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Love or loathe her art, it’s undeniable that Niki de Saint Phalle was a visionary and a woman who blasted her way (literally) through an era of art dominated by men.

Niki de Saint Phalle was obsessed with altering environments with her art. As her work developed this chiefly became a quest to alter and affect landscapes and gardens with the placement of her highly detailed and mostly enormously scaled sculptures and projects. Her work sparked much controversy, mainly as a matter of taste but ultimately her legacy seems pretty remarkable, especially once the origins are understood.

Born in 1930 to a French aristocratic family and raised in New York, de Saint Phalle embarked on adulthood as a model.

Working notably for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, at 23 de Saint Phalle suffered a nervous breakdown and turned to painting as part of her recovery.

This became the gateway in to a world where de Saint Phalle could find her voice and release her creativity, thus her demons.

She began to experiment wildly and boldly, originally being seen and heard for her ‘Shooting paintings’.

This project evolved in to an ‘art experience’ for audiences where a catsuit clad de Saint Phalle would appear in front of them and shoot plaster panels (concealing pots of paint inside) with a rifle, exploding the works in pigment and with unpredictable results (and reactions).

These works represented a period of sardonic commentary on her part,  mainly about male chauvinism and the 'type' of art prevailing over society at the time.

After a visit to Spain de Saint Phalle reacted to the bullfights by making a life size paper mache sculpture of a bull and then by blowing it up in a street. There are no images of this piece. (that we know of!)

This month Elle Decoration pays tribute to Niki de Saint Phalle remembering her as ‘The French artist who made her home inside a monumental sculpture”.

Perhaps most well known for her iconic Nana sculptures, de Saint Phalle brought these colourful and voluptuous beings to life in their droves and they remain all over the world, the largest standing at 27 metres tall.

In 1974 Tuscany, de Saint Phalle progressed to her next level and started to build a world for her imaginary beings and for her imagination to thrive in. It took 20 years to build her Tarot Garden featuring 22 sculpture buildings, one of which The Empress, she made her home in.

In her words “I wanted to invent a new mother and be reborn within its form”.

That she did, living there for several years developing the interior spaces and the subconsciously Spanish-feel gardens.

By the time de Saint Phalle’s world was completed and opened up to the general public in 1998 as a Sculpture Park, she had moved out of the body of The Empress to reside in La Jolla, California.

Niki de Saint Phalle designed and built three other large scale ‘Sculpture Environments’ in her lifetime. Noah’s Ark in Jerusalem, Israel, The Grotto in Hanover and Queen Califia’s Magical Circle in Escondido, San Diego.

Niki de Saint Phalle collaborated and shared her unique universe with Jean Tinguely for over 30 years until separated by his death at age 66. The unconventional “marriage” of de Saint Phalle and Tinguely enabled two artists to work together and create art that neither could have realised alone.

Tinguely made vast kinetic sculptures out of industrial waste, a method he named “meta-mechanics”.

Although they collaborated on most of each other’s projects they never jointly ‘signed’ any of them. They were always owned or named to one of them. Tinguely’s “Cyclop,” a vast mechanical head in the forest at Milly-la-Fôret epitomises their collaboration because it seems to represent both of them fifty fifty with neither one’s style prevailing over the piece.

It is both comfortably masculine and feminine, yet is credited as Tinguely’s work and de Saint Phalle seems to have no ego or problem with that.

A posthumous reunion between the artists was organised in an exhibition in Switzerland, 2006. The curator (Andres Pardey) said of the couple “Theirs was a strategic marriage. It was important for them that, after they died, someone would look after their work, and they trusted each other absolutely.”

Though never monogamous in their relationship they remained eternally faithful & committed to one another creatively. Throughout the 1960’s, with Tinguely a leading member of a Duchamp-influenced art movement called the New Realists, they were inseparable.

Tinguely had initially made his name in 1960 with “Homage to New York,” a performance that involved building, then destroying, a sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden. Ten years later, he organized a similar ritual of fire and smoke in front of Milan’s cathedral to announce the demise of the New Realists.

When Tinguely died in 1991 de Saint Phalle was true to her word by looking after his legacy and giving 55 large works of his to the new Tinguely Museum in 1996.  She was the one who actually completed “Le Cyclop,” and in turn donated many of her own works to the Sprengel Museum in Hanover.

Queen Califia was de Saint Phalle’s last work and it represents the final realization of de Saint Phalle’s dream to provide a legacy to a place that she had grown to dearly love. Niki de Saint Phalle spoke of California as a place of rebirth for her soul, “and an earthquake for my eyes – sea, desert, mountains, wide open sky, brilliance of light and vastness of space. I have embraced another way of life and have let my discovery of this landscape manifest itself in my work.”

"The devil is in the details." Although Niki de Saint Phalle’s sculptures are on a monumental scale the attention to detail was never compromised.

The work on the exteriors and the interiors, notably de Saint Phalle’s signature mirror mosaic technique is quite simply mind-boggling. The effect of being inside or on the outside of her pieces affects people in a multitude of ways, and that was what de Saint Phalle set out to achieve, art that affects us. In this same vain, her sculptures don’t nestle comfortably in their landscape settings, nor settle in to their environment over time.

Instead they jar and they react, sometimes a little violently with their surroundings, somehow refusing to be quiet at any given time. With that they unapologetically represent an alternate world and an altered state of being.

In one of her last interviews Nike de Saint Phalle spoke of Queen Califia as a place for families to gather, play and engage with a visually rich world of ideas, symbols and forms.

“My first really big piece for kids was Golem (1970, Jerusalem) and three generations know and love it. Here is Escondido you can also touch the sculptures. They feel nice and you won’t harm them. You can be a part of them… it’s like a marriage between the sculptures and the child or adult. Maybe it brings out the child in adults too.”

Some say that Niki de Saint Phalle died for her art because in 2002 she succumbed to emphysema caused by years & years of inhaling the toxic fumes of polyester. We think that she is really someone who truly lived, for and by her art.

Escondido is Spanish for hidden. It seems befitting that de Saint Phalle’s last works is set here. Like the depths and hidden meanings that her art is laden with, Niki de Saint Phalle herself mirrored this. Life imitated art, yet somehow she always managed to stay hidden in plain sight.


The woman who lived in a shoe Source Book: Niki Charitable Art Foundation, Tarot Garden official website, New York Times, The Guardian, Elle Decoration, Elle, Fontaine, Alisanne, Notesonnyc, 3 graces detail, Dennis hopper, Giardino-dei-tarocchi, Gardian-angel-zurich-train-station, N-Phalle-Hannover, Tarot Garden, Nikki de Saint Phalle, Niki-lacabeza-final-elownes, Nikki de Saint Phalle biography-bio-sculptures, Nikkitoilet, Phallehouse.