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The early years
Niki de Saint Phalle was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, near Paris, to Count André-Marie Fal de Saint Phalle (1906–1967), a French banker, and his American wife, the former Jeanne Jacqueline Harper (1908–1980). She had four siblings, and a double first cousin was French novelist Thérèse de Saint Phalle (Baroness Jehan de Drouas). After being wiped out financially during the Great Depression, the family moved from France to the United States in 1933, where her father worked as manager of the American branch of the Saint Phalle family’s bank. Saint Phalle enrolled at the prestigious Brearley School in New York City, but she was dismissed for painting fig leaves red on the school’s statuary. She went on to attend Oldfields School in Glencoe, Maryland where she graduated in 1947. During her teenaged years, Saint Phalle was a fashion model; at the age of eighteen, she appeared on the cover of Life (26 September 1949), and, three years later, on the November 1952 cover of French Vogue.
At eighteen, Saint Phalle eloped with author Harry Mathews, whom she had known since the age of twelve, and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. While her husband studied music at Harvard University, Saint Phalle began to paint, experimenting with different media and styles. Their first child, Laura, was born in April 1951.
Saint Phalle rejected the staid, conservative values of her family, which dictated domestic positions for wives and particular rules of conduct. Poet John Ashbery recalled that Saint Phalle’s artistic pursuits were rejected by members of Saint Phalle clan: her uncle “French banker Count Alexandre de Saint-Phalle, … reportedly takes a dim view of her artistic activities,” Ashbery observed. However, after marrying young and becoming a mother, she found herself living the same bourgeois lifestyle that she had attempted to reject; the internal conflict, as well as reminiscences of her rape by her father when she was only 11 The Guardian 1999 caused her to suffer a nervous breakdown. As a form of therapy, she was urged to pursue her painting.
While in Paris on a modeling assignment, Saint Phalle was introduced to the American painter Hugh Weiss, who became both her friend and mentor. He encouraged her to continue painting in her self-taught style.
She subsequently moved to Deià, Majorca, Spain, where her son, Philip, was born in May 1955. While in Spain, Saint Phalle read the works of Proust and visited Madrid and Barcelona, where she became deeply affected by the work of Antonio Gaudí. Gaudí’s influence opened many previously unimagined possibilities for Saint Phalle, especially with regard to the use of unusual materials and objets-trouvés as structural elements in sculpture and architecture. Saint Phalle was particularly struck by Gaudí’s “Park Güell” which persuaded her to create one day her own garden-based artwork that would combine both artistic and natural elements.
Saint Phalle continued to paint, particularly after she and her family moved to Paris in the mid-1950s. Her first art exhibition was held in 1956 in Switzerland, where she displayed her naïve style of oil painting. She then took up collage work that often featured images of the instruments of violence, such as guns and knives.
Shooting Paintings and Nanas
Niki de Saint Phalle created “Shooting Paintings” in the early 1960s. These pieces of art were polythene bags of paints in human forms covered in white plaster. The piece were shot at to open the bags of paint to create the image.
After the “Shooting paintings” came a period when she explored the various roles of women. She made life size dolls of women, such as brides and mothers giving birth. They were primarily made of plaster over a wire framework and plastic toys, then painted all white.
Inspired by the pregnancy of her friend Clarice Price, the wife of American artist Larry Rivers, she began to use her artwork to consider archetypal female figures in relation to her thinking on the position of women in society. Her artistic expression of the proverbial everywoman were named ‘Nanas’. The first of these freely posed forms—made of papier-mâché, yarn, and cloth—were exhibited at the Alexander Iolas Gallery in Paris in September 1965. For this show, Iolas published her first artist book that includes her handwritten words in combination with her drawings of ‘Bananas’. Encouraged by Iolas, she started a highly productive output of graphic work that accompanied exhibitions that included posters, books, and writings.
In 1966, Saint Phalle collaborated with fellow artist Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt (sv) on a large-scale sculpture installation, “hon-en katedral” (“she-a cathedral”) for Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden. The outer form of “hon” is a giant, reclining ‘Nana’, whose internal environment is entered from between her legs. The piece elicited immense public reaction in magazines and newspapers throughout the world. The interactive quality of the “hon” combined with a continued fascination with fantastic types of architecture intensified her resolve to see her own architectural dreams realized. During the construction of the “hon-en katedral,” she met Swiss artist Rico Weber (de), who became an important assistant and collaborator for both de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely. During the 1960s, she also designed decors and costumes for two theatrical productions: a ballet by Roland Petit, and an adaptation of the Aristophanes play “Lysistrata.”
