Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Niki de Saint Phalle

by Jacquelinne White

Niki de Saint Phalle, the French artist and iconoclast, died in San Diego on May 21, 2002. She was 71 years old. I did not know she was a stunning beauty until I saw her photograph in the San Francisco Chronicle's obituary although I have known, and loved, her work for probably 45 years.

Niki de Saint Phalle

Niki de Saint Phalle was an artist and a woman after my own heart so when the American art magazines stopped having articles about her I missed them. In the past year I realized I had not seen anything about her for a long time -- years. She disappeared.

When I read the notice of her death I assumed I could just run down to any book store and get up-to-date material on her. No such thing. I had a hard time believing what I ran into. I telephoned every well-known bookstore in the San Francisco Bay area. I called many smaller stores. I even called the store at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. Not a single store had anything on Niki de Saint Phalle but more distressing was that not a single person answering the phones including the store at the San Francscio MOMA knew who she was. I finally called the French Consulate in San Francisco which gave me the name and address of a bookstore in Paris. I did write to that store more or less a month ago but I have heard nothing from them. A friend, Martin Hunt, was able to find some welcome material for me by computer search. Later another friend was able to dig out some more pertinent information on a computer search. My search is not at an end. I want some great big picture books of her works, biographical books, and books with articles about her art work. I feel sure there must be something to my taste in Europe, probably in France or Germany if not other countries. I shall find them. In the meantime this is my salute to Niki de Saint Phalle, my farewell to someone who has been very important to me.

Niki de Saint Phalle was born in the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine on November 29, 1930. Her family moved to New York in 1937. She married at the age of 18 and shortly had two children. She and her husband, Harry Mathews, moved to France with their children some time in the 1950's. As a child she was near to being uncontrollable and managed to get herself expelled from at least two excellent schools. One was New York's Sacred Heart Convent. She painted the genital area of the holy statues, areas covered with fig leaves. She used red paint. She was expelled. Her parents must have been driven to the wall finding one school after the other for their exuberant and naughty child. It can come as no surprise to learn she had a nervous breakdown in her early twenties. After she recovered she put all her energies into being an artist. She had no training but she had the needed spirit and she had an instinct on which to lean in order to move forward. She must have been an enormously quick study because she had her first solo exhibition in 1956. She maintained she was highly influenced and inspired by the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi. You will remember Gaudi's wonderful great church in Barcelona and likely other of his works. It is the Barcelona church, that wonderful structure that seems to have grown rather than having been built that most fascinates me and more than likely it was that work or similar things that entranced Niki de Saint Phalle. I have always seen that church as being organic, something that grew like a magical plant-animal but only very recently I learned that in actual fact that is what happened. I am told Gaudi never made an architectural drawing or plan for it but invented it, with the help of the builders, as it went along. There was someone even more important in her life than Gaudi. She met the Swiss kinetic sculptor, Jean Tinquely, shortly after recovering from her mental illness. She lost little time in abandoning her husband and even her small children and moved in with Tinguely. They were living together at the time of the opening of her first show in Saint Gall, Switzerland and they married about 15 years later. The marriage was not an ordinary marriage. They did not live together all the time but they did maintain a close relationship until Tinquely died in 1991. They collaborated on the famous Stravinsky Fountain with its moving sculptures outside the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The San Francisco Chronicle referred to it as being "whimsical" and it is, but it is much more than that. It is full fledged, a not to ever be forgotten work of art, a merry piece, a funny piece, a loving and lovable, adorable piece. I guarantee no child has ever, nor ever will, see that rollicking fountain without laughing, without jumping for joy. I have not been a child for a very long time but I know for certain I too would greet it with laughter and dance and I would probably embarrass any stade person who might be with me as I would most certainly reflect its colourful and outlandish presence. Even the pictures I have of it, recently found, move me greatly.

The first works done by Niki de Saint Phalle that I became aware of were her "nanas." I am told the word, nana, translates as something like the American word, "broad." It is not a compliment. They were large female sculptures made of papier mache, perhaps some plaster and almost anything else that came handy. They were painted in primary colours. They are boisterous. It is reported that her first inspiration for the nanas was Larry Rivers' pregnant wife, Claria Rivers. After that first inspiration she did many. The one that made the most lasting impression on me was her "She: A Cathedral" which was installed in Stockholm. It was a huge woman of course but bigger than the previous nanas. It was 80 feet long and 30 feet wide. It had rooms in it. There was a music room, a room for showing films, and a milk bar in one of the breasts. Visitors entered through the vagina. I remember how the USA art magazines reported on it. Blasé. It was as if one came across similar things quite often; interesting in a mild way as many new kinds of things happening in the arts were interesting. I think my memory is more than likely correct since at least people in my part of the world, the supposedly sophisticated San Francisco Bay Area, have forgotten she existed. There is something very goofy about that insofar as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is at present (2002) promoting a big retrospective of the work of Yoko Ono, John Lennon's widow, a woman who has hardly set the world on fire much as she would like to put up the pretense that she did just that.

