress and possibly a star.”61 However, instead, de Saint Phalle created her own state of stardom through the Tirs séances and, in so doing, directly tackled presumptions about her status as model-turned-artist. In the numerous media accounts of her shooting performances, de Saint Phalle was frequently fetishized as a “blond Barbarella in black velvet” and “a combination of hieratic Garbo and mischievous Puck who delights in the idea of playing a trick on Papa.”62 These hyperfeminine allusions to female stars or fairy tales undermined and diminished the visceral violence of the acts. Yet Jill Carrick highlights how, as “orchestrator of her own image,” her “shifts between ‘hyper-feminine’ and ‘hyper-masculine’” attire pointed to a fluid, destabilizing, gendered masquerade.63 As her Tirs séances became increasingly theatricalized,de Saint Phalle adopted first a white catsuit in the style of Emma Peel of The Avengers, and then a Marlene Dietrich–inspired black suit with white lace ruffles, referencing Dietrich's own play with masculinities and femininities.64 As seen in figure 4, de Saint Phalle sports the latter costume in Daddy for the first Tirs séances. While the elegant tailoring of the suit echoes the precision of the shots, the movement of her hair in the wind and the soft ruffles mirror the flow of the paint and Whitehead's creation of exaggerated plumes of smoke surrounding the exploded sculptures. De Saint Phalle stages a controlled presentation of dynamic oppositions.
Such arch knowingness about and control over her appearance is encapsulated by the representation of de Saint Phalle in Koch's Happening libretto The Construction of Boston. Koch's text repeatedly emphasized, “There is Niki de Saint Phalle / Who brings to Boston art, and beauty / With a magic pistol that she fires,”referencing the “celebrity” surrounding her Tirs séances.65 Mirroring this, de Saint Phalle then, as part of the Happening, shot a statue of the Venus de Milo as a representation of herself, but while dressed as a Napoleonic figure in her shooting suit.66 De Saint Phalle's pleasurably knowing meta-theatricality, her exploration of overtly constructed hypermasculinities and -femininities, and her playful positioning as a Napoleonic general marshaling the troops and action transferred to her presence in Daddy. The performances of Martin, Clarice Rivers, and von Diez orbit around de Saint Phalle as central star.
MIA MARTIN: FROM NEVERLAND TO SOHO
Such knowingness appears at odds with Mia Martin's performance as the sexually blossoming adolescent de Saint Phalle. Whitehead's previous work and life partner Penny Slinger introduced Martin to Whitehead after Slinger worked with Martin during Charles Marowitz's 1971 experimental environmental theater production of Pablo Picasso's The Four Little Girls (1949) at Open Space, London. Slinger, a Surrealist feminist artist, was collaborating with US body artist Carolee Schneemann and designer Robin Don on the art direction of the production when Martin was cast as one of the four little girls. Marowitz's memo to the casting director for The Four Little Girls set up a troubling, objectifying, Lolita-esque optic that anticipated the representation of Martin in Daddy: “I want to see experienced young actresses who look like pre-pubescent adolescents; no taller than five foot one; pixie-faces and no tits.”67 Indeed, that capacity for presentation of youth was evident from Martin's performance in the role of Wendy Darling for the Scala Theatre in London and then on tour, from 1966 to at least 1968 at the age of twenty. Her final reports from Arts Educational Drama School in 1966 highlighted concerns around that youthfulness: “We know that Mia has acting ability but I suspect that much of her success to date has resulted from instinct rather than a real understanding. In many ways she is extremely immature and inclined to rely upon her emotions rather than her understanding.”68 That emotional immersion results in a vulnerability that inscribes her performance in Daddy. It also results in a reliance on the guiding dramatic cues offered by de Saint Phalle as general of proceedings.
Yet Marowitz also required that his actresses be able to “handle complicated poetic text,” and the reviews for The Four Little Girls described the “excellent” performances of the four actresses, who “do full justice to the visual flights of the writing without losing their hold on the rhythms and cadences of childhood.”69 Similarly, it is important not to devalue or underestimate Martin's performative skill in Daddy. Her wide-ranging performance experiences and drama-school training made her responsive to direction and produced a repertoire of performance techniques on which she drew. This is best evidenced during the chapel sequence. Just as Martin had to negotiate the Surrealist “pop art Arcadia” environment constructed for The Four Little Girls, with “trees sprouting vast insect wings, streamers, a bright pink well, and gentle tussocks of straw-covered foam rubber,” she likewise navigated the nightmarish pop-art environment of Daddy.70 In the chapel scene she responds both to the framing of her body by a grotesque golden de Saint Phalle–sculpted altar, embedded with thorns and horns below the crucified Christ, and to the audience of smoking, pinstripe-suited, apparently male figures, one of whom is de Saint Phalle.