In 1971, Saint Phalle and Tinguely married.
The Tarot Garden
Influenced by Gaudí´s Parc Güell in Barcelona, and Parco dei Mostri in Bomarzo, as well as Palais Idéal by Ferdinand Cheval, and Watts Towers by Simon Rodia, Niki de Saint Phalle decided that she wanted to make something similar; a monumental sculpture park created by a woman. In 1979, she acquired some land in Garavicchio, Tuscany, about 100 km north-west of Rome along the coast. The garden, called Giardino dei Tarocchi in Italian, contains sculptures of the symbols found on Tarot cards. The garden took many years, and a considerable sum of money, to complete. It opened in 1998, after nearly 20 years of work. Her main benefactor of the period was the Agnelli family.
Saint Phalle moved to California in 1994. On 17 November 2000 she became an honorary citizen of Hannover, Germany, and donated 300 pieces of her artwork to the Sprengel Museum. In 2001, she made another donation of 170 pieces to the Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain of Nice. Niki de Saint Phalle died of emphysema in California on 21 May 2002.
As a tribute to Niki de Saint Phalle, her work was on display outdoors in the center of Park Avenue from 52nd Street to 60th Street in New York City through November 2012.
Many of Niki de Saint Phalle’s sculptures are large and some of them are exhibited in public places, including:
- Miles Davis statue outside of Hotel Negresco in Nice, France.
- Stravinsky Fountain (or Fontaine des automates) near the Centre Pompidou, Paris (1982)—also featuring works of Jean Tinguely
- Fontaine de Château-Chinon, at Château-Chinon, Nièvre. Collaboration with Jean Tinguely
- L’Ange Protecteur in the hall of the Zürich Hauptbahnhof
- Nanas, along the Leibnizufer in Hannover (1974).
- Queen Califia’s Magical Circle, a sculpture garden in Kit Carson Park, Escondido, California
- Sun God (1983), a fanciful winged creature next to the Faculty Club on the campus of the University of California, San Diego as a part of the Stuart Collection of public art.
- La Lune / The Moon, A sculpture located inside the Brea Mall in Brea, California.
- Nikigator and “Poet and Muse”, two sculptures owned by the Mingei International Museum on The Prado, Balboa Park in San Diego, California.
- Coming Together, San Diego convention center
- Grotto at the Royal Herrenhäuser Gardens in Hannover, Germany
- Cyclop in Milly-La-Forêt, France—collaborative monumental sculpture by Jean Tinguely, a.o.
- Golem in Jerusalem
- Noah’s Ark collaborative sculpture park with Swiss architect Mario Botta at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo
- Lebensretter-Brunnen / Lifesaver Fountain in Duisburg, Germany
- L’Oiseau de Feu sur l’Arche / Firebird (literally, “Bird of Fire on an Arch”), in Bechtler Plaza in Charlotte, North Carolina
- Miss Black Power in the Hakone Open-Air Museum in Hakone, Japan
- La Tempérance (1992) in Centre Hamilius, Luxembourg-Ville, Luxembourg (this work is currently in storage as the site is being demolished).
- Niki de Saint Phalle, Pontus Hultén, ISBN 3-7757-0582-1. Published in connection with an exhibition in Bonn
- Traces: An Autobiography Remembering 1930–1949, Niki de Saint Phalle, ISBN 2-940033-43-9
- Harry & Me. The Family Years, Niki de Saint Phalle, ISBN 3-7165-1442-X
- Niki de Saint Phalle: Catalogue Raisonné: 1949–2000, Janice Parente a.o., ISBN 2-940033-48-X
- Niki De Saint Phalle: Monographie/Monograph, Michel de Grece a.o., ISBN 2-940033-63-3
- Niki’s World: Niki De Saint Phalle, Ulrich Krempel, ISBN 3-7913-3068-3
- Niki de Saint Phalle. My art, my dreams, Carla Schultz-Hoffmann (Editor), ISBN 3-7913-2876-X
- AIDS: You can’t catch it holding hands, Niki de Saint Phalle, ISBN 0-932499-52-X
- Niki de Saint Phalle: Insider-Outsider. World Inspired Art, Niki de Saint Phalle, Martha Longenecker (Editor), ISBN 0-914155-10-5
- Niki De Saint Phalle: The Tarot Garden, Anna Mazzanti, ISBN 88-8158-167-1
- Niki de Saint Phalle: La Grotte, ISBN 3-7757-1276-3
- Jo Applin, “Alberto Burri and Niki de Saint Phalle: Relief Sculpture and Violence in the Sixties’, Source: Notes in the History of Art, Winter 2008