Niki de Saint Phalle Biography

(French-American Sculptor, Painter and Filmmaker)

Birthday: October 29, 1930 (Scorpio)

Born In: Neuilly-sur-Seine, France

Niki de Saint Phalle, born as Catherine-Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle, was a French-American artist. She is known for sculpture gardens ‘Tarot Garden’ and ‘Queen Califia’s Magical Circle,’ and sculpture series, ‘Nanas’ and ‘Black Heroes.’ She gained attention for her early series of work dubbed ‘Tirs,’ or ‘Shooting Paintings.’ She used diverse materials in the construction of sculptures. She collaborated with many modern and contemporary sculptors and artists, including her second husband, Jean Tinguely. Her works have been exhibited and installed at numerous venues in different countries of America, Europe and Asia. The harmful materials and chemicals she used resulted in the deterioration of health and succumbed to respiratory failure in 2002.
Quick Facts

French Celebrities Born In October

Also Known As: Catherine-Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle

Died At Age: 71


Spouse/Ex-: Harry Mathews (m. 1949–1960, Jean Tinguely (m. 1971–1991)

father: André-Marie Fal de Saint Phalle

mother: Jeanne Jacqueline Harper

children: Laura Duke Condominas, Philip Mathews

Born Country: France

Feminists Artists

Died on: May 21, 2002

place of death: La Jolla, California, United States

Notable Alumni: Brearley School

Diseases & Disabilities: Asthma, Emphysema, Arthritis, Depression

Grouping of People: Christians

Cause of Death: Respiratory Failure

City: Neuilly-sur-Seine, France

More Facts

education: Brearley School

awards: Prix Caran d’Ache (1994)
Praemium Imperiale (2000)