These figures are seated at intimate round tables, as if in a nightclub with Martin as the entertainment. Martin is clothed as a novice nun. This echoes Penny Slinger's taboo-breaking positioning of herself as a levitating and denuded nun in the sex-positive photo collage An Exorcism (1969–77), produced in collaboration with Whitehead. It also anticipates Hannah Wilke and Orlan's dissections of gendered iconographic religious representation in their performative and photographic depictions of their naked or stripping forms draped in saint-like robes (consider for instance Wilke's Super-t-Art and Orlan's Striptease occasionnel à l'aide des draps du trousseau [1974–75]). Staging the same precisely focused “becoming sincerity” as in her performance of Wendy Darling, Martin kneels in front of the altar and gravely looks into the camera, lifting her eyes heavenward as her white-gloved hands reach gracefully up to God in supplication, then rest together as if in prayer, but caressing her cheek. Her eyes close and her lips briefly murmur devoutly (fig. 6).71 She shifts quietly, virtuosically, between this focused, realist, responsive acting to presentational, coquettish performance. As she lingeringly lifts her robes over her legs, then gyrates her hips, shimmying down the petticoat to reveal a layer of white lace French knickers, that presentational performance evokes her roles in British sexploitation fare such as Derek Ford's Suburban Wives (1972).
It also highlights and links more particularly to her casting in 1970 in the bedroom farce Pyjama Tops, which was produced by Soho striptease entrepreneur Paul Raymond. Martin was hired first as a naked swimmer, then promoted to the role of the sexually inviting au pair, Claudine Amour. While this farce, which left the male characters clothed and the women in varying states of nudity, was very clear about who was being offered the hetero-centric entertainment, skilled labor underpinned the sexualized physical comedy required by Amour. Martin called upon all the flexibility and balance of her dance training to perform what the softcore adult magazine Mayfair, in a feature on Martin,described as a body “vibrant with suppressed vitality.”72,Mayfair's comments about Martin's ease with posing nude, and her reported statements about her enjoyment of previous experiences performing naked, are calculated to emphasize her “next door nudity.”73 Yet that ease and physical openness are evident in Daddy and enhanced by direct deployment of striptease techniques stemming from, according to Whitehead, Martin's 1970s Soho schoolgirl strip act.74 Indeed, Martin's movements in the chapel scene echo stock striptease poses, including the “coffee grinder” motion of the hips and exaggerated stroking of her bottom and breasts to emphasize her figure that we see in William G. Walter's 1976 Soho striptease documentary made for producer Harold Baim, Get 'Em Off: 100 Years of Striptease.75 Martin's movement also reflects the instructions of the Soho club choreographer featured in Get 'Em Off, who emphasizes the placement of hands on thighs, not hips, in order to maintain a tightly contained, nonaggressive but dynamic pose that enhances the rotation of the hips and thrust of the crotch.
A closer dialogue between Martin's and de Saint Phalle's bodies of labor and artistic backgrounds emerges in the second reveal of Martin's body in the chapel scene. In this moment, de Saint Phalle claps as if to call the court jester, and Martin, curled forward into a ball, unfurls while peeling off her vest in one smooth action to display a vibrantly painted naked body. Like many of the costumes in Daddy, Martin's painted form extends and embodies de Saint Phalle's sculptures in both pattern and color. Janice Parente highlights how “much of [de Saint Phalle's] sculpture and her architecture is embellished with elaborately painted motifs. Snaking arabesques; brightly colored stripes; dots and checks; and weaving symbolic and decorative designs fill the contours of large-scale shapes, and animate even the simplest of forms.”76 Similarly, Martin is decorated with what look like red and yellow flames and leaves and a multitude of pulsating hearts, including one surrounding her pubis and another on each buttock. Where de Saint Phalle appears to be the conductor of that colorful animation, it echoes Whitehead's footage of psychedelic artist Alvin Aldridge painting the naked torso and face of a passively prone female model with hippie flowers in Whitehead's documentary Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1967). It also suggests The Anthropometries of the Blue Period (1958–60) by Yves Klein, a fellow nouveaux réaliste and friend of de Saint Phalle. Klein deployed nude female models as “living brushes,” instructing them to dip, roll, and inscribe their bodies on canvas with paint.77 This manipulation of the female body is emphasized in de Saint Phalle's narration upon this revelation of Martin's painted form, when she tauntingly declares, “Now, Daddy, she will dance for me. Just for me.”
