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Pioneering Saint Phalle

Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) was a French-American artist best remembered for her sculptures and conceptual art, although she also produced paintings, films, writings and other designs.

Phenomenally creative, her work is now on display all over the world. In Paris, the Stravinsky Fountain (which she designed in 1983 with long-term partner and collaborator, Jean Tinguely) has become a tourist attraction in its own right.

Born in France and brought up in the US, despite her wealthy, aristocratic background (her father was Count André-Marie Fal de Saint Phalle) she endured a traumatic childhood. Beaten and punished by her strict Catholic mother, repeatedly abused by her father, she was expelled from numerous schools.

She did, however, visit family in France often, so was a fluent French speaker. By the time she was 18 she was modelling for Vogue, and had married her first husband, musician Harry Mathews.

Escaping family disapproval, the couple moved to Paris in 1952, and embarked on a series of bohemian wanderings around Europe with daughter Laura in tow.

There were affairs, episodes of mania, and a spell in a psychiatric hospital. In Spain, she gave birth to a son, Philip, and discovered the work of Antoni Gaudi.

In 1956, she held her first exhibition, in Switzerland, met Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, who was married at that time to artist Eva Aeppli, and attempted her first large-scale sculpture.

In 1960, having separated from Harry Mathews and her children, Niki moved in with Jean Tinguely and began a period of extraordinary creativity.

Her ‘tirs’ were a series of works in which she created montages of objects, usually sprayed white, and then shot them with a rifle to explode pockets of paint, or break balloons full of paint hanging in front of them.

The actual shooting often took place in public as an artistic installation or ‘happening’ in its own right – performance art. These ‘tirs’ attracted enormous attention, and she was quick to exploit the interest by wearing a well-fitting white pantsuit while wielding a gun.

In 1964, she began her famous ‘Nanas’ (French slang for ‘woman’) series of sculptures of women. Brightly coloured, fantastical, with large breasts, stomachs and bottoms, and often with black skin, these sculptures explored the way women are objectified in the modern world.

She documented her artistic progress in diaries, books, drawings, photographs and films, which today belong to the Niki Charitable Art Foundation in California that she created. Her granddaughter Bloum Cardenas said: “She was very specific about it, so I feel that I’m carrying on her work. I loved her, she was my role model and I want everyone to love her as much as I did.”

Her biographer, Catherine Francblin said preserving women’s legacies is vital. “Niki de Saint Phalle was way ahead of her time, so people didn’t really understand her art.

“She was one of those rare women who seized liberty, who had the courage to dare to sculpt. And even more exceptionally, she wanted her work to attract attention. Her American side gave her courage to be different, to be spectacular.”

De Saint Phalle guarded her artistic creativity jealously, raising money to finance her own work rather than replying on grants or commissions. “She funded her Tarot Garden in Tuscany entirely herself. As a result, French institutions didn’t approve of her or her work.”

An exception was Pontus Hultén, the director of the Modern Museum in Stockholm and later the Pompidou Centre, who invited her to exhibit, and acquired her work.

Ms Cardenas says her grandmother was constantly creating. “She wasn’t limited by form, she was force of nature.

“She had amazing strength, and a lot to say, and she found ways to express herself when words wouldn’t suffice.

“She loved to collaborate, and was generous with other artists. She treated them like an artistic family. She wrote a journal, and even when on the phone, she was often drawing at the same time.

“Niki just told her story in her way.”

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