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Niki de Saint Phalle, born Catherine-Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle (29 October 1930–21 May 2002) was a Frenchmarker sculptor, painter, and film maker.
Niki de Saint Phalle

The early years

Niki de Saint Phalle was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seinemarker, near Paris, to Jeanne Jacqueline (née Harper) and André-Marie Fal de Saint Phalle, a banker. After being wiped out financially during the Great Depression, the family moved from France to the United Statesmarker in 1933. Niki enrolled at the prestigious Brearley Schoolmarker in New York Citymarker, but she was dismissed for painting fig leaves red on the school's statuary. She went on to attend Oldfields School in Glencoe, Marylandmarker where she graduated in 1947. During her teenaged years, she was a fashion model; at the age of sixteen, she appeared on the cover of Life magazine (September 26, 1949), and, three years later, on the November 1952 cover of French Vogue.

At eighteen, de Saint Phalle eloped with author Harry Mathews, whom she had known since the age of twelve, and moved to Cambridge, Massachusettsmarker. While her husband studied music at Harvard Universitymarker, de Saint Phalle began to paint, experimenting with different media and styles. Their first child, Laura, was born in April 1951.

De Saint Phalle rejected the staid, conservative values of her family, which dictated domestic positions for wives and particular rules of conduct. However, after marrying young and giving birth to two children, she found herself living the same bourgeois lifestyle that she had attempted to reject; the internal conflict 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, de Saint Phalle was introduced to the Americanmarker 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 Deiàmarker, Majorcamarker, Spainmarker, where her son Philip was born in May 1955. While in Spain, de Saint Phalle read the works of Proust and visited Madridmarker and Barcelonamarker, where she 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 Güellmarker" 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 Switzerlandmarker, 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

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 Parismarker, Swedenmarker, Malibu, Californiamarker, and the Stedelijk Museummarker in Amsterdammarker. 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.


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 usually dressed in white. They were primarily made of polyester with a wire framework. They were generally created from papier mâché.

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.

In 1966, she collaborated with fellow artist Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt on a large-scale sculpture installation, "hon-en katedral" ("she-a cathedral") . for Moderna Museet, Stockholmmarker, 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 intensifies her resolve to see her own architectural dreams realized. During the construction of the "hon-en katedral," she met Swissmarker artist Rico Weber, 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, de Saint Phalle and Tinguely married.

The Tarot Garden

Influenced by Gaudí´s Parc Güellmarker in Barcelona, and the garden in Bomarzomarker, 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 Romemarker 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.[44044]

Public works

On 17 November 2000 Niki became an honorary citizen of Hannovermarker, Germanymarker, and donated 300 pieces of her artwork to the Sprengel Museummarker.

Many of Niki de Saint Phalle's sculptures are large and some of them are exhibited in public places, including:


  • Niki de Saint Phalle, Pontus Hultén, ISBN 3-7757-0582-1. Published in connection with an exhibition in Bonnmarker
  • 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 371651442X
  • Niki de Saint Phalle: Catalogue Raisonné: 1949 – 2000, Janica 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


See also

External links


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