Arts & Culture · Fine Art

NANA POWER: The Extraordinary Art of Niki de Saint Phalle

Google DoodleOctober 29, 2014, Google Doodle  in honor of Niki de Saint Phalle’s 84th birthday (was not shown in the U.S.).

“Tout-Paris is raving about the retrospective of extravagantly joyous sculptures of the Franco-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle,” Tish Jett told Women’s Voices readers last month in her ode to Paris in the fall.

Skip and I already had tickets for our sixth trip to Paris in 13 years; Niki de Saint Phalle’s exhibition at the Grand Palais was to be a highlight. I’d been in love with her work for years—those larger-than-life, archetypal females now being celebrated in Grand Palais style in Paris. I wanted to write the show up for Women’s Voices.

But the stars weren’t lined up for me as we set out. As I was about to board, my passport wasn’t there. Asked to leave the line, I retreated in madwoman mode. Would they leave me behind? My purse was stuffed with everything needed to keep me safe the next 10 hours . . . medicine (drat! no tranquilizers); inhalers; gum; snacks; brush; blush; two paperback books; cell phone; iPad; pens; crossword puzzles; Kleenex—and voilà!—passport at the bottom. On board at last, I reached for something in the tiptoe-high overhead compartment and my bag boomeranged back on my nose. I asked Skip, “Am I too old to travel?” “Yes,” he replied without pause. “No,” The woman next to us responded, setting the right tone.

I wish I could travel on a moment’s notice when I read about a not-to-miss experience in another city: La Traviata in San Francisco; Jazz Festival in New Orleans; El Greco at the Met in New York; a cruise to Ephesus . . .

The Niki de Saint Phalle exposition—not a moment’s-notice sort of thing—did turn out to be the highlight of our 25-day trip to Paris and Barcelona. At the expo, I’m on excitement overload, juggling a notebook for making brilliant observations in one hand, an exhibit listening guide in the other. There are some 200 works to look at, listen to, interact with: sculptures, videos, paintings and collages, assemblages, drawings, clips from Niki’s experimental films, photos of her gardens.

It is overwhelming and wonderful. I want to see everything at once, yet would have loved to just sit and observe it all. I focus on the school groups as they twirl and frolic with the crayon-colorful Nanas swaying overhead.

Though Saint-Phalle is considered a Franco-American artist and spent years of her life in the States, she is better known and loved all over Europe and Japan, judged a major figure in contemporary art. Years ago, my brother introduced me to Saint Phalle (1930–2002) through a public installation she created in Kit Carson Park, in Escondido, California. Hidden deep in the park is Queen Califia’s Magical Circle.

Queen Califia atop an eagle  1212Queen Califia atop an eagle. (Photo: Toni Myers)

Four hundred feet of giant snake sculptural wall surround an exuberant bunch of large, totemic sculptures made of brightly colored mosaics. The Queen herself—an 11-foot-tall Amazon archetype of feminine power—reigns atop a magnificent eagle.

And I was familiar with Saint Phalle’s Nanas (French slang for “chick”) in museums and outdoor installations worldwide, her first ones virginal brides or mothers (some in the act of giving birth to rubber baby dolls or more outré entities)—papier-mâché-like giant women with objets trouvés embedded everywhere.

Niki de Saint Phalle Expo PosterNiki de Saint Phalle Expo Poster. (Photo: Skip Kerr)

The exhibit poster shocked me. Niki de Saint Phalle, in pink ruffled cuffs, is aiming a gun at the viewer. She had made her name with her Tirs—shooting paintings. She embedded cans and sacs of paint in her whitewashed paintings and then shot at them, creating dramatic effects as the paint exploded. In fact, people were invited to shooting parties where all could participate. The exhibition video below shows Niki in action with her rifle. (Look beyond the Nanas.)

Saint Phalle said about the Tirs: “By shooting my own violence, I no longer had to carry it inside me like a burden.”

The shooting paintings won her entrée into the avant-garde group Nouveaux Réalistes in 1961, to which her lover (later husband), Swiss kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely, belonged. With this, Niki had arrived, though her work was considered “outsider art” since she had no formal training. Art critic Jane Neal said that “she muscled her way into a male-dominated art world with disquieting exuberance.” Brava, Niki!

Her Nanas evolved into voluptuous polyester forms in stunning colors.