This impression that Martin functions in the scene as a passive object appears in direct contrast to the authorship claimed by Carolee Schneemann, who painted her own nude body with all manner of materials. Schneemann came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s while pursuing erotic and ecstatic states in feminist kinetic and environmental performance art and filmmaking. She recalls performing actions for the camera in Eye Body (1963): “Covered in paint, grease, chalk, ropes, plastic, I establish my body as visual territory. Not only am I image maker, but I explore the image values of flesh as [the] material I choose to work with.”78 Comparatively, despite the impression of passivity, the self-choreographed motion of Martin's body in the chapel scene enlivens the painted adornment and establishes her body as her own visual territory (fig. 7). Martin's hands smear the paint over her flesh while her pelvis initiates a constant cycle of gentle rotations up the spine, as she takes control of that territory and echoes the pleasure, sexual autonomy, and vibrant mobility embodied by de Saint Phalle's Nanas. Here, as throughout Daddy, Martin's embodied expertise underpins her actions and disrupts her positioning as an unknowing, manipulated Lolita.
This disruption is intensified by de Saint Phalle's performance in the scene. Lenora Champagne described how women in autobiographical practice tested out male personae as “a taking or undermining of power by inhabiting images of it … as a kind of social and personal research.”79 In a similar vein, de Saint Phalle explores the fantasy of inhabiting the power of her philandering, abusive father. Her face is bathed in darkness or covered by her hair for much of this scene, so that her silhouette seems identical to the men in the “audience.” A further reveal by Whitehead displays de Saint Phalle's emphatically lashed and lipsticked face, her mouth curved in a triumphant smile. Her face looks just as painted, constructed in hyperfemininity, and animated as Martin's body. This constructed excess and confusion of apparent gender norms reflects both Dietrich's particular self-presentation and Catherine Wood's description of how “the 1970s saw a move towards forms of paintedness [in performance art] as critical and experimental interventions in reality, particularly with feminist and queer agendas.”80 Those agendas are clearly explored through Clarice Rivers's role in Daddy.
CLARICE RIVERS: TRANSGRESSIVE PLAY
Clarice Rivers and de Saint Phalle visited Andy Warhol's Factory in 1964 to be filmed for Screen Tests. Callie Angell has described how Warhol's Screen Tests, documenting the “intricately interconnected and multithreaded” individuals surrounding him, represented the 1960s artistic counterculture. Among the Screen Tests were a “series of portraits of wives of artists and other notable men … ; none of their husbands appear in the Screen Tests, and apparently none were invited to pose.”81 As the wife of artist Larry Rivers, Clarice Rivers fell into this category. Warhol's decision to include her can be unpacked as part of a larger consideration of how Rivers's own engagement with the underground art scene seems nearly invisible and untraced. In the available writing on Daddy, Rivers's involvement is always reduced to her status as merely “Larry Rivers's wife,” even though Larry Rivers wasn't connected with the film and their marriage had amicably ended five years earlier, in 1968.