The art critics, those we used to call "the establishment", categorized Niki de Saint Phalle as a Nouveau Realistes, a group that deliberately chose to undo the conventional notions of art, but in my opinion Niki de Saint Phalle belonged to no-one but herself. The woman was so big she kept on bursting out all over the place. Added to all this she was a knockout beauty. Even in her old age she was extraordinarily beautiful. She was an outrageous woman. She was a woman who raged. That gigantic installation in 1998 at Garavicchio in Tuscany must have been just about her last presentation, if it were not her very last. Her fantastic organic forms, her fairyland kind of humans, her nutty animals that sometimes were partly plants or plants that were partly animals had evolved into grotesque sculptures even more exaggerated than her former work. That wild and strange collection was based on the Tarot cards.

I need to include here something else I recently learned about Niki de Saint Phalle but I can merely mention the information I have because I have not been able to learn more. She had a strong relationship with Hanover in Germany and gave that city many of her works. I believe they made her an honorary citizen but I am not at all clear on what went on between Niki de Saint Phalle and Hanover except that the people there loved her, just loved her.

We lost a great one on May 21, 2002. We, especially women, lost a role model. She must have met the resistance from men all women who show giftedness experience but it did not slow her down. She danced high and happy over any obstacles, laughed riotously at least in a figurative sense, sang her own song and sang it good and loud. It hit a cord that rings bells in many of us who mourn.

Goodbye Niki. We love you. Your work will sustain us.


Jens Wiechers said...

Dear Jacquelinne,

Niki de Saint Phalle became famous in Germany when she installed her Nana-figures at the

Leibnitzufer in Hannover.
The area is today called "Skulpturenmeile" (Mile of sculptures (?)) and there are sculptures by

various artists, including Dodeigne, Heiliger and Matschinsky.

She also took it onto herself to design the interior of the grotto beneath the 'Herrenhäuser Gärten'

in Hannover and was thus made a honorary citizen for her works and the joy she brought to the people

of Hannover.

Since my mother owns a few recent books about her, I can also provide you with ISBNs/ISBN-13s and a

quick search turned up a few pictures of what she did in Hannover:

The Grotto:

For further pictures, try:



ISBNs/Book titles:
ISBN-13 978-3-7757-2058-8: "Nouveau Réalisme - Revolution des Alltäglichen", 2007, Germany
ISBN 3-7913-3534-0: "Niki & Jean. L'art et l'amour", 2005, Germany.
ISBN 3-7913-1820-9: "Niki de Saint Phalle: Bilder - Figuren - Phantastische Gärten", 1997, Germany.
ISBN-13: 978-3716510872: "Der Tarot-Garten", 1999, Germany.

If Amazon doesn't redirect you, it is also possible to find a few of those when searching here:


The controls are identical to, so you should be able to navigate it even if you are not

fluent in German.



Jens Wiechers said...

Blogger messed up the formatting. Sorry for that, it looked okay in Notepad.

But I hope it will be useful to you,


Jana said...

contact me at and I'll be glad to help you with any information you might seek on Niki de Saint Phalle. We are a Foundation that Niki established before her death to preserve her legacy. Looking forward to hearing from you...

Anonymous said...

Dear Jacquelinne,
I was looking for the obituary of Richard de Saint Phalle, Niki's brother, whom I dated in the late 90s, and came upon your comments on Niki. It looks like you have several leads on Niki's books but if you need more, please let me know as I have several wonderful books of her work, all in English.

I only met Niki once, after she had moved back to the States and was living in La Jolla. You talked about children's laughter and delight in seeing her work at the Pompidou Centre. I witnessed the same thing in CA, where she had an exhibition at Balboa Park (San Diego) of animals that she had sculpted for a Noah's arc destined for a children's playground Jerusalem and designed in collaboration with architect Mario Botta. Richard and I went one day and watched the children swarming over the animals; one grandmother said she had to take her grandson everyday or he was disconsolate. Niki loved hearing about the children's joy in experiencing her work. She was also practicing laugh therapy at that time and told a funny story about leaving a "very important" art dealer cooling his heals until she had finished her daily hour of laughter with a close friend.

I think you might also enjoy an amazing book by Niki's uncle, Thibaut de Saint Phalle,titled Saints, Sinners and Scallawags.

Please write if I can help you more.

Traer Sunley

Anonymous said...

Maybe there is not that much in museums because she wasn't that great an artist. If she would have been a man no one would have even noticed her.

Anonymous said...

They are called Nana’s because "Nana" is the French equivalent for the words "chick" or "babe" in American slang.