Niki de Saint Phalle: The LIFE Of the ARTIST OF the NANAS

Born at Neuilly-sur-Seine (PARIS) in 1930, the painter and sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle grew up in New York. At only eighteen she married the US writer Harry Matthews. After their divorce she lived with sculptor Jean Tinguely from 1960, through him she became a member of the Paris group of artists who called themselves "Nouveaux Réalistes".


In their group exhibition Niki presented her "rifle-shot" paintings for the first time: Niki de Saint Phalle used a gun to shoot paint balls at a canvas primed to a pastose texture using a surfacing mixture. Upon impact the paint balls burst and colored the relief. The aggressive act of shooting helped her to come to terms with the troubled relationship she had with her father.

NIKI3It was however her Nanas, the first of which emerged in 1964, that made Niki de Saint Phalle famous. The buxom, colorful female figures, first made of wool, yarn, paper-maché and wire scaffoldings and later made of polyester, are to be understood as happy, freed women and harbingers of a new matriarchic age. Nanas can for example be found at the banks of the river Leine in Hanover, where the artist had one of her first spectacular solo exhibitions.

Niki's biggest project was the "Tarot Garden" she began to work on in Tuscany (Capalbio) in 1979. This garden stretches over an entire landscape and has accessible Nanas.

In 1988 Niki de Saint Phalle designed the world-famous "Stravinsky Fountain" at the "Centre Georges Pompidou" together with Tinguely.

From the 1950s Niki de Saint Phalle has shown her work at numerous international exhibitions and became known as the artist who introduced the determinant theme of the female life principle to art history.

In 1994 Niki de Saint Phalle moved to California on her doctor's advice to benefit from the mild climate. There she worked on her last large series of works, a playful hommage to Tinguely's movable sculptures, the "Exploding Pictures".


Niki de Saint Phalle is best known for her oversized figures that embrace contradictory qualities such as good and evil, modern and primitive, sacred and profane, play and terror.

Her exaggerated "earth mother" sculptures, the Nanas, playfully explore ancient feminine deities while celebrating modern feminism's efforts to reconsider and revalue the woman's body.

De Saint Phalle has made monsters and beasts into architectural forms for playgrounds and schools. These works demonstrate her deep interest in architects like Antoni Gaudi, whose organic and fluid buildings incorporate wild fantasies and highly crafted objects.

De Saint Phalle's Sun God was the first work commissioned by the Stuart Collection and was her first outdoor commission in America. The exuberantly colored, fourteen-foot bird is placed atop a fifteen-foot concrete arch and sited on a grassy area between the Faculty Club and Mandeville Auditorium.
The students started the Sun God Festival in 1984. It has become one of the largest annual campus events.

Although de Saint Phalle lived near Paris for more than twenty years, her artistic formation has been as much North American as European. She lived in New York from 1933 to 1951 and again in the 1960s when she was prominent in the development of "happenings" and other artistic efforts involving the integration of art and life. She lived and worked in La Jolla from 1992 until her death in 2002.


10  Things to know about Niki de Saint Phalle

1. Niki Saint Phalle is born in 1930 and named Catherine Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle.

2. She came from a middle class Franco-American family. Raped by her father at the age of eleven, she then became an unstable, disturbed young girl.

3. At the beginning, Niki Saint Phalle worked as a model for Vogue.

4. After travelling between the United States and France, Niki de Saint Phalle went into depression in Nice and it was artistic creation that helped her come out of it. Encouraged by her psychiatrists, she dedicated herself wholly to art.

5. Her first exhibition took place in 1961. Les Tirs, performances during which the audiences threw bags of colour, made her famous. She was very troubled by her past and les Tirs was a means of externalising her demons within: by firing at her canvasses she was shooting at her father and society, in order to free herself.

6. After two years of provocative performances, Niki de Saint Phalle withdrew into “a more private, more feminine world” and began to reflect on and represent the role of women.

7. In 1965, she had her first exhibitions.Nanas. These were initially inspired by a sketch representing a close friend, Clarice Rivers, in late pregnancy.

8.  A versatile artist, Niki de Saint Phalle is simultanously a plastician, painter, sculptor and film director. She also created “Daddy”, a virulent denunciation of the family that was connected with her childhood trauma.

9.  Inspired by Gaudi’s Parc Güell in Barcelona, she created the Tarot garden at Capalbio in Tuscany, which brings together monumental sculptures inspired by the game’s characters. One of them was also home to the artist during the work.

10.  In 2002, she succumbed to a respiratory disease linked to the toxic polyester fumes she inhaled as she created her works.

Maxime - Art & Culture

Bonjour, my name is Maxime. I obtained my name because my grandmother always took me to Maxime’s in Paris for my birthday, always in the company of her best girlfriend! When I was fourteen years old, I was already enamoured with their Parisian chatter. Now, when with friends, I know everything about the art of invisible make-up and light cocktails! The Parisian really has a very distinct character: she’s surprising and interesting. And she’s so feminine! As for invitations, it a real task: each day Paris offers new exhibitions, previews and vernissages. With a Parisian, you absolutely have to be in the right place at the right time!

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