Today we tell you the story of Niki de Saint Phalle, an incredible and visionary artist to say the least, on the occasion of the anniversary of her birth. And on the occasion of a recent trip by the Zoa Studio team to Capalbio and the Tarot Garden, a sort of castle of the artist.
Let’s find out everything together … we haven’t talked about a woman artist since Artemisia Gentileschi‘s time. Although the story is very different between the two, that of today’s protagonist is certainly no less interesting.
But let’s go in order by telling you about Niki’s life and the wonderful works she left us.
Niki de Saint Phalle – biography
The first years
Niki was born Catherine Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle on October 29, 1930 in France. The father is French, the mother American. She is the second of five children of a wealthy family who however lost their fortune due to the stock market crisis.
The young woman spent most of her childhood and adolescence in New York, although the family maintained strong ties with relatives in France. As a teenager she showed her artistic temperament early by painting the fig leaves of the classical sculptures of his school red.
Niki’s first steps from a professional point of view are not moved in art but in the world of fashion. In fact, she worked as a model, with photographs that appeared in Vogue and Life magazines. At 18, she ran away from home with her childhood friend Harry Mathews.
Carreer as an artist
In the early 1950s, Niki began making her first paintings while her husband studied music at Harvard University. Laura, their first daughter, was born in Boston in 1951.
The following year, Niki moved to Paris to study theater and acting. In 1953, she was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, and here she discovered that painting helped her to overcome the crisis. So she gave up acting to devote herself exclusively to another type of art.
After healing, Niki and Harry returned to Paris and Niki was encouraged by other artists to continue painting in her unique self-taught style.
In 1955 the couple’s second child was born, in Mallorca where they had moved. In Spain, Niki discovered the work of Antonio Gaudí and was deeply impressed, in particular by Park Güell in Barcelona, which gave her the idea of creating her own sculpture garden using the most diverse materials. Which will become an essential element of her art.
Harry and Niki returned to Paris and in 1960 they separated. Harry moved into a new apartment with the children. Niki instead created a studio and continued her artistic experiments. By the end of the same year Niki and Jean Tinguely moved in together, living in an artists’ colony.
In fact, Niki joined the group of Nouveau Réalisme artists, and is the only woman in the group, which includes Arman, Christo, Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely and Jacques de la Villeglé, among others.
Marcel Duchamp introduced Niki and Tinguely to Salvador Dali: they all went to Spain to create a life-size sculpture in the shape of an exploding bull with plaster, paper and fireworks to celebrate the end of a bullfight.
And sorry if a personal reflection jumps in here … Jack Kerouac (of whom we told you last week) met some great characters because he frequented Greenwich Village in New York, Niki de Saint Phalle was introduced to Salvador Dalì … but who will I ever meet in this time of lockdowns and no travel if I live in a town near Piave river? Maybe Hemingway… if only I were born a hundred years ago … oh well, let’s go on!
Niki and Tinguely moved to an old country inn outside Paris in late 1963. Niki began to create figurative reliefs: conflicting representations of women, with some giving birth, as well as dragons, monsters and brides. In 1965 Niki made her first Nanas, archetypal female figures.
For the first Nanas exhibition, Niki’s first artist book was published. This developed into another of Niki’s prolific art forms: handwritten graphic works in the form of invitations, posters, books and other writings. In 1966, Niki collaborated with Hon (Swedish for “she”) for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Hon’s external form is a giant reclining Dwarf with an internal environment sandwiched between her legs. This piece attracted the attention of the whole world.
Niki also designed the Nana inflatables, a plastic reproduction that was produced and distributed on a large scale in the United States.
Between travels, commissions for private homes and other “fantastic” architectural projects, Niki and Jean Tinguely got married on July 13, 1971.
Until the 1970s, Niki had not received any commissions from Italy, but several had arrived from Belgium, Jerusalem and France. In Italy, however, Niki made her first jewelry design for GEM Montebello Laboratory, in Milan.
Some time later Niki was hospitalized for a severe lung disease (caused by the constant inhalation of resins during her work) and recovered in the Swiss mountains. While there, she met an old friend she had met in New York in the 1950s, Marella Caracciolo Agnelli (Gianni Agnelli’s wife).
Niki shared with Marella her dream of building a sculpture garden based on the symbols of the Tarots. Marella’s brothers, Carlo and Nicola Caracciolo, offered her a plot of land in Garavicchio in Tuscany, Italy, as a site to make her dream come true. The massive undertaking of the garden will consume Niki’s thoughts and energies for nearly twenty years.
