Woman On Top: Niki de Saint Phalle

Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture opens with Niki de Saint Phalle's feminist sculptures at the Tate. They certainly look dramatic, but are they any good? Tom Lubbock finds out
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The Independent Culture

Culture is coming. Look sharp. The banners that hang down between the massive Corinthian columns of St George's Hall carry a series of commands: Imagine; Remember; Reflect; React. What is this – Nineteen Eighty-Four, but with the aesthetes in charge? Not quite. It's Liverpool, now, one month into its year as European Capital of Culture.

It's not the only sign. There are more banners strung across the main shopping street, in a less imperative mode. They simply display a list of handy sub-headings – "Heritage", the first one says, and the next one says "The Arts", and then "Maritime", then "Sport", "Music", "People" – at which point the sequence begins again.

But what about books? For me, the conclusive sign that Culture has arrived here – Culture with a big C and a big stick – is that Henry Bohn's second-hand bookshop has finally been forced to close. In a prime position just in front of the main station, it was notable not only for its choice of books but also for the consistently high standard of conversation among staff and customers.

It had long resisted an attempt by one of the commercial arms of Culture to requisition it, flatten it, and develop it into something that – even now – remains quite unspecified. But it has lost its legal battle, and it closed at the weekend. No surprise really. One kind of culture usually pushes out other kinds, and it is not the only example around the city of the price exacted by all the improvements.

Meanwhile, there are big building projects still going on everywhere. Plus there's some art. At the Walker Art Gallery, the two come together. The "renowned international artist" Ben Johnson is painting, live, an enormous panorama of Liverpool viewed from an imaginary vantage point high above the Mersey. He and his team are not in every day, so you'll need to check dates. But as with any piece of methodical and minute craftsmanship, it's interesting to watch.

The picture is 16ft wide, and the view is rendered in a crisp, miniaturist manner, every detail near or far in uniform sharp focus – a toy town, scrubbed clean. It's derived from photos, which are then processed on computer. Images of individual buildings are reprojected so that they fit into the overall perspective, and then converted into a large number of stencils, with which the artist, working in airbrush, does most of the actual painting. The Liverpool Cityscape is due to be completed in early March, and will be shown in the Walker for the rest of the year.

It's almost three-quarters done now, but the discrepancy between the how and the what is already plain. While the ongoing technical operation is absorbing, you can see that the finished picture is going to be of limited interest. Catch it while it's still in progress.

I also feel bound to mention "sk-interfaces", an exhibition at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) featuring "17 international artists who use 'skin' as a material and concept for their technology-based work." Duty-bound – because though the show is definitely on the Culture-vulture's itinerary, its title and its advertised subject were both so off-putting I simply couldn't face it. I wonder if any of them made lampshades.

Whole bodies, in various states of metamorphosis, fill the top floor at Tate Liverpool. Its first special exhibition for the year of Culture is devoted to Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002). Saint Phalle is a French artist with a carnivalesque reputation. You may know her Stravinsky Fountain, the multi-coloured, Heath Robinson water-feature next to the Pompidou Centre.

Or you may have seen photos of her famous Hon, a gigantic female form, curvy, recumbent and hollow, constructed in Stockholm in the 1960s. Visitors entered between its open legs, through a vagina-portal, and there were further entertainments inside. If the Tate had been able to reconstruct this 90ft-long creation, it would have been magnificent. Not possible, and it's had to make do with a more conventional display.

"Hon" is Swedish for "she", and Saint Phalle was a pioneering exponent of one of the dominant styles of feminist art. She fought on the mythic front. Her female figures are archetypal, elemental, symbols of both oppression and exuberance, often simultaneously. Agony-anger-energy-ecstasy is the emotional compound they embody. The damaged victim becomes the revenging fright monster becomes the goddess of free and unbounded power and joy.

It's an idiom that has its own tradition. This line runs through many writers and artists of the second half of the 20th century: Louise Bourgeois, Sylvia Plath, Angela Carter, Helen Chadwick, Tracey Emin. Saint Phalle's work reminded me in particular of the rad fem theologian Mary Daly, big in the Eighties, author of Gyn/Ecology, coiner of some terrible Joycean wordplay, and deviser of a Tolkienesque mythology in which Nags, Crones, Spinsters and Furies struggle against the Cockocracy.

This kind of thing probably works better in visual art than in writing. Exuberant empowerment is hard to write convincingly, but Saint Phalle's effigies – whatever else you might thing about them – don't feel fake. They're perfectly viable made-up creatures.

From her earliest works, she had understood the power of very densely encrusted collage (an odd point she has in common with her near contemporary Peter Blake). In reliefs and sculptures from the Sixties, like Miss Havisham's Dream or The Bride on Horseback, you find encrustation given a double role, as a mixture of plague and adornment. Large-scale figures are covered in bee-swarms of plastic toys and knick-knacks – soldiers, guns, dolls and doll-babies, skulls, various kinds of animal and critter. These things feel like a bugging infestation of social/psychological stuff, but also like evils that the goddess can simply wear as attributes, body-jewellery, incorporate into herself, ride through. They are all little; she is big.

This was followed by a series of polyester figures called Nanas, rounded, bouncy, breasty bodies, richly decorated with psychedelic patterns, who – massive and weightless at once – tumble and float and generally bestride the world like female colossi. These are more purely positive images (fat is beautiful), and they are sometimes described as a retort to the misogynistic treatment of women in (male) modern art.

That would be OK, if they weren't rather obviously derived from a male modern artist, Fernand Léger. They adapt his trick of making a rounded body look both as heavy as stone and as light as an inflatable, giving a feeling of power and innocence. That was exactly what the socialist Léger wanted for his images of modern workers, and exactly again what Saint Phalle wanted for her images of liberated female sexuality. The trick is simply recapitulated with a different moral – which is not to say that it doesn't work perfectly well the second time round.

As I am not a woman, I don't know what I would feel about these pieces, as a woman. As an art critic, I say that Saint Phalle deployed an eloquent artistic language without ever making a single work that fully grips your attention. Perhaps gallery art wasn't her true calling. She spent much of later years designing a spectacular Tarot Park in Tuscany (based on the Tarot pack and partly inspired by Gaudi's Park Guell in Barcelona). She also created a perfume. She died from long-term polyester poisoning.

But if you want to see this kind of art done well, just go down two levels at Tate Liverpool, where – as part of general survey of 20th-century art – you can find a piece by a French woman sculptor of a generation before. Germaine Richier's Chess Board has five grotesque, multi-coloured totems, loosely based on chess pieces. They're awkward monsters, made of startling, spiky gestures, and full of vitality.

And I should add that this whole display – The 20th Century, How it Looked and How It Felt – drawn from the Tate's permanent collection, is a real treat, a much better showing of the work than you'll ever see at Tate Modern, and worth a visit to the Capital of Culture all by itself.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Tate Liverpool (0151-702 7400) to 5 May