Niki de Saint Phalle, (29 October 1930 – 21 May 2002), was a French sculptor, painter, and film maker.
Niki was born near Paris, her family moved to the US when she was 3 as a result of the Great Depression. 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. At eighteen Niki began to paint, experimenting with different media and styles.
Niki rejected the staid, conservative values of her family, which dictated domestic positions for wives and particular rules of conduct. Poet John Ashbery recalled that Niki's artistic pursuits were rejected by members of her family: her uncle "French banker Count Alexandre de Saint-Phalle, ... reportedly takes a dim view of her artistic activities," Ashbery observed.
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 caused her to suffer a nervous breakdown. As a form of therapy, she was urged to pursue her painting.
On a trip to Paris, Niki 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. Saint Phalle read the works of Proust and visited Madrid and Barcelona, where she became deeply affected by the work of Antonio Gaudí. Gaudí's influence opened many previously unimagined possibilities for Niki, especially with regard to the use of unusual materials and objets-trouvés as structural elements in sculpture and architecture. Niki 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.
Niki 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.
Shooting Paintings and Nanas
Niki de Saint Phalle created "Shooting Paintings" in the early 1960s. These pieces of art were polythene bags of paints in human forms covered in white plaster. The piece were shot at to open the bags of paint to create the image.
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 primarily made of plaster over a wire framework and plastic toys, then painted all white.
Inspired by the pregnancy of her friend Clarice Price, 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, Saint Phalle collaborated with fellow artist Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt (sv) on a large-scale sculpture installation, "hon-en katedral" ("she-a cathedral") for Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 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 intensified her resolve to see her own architectural dreams realized. During the construction of the "hon-en katedral," she met Swiss artist Rico Weber, who became an important assistant and collaborator for both Niki 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."
The Tarot Garden
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, Niki 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 nearly 20 years of work. Her main benefactor of the period was the Agnelli family.