Imagine a woman who had spent her life with a paintbrush in one hand and a 22-calibre rifle in the other, and both for the sake of art. Yes, the Shooting Paintings evoke a fair amount of rage, yet when you look at Niki de Saint Phalle sculptures, particularly the Nanas, it’s hard to believe the two bodies of work were made by the same woman. The truth is that this is exactly who she was: brave and troubled, Niki de Saint Phalle was always meant to be a star of her own life, growing up in a bourgeois environment to be an exceptional beauty and an enormous talent, further emphasized by the fact she was entirely self-taught.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s colourful outdoor sculptures of sensuous female figures became a strong voice in addressing the position of women in the 1960s society. The very first examples of the series were exhibited at Paris’s Alexander Iolas Gallery in 1965, Nanas made of papier-mâché, yarn and cloth. The following year, from a collaboration with Per Olof Ultvedt and future husband Jean Tinguely came the legendary Hon-en-Katedrall (she-a-cathedral), a massive reclining sculpture of a woman (nana), installed at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The visitors were invited to enter the installation through a door-sized vaginal opening between her legs, causing a lot of controversy, but also praise. But Niki de Saint Phalle’s perhaps most ambitious project is The Tarot Garden (Il Giardino dei Tarocchi), an entire park of her sculptures located in Italy.
This was all to paint a picture of the kind of artist Niki de Saint Phalle was - eclectic and outspoken, fighting for women’s rights through an explosion of colors and forms. At the core of all these projects lies a terrible childhood secret, revealed much later in the artist’s life: she was raped by her own father at the age of 11. From that moment on, she was looking for an outlet for her emotions, projecting her experience through a language that could be seen as the opposite of what she was feeling, all this in a male-dominated world that had little appreciation for women in general, let alone women who wanted to express themselves through art. Niki de Saint Phalle died of a pulmonary disease at the age of 71, leaving an extraordinary legacy behind.
Editors’ Tip: Niki de Saint Phalle and the Tarot Garden
In 1974, Niki de Saint Phalle was given a part of the land in Garavicchio, Tuscany, some 100 km north-west of Rome along the coast. It was the year she set out to do something unprecedented: the first sculpture park entirely created by a woman. After more than 20 years of work, The Tarot Garden was completed in the park of Bomarzo, inspired by Gaudi’s Parc Guell in Barcelona and still incomplete after Niki de Saint Phalle’s death in 2002. With elaborate illustrations and sensitively written texts, this book presents in detail the formation of the garden and the underlying ideas.
Here we are in 1966, a rebellious time when things started looking up for women all over the world with the advent of feminism. Only a year before, Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nanas sculptures had their first public appearance in an exhibition in Paris, and among them there was Bathing Beauty, as yet another tribute to all women of the modern world. Voluptuous and vibrant, these pieces celebrated womanhood outside the imposed roles and stereotypes. Bathing Beauty was sold at Sotheby’s Paris in 2009, for a total of $530,000 with buyer's premium, a little under its high estimate of $519,600.
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The Nanas marked Niki de Saint Phalle’s departure from previous gestures of violence, expressed in the Shooting paintings. Her art became theatrical through the fluid movements of her figurines, particularly with Lili ou Tony, one of her first Nanas figures. The artist went from Nouveaux Réalistes towards Dadaists and Pop artists, something her unconventional materials like resin and fabrics testify to. This piece too is an ode to femininity, reminiscing of the Palaeolithic Venus, the piñatas of the Meso-American art and even the fertility totems. Estimated between $272,600 and $408,900, the sculpture sold for $559,350 with buyer's premium at Sotheby’s Amsterdam in 2008, while Sotheby's Paris fail to sell it in 2013, with high estimate at $610,700.
More data on the piece here.
Even the later Nanas, like the Nana Dawn created in 1993, represent a part of the monumental work of art dominated by rich, pure colors and a sense of freedom. As though they are Niki de Saint Phalle’s life-long project to materialise and release her own emotions that are, surprisingly, not at all playful as these sculptures: fears, frustrations, sadness, even anger; while, at the same time, they fight for equality and appreciation of women. In 2007, Sotheby’s New York sold the Nana Dawn sculpture for $645,800, not being able to reach the work’s high estimate of $700,000.