Kenneth Koch, with characteristic irony, addressed this perception through casting Clarice Rivers in his play The Tinguely Machine Mystery, or The Love Suicides at Kaluka (1965). Playing the deceptive and seductive princess, she enticed both the detective and the chief of police (the latter played by Larry Rivers). Sophie Cras points out that “Clarice Rivers was then one of her husband's favourite models and posed for him on a number of occasions. She was celebrated as one of the most beautiful artists' muses of the time.”82 Koch similarly has the detective rhapsodize in fetishistic, compartmentalized detail about Clarice Rivers's “straight nose, / That glistening black hair, that back of backs / Which makes my heart grow to think of it, / Those eyes like brimming pools.”83 Just as The Construction of Boston played with popular fixation on de Saint Phalle's beauty, The Tinguely Machine Mystery parodied perceptions of Clarice Rivers as manipulative muse, but in so doing required her to perform the largest and one of the most interesting parts in the play. It highlights her central role in this ever-lengthening chain of artists and lovers. Indeed, just as Martin animates de Saint Phalle's statue forms in Daddy, Clarice Rivers as Mummy explodes the confines of her sketched and sculpted status as de Saint Phalle's maternal muse. Angell's description of Rivers's portrait film for Warhol outlines how the “performance wavers between self-possession and uncertainty. At times she gazes unfazed into the camera, wearing a slight Mona Lisa smile. At other moments she seems to be temporarily overcome with self-consciousness, glancing offscreen and readjusting the set of her mouth, but soon drawing herself up to face the camera once again.”84 By the time Rivers faces Whitehead's camera, her other performance experiences, particularly those in Warhol's vicinity, have left only that sense of self-possession, and at times that Mona Lisa smile, to be captured on-screen. Rivers's commanding, oversize performance in Daddy is immersed in unselfconscious play.85
In May 1971 Rivers performed as lead chorus girl in an underwater ballet scene alongside a predominantly drag-queen cast in the play Vain Victory: The Vicissitudes of the Damned.86 A fantastical camp pastiche of the 1940s Technicolor musical with a grotesque array of characters and scenarios, Vain Victory was typical of the work produced by playwright, poet, actor, director, and Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis. Curtis embraced gender ambiguity in the presentation of their daily persona, and their plays “frequently lampoon sexuality and make fun of social conventions.”87 Rivers brought an awareness of these underground performance experiments, with their rough, improvisatory, can-do nature, and an aesthetic suggestive of female drag-queen practices to her performance in Daddy the following year. Her performance enhances the penultimate scene, where all the main characters, including Daddy, are engaged in an excessive painted and performed hyperfemininity. The scene reflects the wider contextual exploration of painting through makeup and drag in performance art as a critical and celebratory means of investigating gender and sexualized identity.88 Rivers sports a black and gold evening dress and a grand black hat of Mae West proportions, but which appears to be decorated with long strands of grass and sits atop a jaunty, clownish, red and yellow curled wig. This costuming fully embraces gendered behaviors as necessarily pantomimed.
This recalls Curtis's deliberately torn clothing and excessively artificial and incomplete drag fashion. The gendered masquerade in Daddy feels deliberately fabricated and broken, allowing the viewer to see the mechanisms of cartoonish visual transformation at work, such as the seams of Daddy's wig and Rivers's brunette crop under her borrowed locks.89 This lends all of the performances a quality of the child dressing up in adult clothes (just as Gwynne Rivers naughtily plays at being Mummy by trying on her mother's wig). Clarice Rivers becomes, as Mummy, the worst (or possibly the best) offender of such play. When with magnified disdain she declares the ridiculous ineffectiveness of men, she concludes with the relish of a pantomime villain: “and your father is the worst of all.” In this moment Rivers's mouth appears othered and strange, distorted beyond a daily recognizable facial expression and beyond social norms of polite feminine behavior. The body, as much as the wigs, makeup, and costumes, becomes an area to subversively paint and play through and with.
There is a wholehearted joy and sense of revelry to such play, which counters the negative psychoanalytic readings of Daddy highlighted earlier, but also provides a hyperbolized version of Rivers's daily performed persona. Her letters of the period to close friend and artist Patty Mucha (then wife and collaborator to artist Claes Oldenburg) reveal Rivers as a woman embracing Bakhtinian appetites and sensual joy, rhapsodizing about food and sex.90 She laughs her way through the colorful banquet with de Saint Phalle over Daddy's open coffin, consuming chocolate cake with gusto, just as earlier she equally reveled in forcing Daddy, as a trouserless butler, to beg and bark (fig. 8).
A connection can be drawn between these actions and Rivers's performance in Ultra Violet's self-described “feminist era” of practice.91 I am referring specifically to Ultra Violet's 1972 reenactment of The Last Supper, an all-female performance and film at the avant-garde New York performance space The Kitchen, which questioned biblical phallo-theocracy and the absence of women from active positions of power within that spiritual narrative. Rivers's trajectory through collaborative feminist performative investigations can be traced, therefore, from The Last Supper to Daddy. The unfinished film Nana Island provides the bridge between the two. Shot in 1971 by von Diez, it was directed by de Saint Phalle, with performers including de Saint Phalle, Rivers, and Mucha. Mucha described the playful matriarchal landscape and fantastical femininity and masculinity in Nana Island that anticipated the performances in Daddy:
[We] would don extravagant wigs—if female, or army helmets—if male. This was a “war of the sexes” as we romped on a built-up mountain of papier-mâché representing a desert island. We women, heavily made-up, covered in swirls of cheap lace and garter belts and long strands of garish beads, would bare our breasts if need be, as we frolicked around in Niki's child-like, fairy tale environment. Painted plaster Nanas and feather dusters contrasted with props Jean [Tinguely] produced: Tanks, cannons, and rifles.92
This suggests not only a point of confluence between the aesthetic and content of the two films, but an interesting shift in Daddy in which the environment is shaped solely by de Saint Phalle's sculptures. Moreover, following the pattern of autobiographical feminist performance, the battle between the sexes is refocused in Daddy onto further exploration of women's roles and stories.