Childhood & Early Life
Niki was born to Jeanne Jacqueline Harper, an American and André-Marie Fal de Saint Phalle, a French banker, on October 29, 1930, at Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, part of Grand Paris.
She reunited with her parents in the U.S. in 1993 after they migrated immediately following her birth.
From the tender age of 11, her father sexually abused her. She revealed it in her autobiography ‘Mon Secret,’ published in 1994.
She graduated from ‘Oldfieds School,’ in Glencoe, Maryland, in 1947.
At the age of 18, she married Harry Mathews.
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She started as a naive painter in 1951.
In 1952, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a hospital. While her stay at the hospital, she discovered painting helped her cope with her condition.
Niki befriended American-French painter Hugh Weiss in Paris in 1954. He guided and encouraged her to maintain her originality and self-taught methods.
In 1955, she was inspired by the sculptures of Antonio Gaudi at Park Guell.
In the next year, she met Jean, a kinetic artist and her future husband, and the most frequent collaborator.
In the late 50s, she was exposed to the works of various modern and contemporary artists. Inspired by them, she evolved her methods. She also partnered with a few of them.
After her family moved out of the house in 1960, she stayed behind in the old apartment and continued her experiments. In the same year, she exhibited at the ‘Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.’
She produced ‘Tirs,’ a combination of body art, performances, sculptures, and pictures, in the early 1960s and performed many times in different countries.
Pierre Restany, the founder of the ‘Nouveau realisme movement,’ visited her first exhibition in 1961 and inducted her as its only woman member. Also, at this exhibition, she acquainted many American artists, including Larry Rivers and his wife, Clarice with whom she collaborated later.
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In 1962, she traveled to New York and participated in the ‘Museum of Modern Art’s’ exhibition, ‘The Art of Assemblage,’ and toured across U.S.A through 1962.
The Greek-American gallerist, Alexander Iolas, witnessed Niki’s presentation of ten ‘Tirs’ and altars in Paris. He offered her to exhibit at his gallery in New York and mentored her in the following years.
Along with Jean in 1963, she converted ‘Auberge au Cheval Blanc,’ an old inn at Soisy-sur-Ecole, near Paris into a studio. She made sculptures of women who were typecast by society in poor light.
She made sculptures using found objects, papier-mache, cloth, wool, plaster, plastic toys, fiberglass reinforced plastic, and polyurethane foam and colored it with bright acrylic and polyurethane paints.
‘Nanas,’ one of her most famous series of works, was inspired by the pregnancy of Clarice. These represented women of better social status, in contrast to her earlier works. One of her earliest shows of ‘Nanas’ was held in Iolas’ gallery in Paris in 1965.
Collaborating with Jean, she made ‘Hon,’ her most talked-about ‘Nana’ and ‘Le Paradis Fantastique,’ a combination of nine sculptures and six machines. Both these works were installed in Stockholm, Sweden. The latter was the French government’s commission on her. Rico Weber joined them as assistant for both these projects and continued to work with them on other projects as well.
To finance her future projects, she sold inflatable ‘Nana’ dolls in 1968.
Under Jean’s leadership, she worked on ‘Le Cyclop’ in 1969, which took more than two decades to finish.
Niki’s first permanent installation, ‘Le Rêve de l’oiseau,’ was completed in 1971, a private project, for a summer residence in southern France.
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In 1972, she built ‘Golem,’ part of a children’s park in Jerusalem, Israel.
She partnered with Robert Haligon and his son, Gerard, who remained associated with for a long time.
She shot the film ‘Daddy’ in 1972 and released a revised version in 1973. She designed jewelry for ‘Gem Montebello Laboratory,’ in 1973.
Three huge-sized ‘Nanas’ were installed in Hannover, Germany, in 1974.
While undergoing treatment at St. Moritz, Switzerland, she re-acquainted with Marella Agnelli and conveyed the idea of ‘Tarot Garden.’ Marella’s brothers granted her land in Tuscany, Italy, for the ‘Garden,’ which opened for public in 1998.
She wrote the screenplay and designed furniture sets for the 1975 movie ‘Un rêve plus long que la Nuit.’ These pieces are exhibited on the facade of the ‘Palais des Beaux-Arts’ in Brussels, Belgium. After this, she returned to Switzerland to draw further inspiration for ‘Garden.’
Ricardo Menon assisted her from 1977 to 1986.
The foundation for the ‘Garden’ was laid in 1978, and the construction of the first ‘Nana’ labeled ‘The High Priestess’ began in 1980.
In 1979, she began a new series ‘Skinnies,’ which were flat, planar, see-through outlines of heads and figures, highlighted by colored patches.
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In 1980, ‘Le poète et sa muse’ was assembled on the campus of ‘Ulm University,’ In the same year, she produced the first of snake chairs, vases, and lamps out of polyester.
‘Jacqueline Cochran Company’ produced eponymous perfumes of Niki in 1982. The earnings from these perfumes were used by her to fund the ‘Garden.’
One of her well-known partnerships with Jean was ‘Stravinsky Fountain,’ next to Centre Pompidou, Paris, unveiled in 1982.
On the campus of ‘University of California San Diego,’ ‘The Stuart Collection’ installed the sculpture, ‘Sun God’ in 1983.
In 1983, she moved into ‘The Empress,’ her apartment-cum studio, on the site of ‘Tarot Garden,’ and devoted more time and effort for the project. By 1985, she completed the construction of four sculptures.
Niki’s book ‘AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands,’ was released in 1986.
In 1988, she built two fountains each for the Urban Council Square, Château-Chinon, France and the Schneider Children’s Hospital, New York, and a massive kite called ‘L’Oisean amoureux’ for an international traveling exhibition dedicated to kites in Japan.
She made her first kinetic sculpture ‘Meta-Tinguely’ in memory of Jean, who passed away in 1991.
She worked along with the architect, Mario Botta, to build the ‘Museum Tinguely’ in Basel, Switzerland. Botta built the fortress-like wall around the ‘Tarot Garden.’ She collaborated with him again to build ‘Noah’s Ark’ in ‘Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.’
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Between 1992 and 1993, she produced ‘Tableaux Eclatés,’ a kinetic relief, built an outdoor fountain named ‘Lebensretter,’ in Duisburg, Germany, and sculpture labeled ‘Les Footballeurs’ for the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Her health weakened further in 1994, and she moved to La Jolla, San Diego, California, and lived and worked here until her death in 2002.
She received the ‘Prix Caran d’Ache’ in 1994.
In 1995, the documentary titled ‘Niki de Saint Phalle: Wer ist das Monster – Du oder ich?,’ based on her life and work, won the ‘Best Documentary Award,’ at ‘Bavarian Film Awards’ in 1995.
‘L’Ange Protecteur’ was assembled in 1997 at the main railway station in Zurich, Switzerland. Also, in 1997, she designed wooden snake chairs made by Del Cover and Dave.
She completed ‘Black Heroes’ series in 1998, a tribute to African-Americans.
She began work for the American sculpture garden ‘Queen Califa’s Magical Circle,’ in memory of the queen of California in Escondido, Southern California, in 2000.
Between 2000 and 2001, she donated many of her works to museums in Europe. She received the honorary citizenship of Hannover in 2000.
The ‘Japan Arts Association’ honored her with the ‘Praemium Imperiale Award’ in the same year.

‘Coming Together’ was unveiled in 2001 at the Port of San Diego. She finished writing the second volume of her autobiography ‘Harry and Me: The Family Years: 1950-1960’ in 2001 but was published posthumously in 2006.
Her last retrospective display was held in March 2002 at the ‘Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMAC)’ in Nice.
Family & Personal Life
She and Henry had two children Laura and Philip.
Towards the end of 1960, she and Jean moved in together into a shared accommodation cum studio in Impasse Ronsin, a colony of artists. After collaborating for more than a decade, they tied the knot in 1971.
In 1967, her health issues started showing up.
She passed away at ‘Scripps Memorial Hospital’ in La Jolla on May 21, 2002, due to respiratory failure.
Her Grotto was built according to her wish in 2003.

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