Niki de Saint Phalle

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Niki de Saint Phalle
Born Catherine-Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle
(1930-10-29)29 October 1930
Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, France
Died 21 May 2002(2002-05-21) (aged 71)
San Diego, California, United States
Nationality French
Known for Painting, sculpture, filmmaking
Awards Praemium Imperiale

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

Early years[edit]

Lifesaver Fountain in Duisburg, Germany.
The Golem, Kiryat Hayovel, Israel.

Niki de Saint Phalle was born on October 29, 1930 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, near Paris.[1] Her father was Count André-Marie Fal de Saint Phalle (1906–1967), a French banker, and her mother was an American, named Jeanne Jacqueline Harper (1908–1980).[2][3][Note 1] 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 Brearley School in New York City but was dismissed for painting red fig leaves on the school's statuary.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Personal life[edit]

At eighteen, Saint Phalle eloped with author Harry Mathews, whom she had known since the age of eleven through her father, and they moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.[4][5] While her husband studied music at Harvard University, Saint Phalle began to paint, experimenting with different media and styles.[6] 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.[Note 2] 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[7] 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 Abdi, 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 Antoni 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.

In the late 1950s, Saint Phalle was ill with hyperthyroidism, which was eventually treated by an operation in 1958. Sometime during the early 1960s, she left her first husband.[8]

Tirs and Nanas[edit]

Saint Phalle created a series of works in the early 1960s called Tirs ("Shots").[9][10] These pieces of art included polythene bags of paint in human forms covered in white plaster. The pieces were shot at to open the bags of paint to create the image.[11]

After Tirs 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.

Niki de Saint Phalle in 1964.

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.[11] Her artistic expressions of the proverbial everywoman were named Nanas, after a French slang word that is roughly equivalent to "broad".[11] 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" (also spelled "Hon-en-Katedrall", which means "she-a cathedral") for Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden. The outer form is a giant, reclining sculpture of a woman ('Nana'), whose internal body can be entered from a door-sized vaginal opening between her legs.[12] 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.[13]

Tarot Garden[edit]

Main article: Giardino dei Tarocchi

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, 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.

Later years[edit]

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 2000 the artist was awarded with the Praemium Imperiale award for Sculpture by the Japan Art Society.[14] In 2001, she made another donation of 170 pieces to the Musée d'art moderne et d'art contemporain of Nice.

Saint Phalle died of emphysema in San Diego, California, on 21 May 2002.[11]

Public works[edit]

As a tribute to 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.[15]

L'Ange Protecteur in the hall of the Zürich Hauptbahnhof.

Many of 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 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
  • Niki de Saint Phalle / edited by Camilla Jalving ... [et al.]. - Ishøj, Arken, 2016.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ According to the Saint Phalle's wedding announcement in Town and Country (1927), Jeanne Jacqueline Harper, known as Jacqueline, was a daughter of Donald Harper, an American living in Paris, France, and his wife, the former Jeanne Bernard.
  2. ^ According to John Ashbery, Alexandre de Saint-Phalle was the brother of Niki de Saint Phalle's father and also married to her mother's sister, the former Helen Georgia Harper, as explained in "Jacqueline Harper Marries Count: American Lawyer's Daughter Marries Andre de St. Phalle at Château de Fillerval", The New York Times, 7 June 1927. See John Ashbery, Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987 (Carcanet, 1989).


  1. ^ "Biography - 1930-1949", Niki de Saint Phalle Foundation, Retrieved 8 November 2014.
  2. ^ "Jacqueline Harper American Lawyer's Daughter Marries Count Andre de St. Phalle at Château de Fillerval", New York Times 7 June 1927
  3. ^ Biographical information, title of count, and birth dates cited in Joseph Valynseele's Les maréchaux de la Restauration te de la Monarchies de Juillet, leur famille et leur descendance (1962), page 292
  4. ^ "Beautiful Monsters". The New Yorker. April 18, 2016.
  5. ^ The Darkness Behind Niki de Saint Phalle’s Colorful Beauties. Hyperallergic. January 2016.
  6. ^ "Biography: 1950-1959", Niki de Saint Phalle Foundation, Retrieved 8 November 2014.
  7. ^ Paul Webster. "Sculptor finally exorcises her rapist father". Retrieved 2012-10-29. 
  8. ^ "Living with Niki: Harry Mathews on Niki de Saint Phalle". Retrieved 2012-10-04. 
  9. ^ Dufrêne, Thierry. "Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002)". Encyclopædia Universalis. Retrieved 28 October 2016. 
  10. ^ Stenhouse, Ann (29 October 2014). "Niki de Saint Phalle: Google Doodle celebrates birthday of French sculptor, painter and film maker". Daily Mirror. UK. 
  11. ^ a b c d Johnson, Ken. "Niki de Saint Phalle, Sculptor, Is Dead at 71", The New York Times, Retrieved 8 November 2014.
  12. ^ "Biography - 1965-69", Niki de Saint Phalle Foundation, Retrieved 8 November 2014.
  13. ^ "Biography - 1970-1974", Niki de Saint Phalle Foundation, Retrieved 8 November 2014.
  14. ^ "Niki de Saint Phalle - Praemium Imperiale", Praemium Imperiale, Retrieved 12 November 2014.
  15. ^  . "Park Ave. Exhibit Celebrates Power Of Women". Retrieved 2012-10-04. 
  16. ^ "Herald Scotland". 17 November 2012. 
  17. ^ "Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden". Retrieved 2012-10-04. 
  18. ^ "Public Art Department". Port of San Diego. Retrieved 2012-10-04. 
  19. ^ "Von 2001 bis 2003 ist die historische Grotte nach den Plänen der Künstlerin Niki de Saint Phalle neu ausgestaltet worden". Retrieved 9 August 2010. 
  20. ^ [1] Archived February 10, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  21. ^ [2] Archived September 10, 2005, at the Wayback Machine.
  22. ^ "Where the Wild Things Art". 4 November 2007. Retrieved 16 November 2010. 
  23. ^ "Niki de Saint Phalle Chronology (1930-2002)" (PDF). Retrieved 16 November 2010. 
  24. ^ Sarah Gay (2009-11-05). "Firebird Finds its Nest at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art". Charlotte Viewpoint. Retrieved 9 August 2010. 
  25. ^ "La Tempérance, 1992 — Luxembourg". Retrieved 20 May 2011. 

Other sources[edit]

  • Jill Carrick, “Phallic Victories? Niki de Saint-Phalle’s Tirs”, Art History, vol 26, no. 5, November 2003, pp. 700–729.

External links[edit]