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Sold for its low estimate of $588,300 at Sotheby’s Paris in late 2007 ($706,300 with buyer's premium), the 1965 Nana immortalised the pregnancy of Niki de Saint Phalle’s friend Clarisse Rivers, marking the beginning of the artist’s Nanas journey. Clarisse’s curvy figure and pregnancy body inspired her to give more physicality to her sculptures, more color, making them the leaders of “girl power” in a revolution against the world tailored for men. Until this point, Niki de Saint Phalle’s pieces were pallid and much simpler, so Nana became a successful experiment in the creation of curvaceous, vivid forms that would stick for a long time to come.
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Adam et Eve represents one of the twenty two sculptures included in Niki de Saint Phalle’s remarkable The Tarot Garden in Tuscany, Italy, created between 1979 and 1993. This particular sculpture is one of the trademark pieces by the artist, oozing in decorative patterns and smooth surfaces. In quite an apparent manner, the piece references the biblical story of humanity’s first parents, enjoying a day out and having what appears to be a picnic, with wine and food and all. The sculpture is also present in the Citygarden in downtown St. Louis, Missouri. In 2012, Gros-delettrez Paris sold the resin piece for $762,000 with buyer's premium, almost double its high estimate of $323,300.
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Niki de Saint Phalle’s 1989 sculpture Le Banc was one of the biggest surprises at Christie’s Paris auction in 2009. Estimated between $63,000 and $84,000, it went for a whopping $773,620 with buyer's premium, some eight times over! Many of her sculptures are housed by the Japanese town of Naoshima, and Le Banc is one of them, showing a man sitting on a bench reading newspaper, in company of his dog. The piece just screams modernist, and it stands outside the artist’s celebrated Nanas or Shooting paintings, although it still closely follows her artistic approach.
More information on the piece here!
Reaching $700,000 at Christie’s London in 2007 and $805,400 with buyer's premium at Millon-Cornette De Saint Cyr in Paris in 2009, Niki de Saint Phalle’s Peril Jaune is another one of her Nanas, created in 1968. Considered to be one of the artist’s most recognizable pieces, Peril Jaune, translating to “yellow peril”, sees a female figure wearing a beautiful costume which mixes black and white elements with colourful ornaments, and standing on one leg and holding what appears to be a red ball, as if captured in the middle of a victorious dance of a sort. Niki de Saint Phalle’s figures were quite big in size - this one, for example, measures 272 x 188 x 73.3 cm!
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Perhaps one of the more entertaining Niki de Saint Phalle sculptures, La Machine a Rever is a dream machine, quite literally. In 1970, it came to grace the entrance of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, where she had an exhibition. Surely one of her most beautiful pieces, for the artist the dreams represents the means to protect herself, a helping tool in the creation of life on earth. In one of the letters she wrote to a friend, Niki de Saint Phalle wrote that during her most difficult childhood years, one of her sanctuaries was this colourful box of “magic and secrets” tucked under her bed. La Machine a Rever was sold at the 2008 Sotheby’s Paris sale, for $915,350 with buyer's premium.
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She is fierce, she is powerful, she is fearless and ready to take on the world. Niki de Saint Phalle’s 1068 Nana Danseuse Noire (Grande Danseuse Negresse) (Great Big Black Dancer) is a celebration of life, liberty, being a woman unconditionally and without any obstacles. Her body is mesmerising, her costume is alluring, she appears as though she’s about to fly and we just want to go with her, wherever she goes. This sculpture was sold by Artcurial Paris in 2015 for its high estimate of $870,900 - $1,077,250 with buyer's premium, and it was also featured in the artist’s grand retrospective at Grand Palais in Paris in 2014/2015.
More auction data can be seen here.
Finally, we come to Niki de Saint Phalle’s most expensive sculpture at auctions - the 1967 Ana Lena en Grece, which went for $1,136,000 with buyer's premium at Sotheby’s 2006 New York sale, well-surpassing its high estimate of $700,000. This unique piece represents a more static Nana, compared to other playful figures. Nevertheless, it stands tall, strong and proud, oozing with the artist’s traditional artistic style and vision. What’s particular is the sculpture’s title, Ana Lena en Grece (Ana Lena in Greece), as it was never explained and it remains a mystery that Niki de Saint Phalle took with her to the grave in 2002.
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All images used for illustrative purposes only.