Niki de Saint Phalle Expo children visit NanasNanas and young admirers. (Photo: Skip Kerr)

The expo Nanas, some hanging from rafters, are so lively and boisterous that you expect them to escape their bonds and bounce out the door in all their wildly colorful magnificence. The biggest Nana of all was Hon (She: a cathedral), commissioned by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, 1966. Along with Jean Tinguely and Per Olaf Ultrecht, Niki created Hon to form the entrance to the museum. Visitors arrived through the sculpture’s open vagina. Hon was 80 feet by 30 wide and could house up to 100 people at a time. “Rooms” included a music place, a cinema, an aquarium, and a milk bar. It was pre-planned that she last only three months. This Nana, a giant pagan goddess, was credited with the birth-rate increase in Stockholm that year.

The Nanas continued evolving, into a series of “Devouring Mothers,” sculptures depicting women in a more cynical light. In an Ulmer Museum catalog for another exhibit, Saint Phalle declared, “My first exhibition with the Nanas, I called Nana Power. For me they were the symbol of a happy free woman . . . 20 years later . . . I see them as forerunners of a new matriarchal epoch, I believe it is the only solution [to the world’s dysfunction.]”

Niki de Saint Phalle’s masterwork, an almost 20-year project, is the Tarot Garden in Tuscany, Italy, which grew from the seeds planted in a visit she made to Barcelona where she marveled at Antonin Gaudi’s work, in particular Parc Guell, where his wild mosaics run free. Niki’s friend Marella Agnelli arranged a family donation of land on the Coast, 60 miles northwest of Rome.

Tarot Garden Italy

Tarot Garden Couple. (Source: Pinterest)

Niki devoted her own resources and much of her time to this Giardino dei Tarocchi from 1979 to 1998, when it opened to the public. One-third of the $5 million she needed came from the sale of a designer perfume, “Niki De Saint Phalle” she was commissioned to create. (Available today on Amazon).

She actually lived inside the Empress (“Queen of the Sky, Mother, Whore, Sacred Image”) for eight years, following what she said was a lifelong dream of living in an outdoor sculpture. Twenty-two archetypal symbols of the Tarot are represented in giant sculptures—many of them, like Hon and the Empress, hollow architecture. The sculptures are made of reinforced concrete, covered with mirrors and ceramic mosaics. I long to visit the place.

After Nikki lost husband and art partner (they called themselves the Bonnie and Clyde of art) Jean Tinguely, she honored his memory by creating the Tinguely Museum in Basel, and by creating her own kinetic sculptures, his specialty.

Her health had been delicate for some time, and so she moved to San Diego in 1994. Her lungs were damaged from all the polyester dust in cutting out sculptures. Niki de Saint Phalle continued with commissions in the U.S., Europe, and Jerusalem until her death in 2002, at age 71, a victim of the lung disease she acquired while working.

While she had numerous exhibitions during her lifetime and after, an exposition at the Grand Palais is a sign that an artist’s legacy is secure. This fabulous show will move to the Guggenheim in Bilbao in February, 2015.

Saint Phalle was awarded the prestigious Praemium Imperiale Prize for her sculptures in Japan, a prize recognizing areas of achievement not covered by the Nobel. Her works are in museums in 22 countries around the world, 27 museums in the U.S. alone.

niki takes tea

Niki takes tea. (Source: Pinterest)

Unique in the art world, Niki de Saint Phalle’s uninhibited style has wowed people everywhere. She wanted to bring joy, humor, and color into everyone’s life, and she succeeded brilliantly. She managed to exorcise her demons in the darker works (late in life, she revealed that her father raped her at age 11 and that this greatly influenced her work). She informed her sculpture gardens with fascinating mythical and cultural references.

She was a tireless fighter for women’s issues through her art and was the first artist to make women her focus in such a way. The political was personal to her, a brave feminist. In one of the expo videos, Niki declared that her Nanas “were a desire to see men smaller than these enormous women”!

If you can’t get to France or Spain, check out a book on Niki de Saint Phalle from your local library. She’s well worth your time.


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  • Carol November 18, 2014 at 5:36 pm

    Agree…she was an astounding art Very interesting and informative – thanks for writing about her!

  • Natalie November 18, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    I have never heard of her! I would love to see more art like that in public places!!

  • Judith November 18, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    Thank you for introducing me to this amazing artist! I was surprised by her photo—expected her to be more like her archetypal women. Imagine living inside one of these sculptures, as she did, and what that would do to one’s consciousness…

    And, of course, it brings smiles and a sigh of relief, that there is still appreciation and a place in the world for goddess sized women!

  • Roz Warren November 18, 2014 at 9:39 am


  • Andrea November 18, 2014 at 8:15 am

    Always loved her work. Never knew what an amazing woman she was. Fascinating article.

  • suetiggers November 18, 2014 at 1:32 am

    a truly amazing woman and artist !