FEMALE FRIENDSHIP AND DESIRE
Viewers of Daddy who focus exclusively on the heteronormative relationships and whether or not they entrap the daughter figure will miss the key female sexual and platonic relationship offered by the film: the one between de Saint Phalle and Rivers, not the one between Martin and de Saint Phalle. Whitehead's initial idea for Daddy was rooted in de Saint Phalle's lithograph series Dear Diana (1969), an illustrated gossip-soaked series of letters between female friends, and this work points to the film's foundation in that exchange between women. While Bourke emphasizes that Mummy only encourages her daughter into lesbian relationships because men appear so awful, we should also consider the dynamic between de Saint Phalle and Rivers in Daddy. In a BDSM-inflected scenario we see a leather-minidress-clad de Saint Phalle entwined between Rivers's legs, repeatedly kicking Daddy down the stairs, interspersing kicks with tenderly caressing Rivers's chest, arm, and face. Rivers's Mona Lisa smile is returned by an equally intimate and knowing smile from de Saint Phalle. In a 2015 interview with Virginie Sélavy, Whitehead suggested that Clarice Rivers and de Saint Phalle were still lovers at the time of the film's making.93
And yet that tenderness is also combined with rollicking laughter. When rehearsing for Vain Victory, Rivers delighted in how “it's tons of fun living with transvestites. I mean I see them 8 to twelve hours a day. Reminds me of being back in school again. I went to all-girls.”94 That all-girls-school atmosphere similarly appears when de Saint Phalle and Rivers sing together while feasting over drag Daddy's pink-and-purple-behatted, feather-boa-bedecked corpse. They intone a series of alternative subversive verses (“One day we came home early to find her in the loo / wearing Mummy's panties and wearing her corsets too. / We gave her our stockings and garter belt / We asked her how she thought she felt / to be a female daddy / to be a girl like me and you”), penned by Whitehead, to the tune of “Lili Marlene.” The result feels like an unruly laughter-filled rehearsal for a school revue written by the pupils. Such deliberate roughness, gendered transgression, and playful grotesquerie thumbs a nose at the aforementioned readings of the performances as inescapably trapped in oedipal structures and gendered paradigms.
When displaying Martin's daughter figure to Daddy as a “present,” de Saint Phalle tauntingly inquires, “Am I providing a good show for you?” This article has demonstrated the multiplicity of shows produced in Daddy by the knowingly, playfully, pleasurably deployed genealogies of female performance labor. Enhanced and shaped by the heightened artistic and sexual collaborations underpinning Daddy, these shows enabled the film's gendered and sexual experimentation. Consequentially, Daddy provides a fruitful case study through which to consider artistic collaborations between men and women and to reconsider women's roles within them.
The new performance-studies-based methodology utilized here, focusing on tracing the previous skills, training, and experiences shaping female performative labor, facilitates a feminist approach to avant-garde filmmaking practices. This approach acknowledges the forgotten contributions and overlooked participants who appeared not just within one film, but operated within the social circles, working relationships, and close friendships that constituted the art scene. This tracing enables us to see both how Daddy sits within a network of underground artists and practices, and the important role it plays in de Saint Phalle's body of work. In its focus on the concrete performative labor at play, and its recontextualization of the work as filmed multimedia performance art that should be viewed as a powerful example of feminist autobiographical performance art practice, it challenges the pathologization of de Saint Phalle through her narrative of childhood abuse. It shows how the film builds on her legacy of performance-based work and a contextualization of her work as feminist performance art, and, in turn, contributes to the genealogy of live and filmed feminist performance art. Through all of these means, this essay demonstrates how a focus on performance labor enriches our understanding of female authorship, collaboration, sexual expressivity, and agency.