Niki de Saint Phalle

  • Edit
  • Discuss
  • History
Jump to: navigation, search
Niki de Saint Phalle, born Catherine-Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle (October 29, 1930–May 21, 2002) was a French
Niki de Saint Phalle
sculptor, painter, and film maker.

Early Life

Born at Neuilly-sur-Seine, the second of five children of Jeanne Jacqueline and Andre Marie de Saint Phalle, a banker. Her father loses all his money in the stock market crash of 1929. She and elder brother are separated from parents; they are sent to live with paternal grandparents in the Nievre area of France for the next three years.

The family moved from France to the United States in 1933. Niki 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.

She was a fashion model subsequent to graduation, appearing on the covers of Life Magazine, Harper's Bazaar and of French Vogue.


At the age of eighteen, de Saint Phalle eloped with author Harry Mathews and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. While her husband studied music at Harvard University, de Saint Phalle began to paint, experimenting with different media and styles. Their first child, Laura, was born in April 1951. The family then moved to Paris, where Mathews completed his studies in music while De Saint Phalle studied theatre and acting. Harry Mathews later became a writer, and a founder of the literary magazine Locus Solus.

In 1953, she is hospitalized in Nice with a nervous breakdown and paints while recuperating from this crisis. She is encouraged to pursue painting as a form of communication and remedy. While in Paris on a modeling assignment, de 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.

Career as an Artist

She subsequently moved to Deià, Majorca, Spain, where her son Philip was born in May 1955. While in Spain, de Saint Phalle became deeply affected by the work of Antonio Gaudí. Gaudí's influence opened many previously unimagined possibilities for de Saint Phalle, especially with regard to the use of unusual materials and objets-trouvés as structural elements in sculpture and architecture. De 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 St. Gall, 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. In 1959, her work is introduced to contemporary art in exhibition at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.


In 1960, she separates from husband. Their two children live with their father while she sets up a studio and concentrates solely on work. Assemblages take on an angry aspect-a new series 'target' paintings actually have darts thrown at them.
End of 1960 moves to 11 Impasse Rosin, Paris and lives and shares a studio with Jean Tinguely, the Swiss sculptor; they will collaborate and assist each other on projects throughout their long association. Constantin Brancusi is a neighbor at Impasse Rosin. Through Tinguely, meets Pontus Hulten then director of the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Hulten includes her in major exhibitions organized at the time. Through his foresight, the Moderna Museet will acquire pivotal pieces from throughout her career to form the most comprehensive collection of her work. Because of her bicultural background and the direction in her own art, she becomes a kind of ambassador between the avant-gardes in France and the United States.

In 1961, she became known around the world for her Shooting paintings. A shooting painting consisted of a wooden base board on which containers of paint were laid, then covered with plaster. The painting was then raised and de Saint Phalle would shoot at it with a .22 caliber rifle. The bullets penetrated paint containers, which spilled their contents over the painting. This "painting style" was completely new, and she travelled around the world performing shooting sessions in Paris, Sweden, Malibu, California, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Saint Phalle had stopped making these shooting pictures in 1963 as in her own words, ‘I had become addicted to shooting, like one becomes addicted to a drug'.

Her first solo exhibition in Paris at Galarie J featured assemblages and a public shooting arena. Soon de Saint Phalle appeared in group shows throughout Europe and the United States. During the 1960s, she became friends with American artists in Paris, such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Larry Rivers and his wife Clarice, with whom de Saint Phalle collaborated over the years.


Inspired by the pregnancy of her friend Clarice Rivers, 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.

The 'Tarot Garden'

Influenced by Gaudí´s Parc Güell in Barcelona, and the garden in Bomarzo, 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 more than 20 years of work.

Other Public Sculptures

  • Stravinsky Fountain (or Fontaine des automates) near the Centre Pompidou, Paris (1982)—also featuring works of Jean Tinguely
  • La fountaine Château-Chinon, at Château-Chinon, Nièvre. Collaboration with Jean Tinguely
    Fantastic Paradise (1966), in front of the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden
  • L'Ange Protecteur in the Hall of the Zürich Train Station
  • Nanas, along the Leibnizufer in Hannover (1974).
  • Queen Califia's Magic 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, A sculpture located inside the Brea Mall in Brea, 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 with Jean Tinguely, a.o.
  • Golem in Jerusalem
  • Noah's Ark collaborative sculpture park with Swiss architect Mario Botta in Jerusalem
  • Lebensretter-Brunnen / Lifesaver Fountain in Duisburg, Germany


She marries Jean Tinguely, July 13, 1971. They had already collaborated extensively on several projects during the 1960s. In the lat 1980s, she moves into the "Empress", the Sphinx structure at the Tarot Garden. This will be her home and studio for the next seven years during a period of intense work of completing the Garden. In 1984-87, she most of her time is spent on site of the Garden, where many of the major works are nearing completion. In 1989-90 with Tinguely she creates "Fontaine Chateau Chinon", commissioned by the French President, Francois Mitterand.
Begins use of bronze in new series of sculpture derived from ancient Egyptian deities. Continues to develop images that have long interested and impressed her, including' Nana' fountains, Tarot figures, phallic-like obelisks, skulls, 'Skinny' lamps, and a series of pictorial reliefs made in response to the killing of endangered species. The experience of the Tarot Garden carries over in her use of materials, particularly brilliantly colored or mirrored mosaics.

Collaborates with son Philip Mathews on an animated film based on her AIDS book. This film, drawings for the film, and a revised edition of the AIDS book, published by Agence Francaise de lutte contre le sida, are exhibited at the Musee des ARTS Decoratifs, Paris, opening on international AIDS Awarness Day in November 1991. In the same year, Tinguely dies. In his honor, she makes her first kinetic sculptures "Meta-Tinguelys".

She moved to California in 1994 where she lived for the rest of her life.


Article Information
Wikiprogress Wikichild Wikigender University Wikiprogress.Stat ProgBlog Latin America Network African Network eFrame