The Tarot Garden
And here we are on our journey! The images at the beginning of the article were taken on site a couple of weeks ago.
Niki created the first models relating to the figures that will be represented in Tarot Garden and the foundations were laid in 1978. In 1980 the construction of the first architectural sculpture began, The High Priestess, which represents creativity and feminine strength.
niki de saint phalle giardino dei tarocchi
Niki spent most of the next decade on the spot. In 1982 she moved inside her own work, to be precise inside The Empress, a building designed in the shape of a sphinx that served as a studio and home. For each sculpture in the Garden, Niki gave herself a description and, regarding her house / Empress, she stated
“The empress is the great Goddess. She is the Queen of the Sky. MOTHER. WHORE. DEVOTION. Sacred magic and civilisation. The Empress whicj I made in the form of a sphinx. I lived for years in this protective mother. She also served for headquarters for my meetings with the crew. It is here we had coffee breaks. On all she exercised a fatal attraction. “
If you want to visit the Tarot Garden and discover all the phrases of Niki that accompany her fantastic works, here is the interactive map :http://ilgiardinodeitarocchi.it/en/visit/interactive-map/
Right at the beginning of the decade, the Ulm Museum organized the first retrospective of Niki de Saint Phalle’s graphic work. The other retrospectives were held in Paris and Japan respectively.
In the same years, Niki created design objects: chairs, vases and lamps in the shape of a snake. And she even created a perfume, with a sculptural vial, which bears her name for the Jaqueline Cochran Company. The money from the perfume went to finance the beloved Tarot Garden, where Niki spent most of her time between 1984 and 1987.
Not satisfied with all activities, Niki worked in support of AIDS prevention. In this regard, in collaboration with Dr. Silvio Barandun, Niki wrote and illustrated the book AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands. Of note, this information text is published in seven languages.
From 1990 to 2002
In 1991, Niki made a large-scale model for Le Temple Idéal, a place of worship for all religions. This architectural sculpture was originally conceived in the early 1970s as a response to the religious intolerance she observed while working in Jerusalem.
And again in the same year, Niki de Saint Phalle lost her husband. Jean Tinguely died in August of that year. In his honor, Niki made her first kinetic sculptures, the Meta-Tinguelys.
For health reasons, at the end of 1993, Niki moved to La Jolla, California, where she spent the next eight years. Whilst in La Jolla, she created a studio to work with mirrors, glass and stones, materials that she used more and more often in her sculptures rather than in painting.
In 2000, she worked on the Black Heroes series, a tribute to prominent African Americans, including athletes and musicians such as Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. In the same year Niki de Saint Phalle was also awarded the 12th Imperial Praemium Prize in Japan, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the world of art.
As we can imagine, work did not stop for Niki, who had been battling aggressive rheumatoid arthritis for some time. Niki de Saint Phalle died on May 21, 2002, at the age of 71 in La Jolla, California.
The legacy of Niki de Saint Phalle
With the supervision of Niki’s granddaughter Bloum Cardenas and her longtime assistants, the projects Niki was working on were nevertheless completed. Such as The Hanoverian Garden Grotto, which opened in March 2003, with glass mosaic decorations, mirrors and pebbles, as well as a series of painted and sculpted figures.
The Magic Circle of Queen Califia (inspired by the history, myth and legend of early California, Native Americans and Mesoamerican culture and the study of native plants and wildlife) opened to the public on October 26, 2003, the the year following Niki’s death. This is his first American garden and the artist’s last major project before her death.
Niki Charitable Art Foundation
Shortly after her death, the Niki Charitable Art Foundation, a non-profit organization, was established to promote and protect Niki’s artistic legacy.
As we can read in the mission section of the foundation’s website “From its collection, the Foundation made the works of art available to museums around the world for exhibitions …. Niki made these donations, in part, to facilitate the creation of traveling exhibitions to ensure that the public could see her art. The Foundation complemented these donations by lending additional works of art by Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely.
The Niki Charitable Art Foundation owns the copyright in the works of Niki de Saint Phalle and authorizes exhibitions and publications on the artist and her works of art around the world. In addition, the Foundation seeks to promote and improve public understanding of Saint Phalle’s artworks and provides assistance in research, authorized restoration of his works and registration of works attributed to the artist. “
In conclusion, we just have to thank Niki de Saint Phalle, for having left us so much beauty. Beauty, as Hegel said, reveals the truth to us through a “sensitive” perception of the senses. And nothing is more sensitive than a Sunday afternoon stroll in the Tarot Garden, among mirrors, sculptures and a whirlwind of colors.