Getting Mesmerized by Niki de Saint Phalle's The Tarot Garden

Artist(s) in Focus, Artwork(s) In Focus, Art Destinations in Focus, Art History

November 10, 2019

The early post-war period in America was marked by the generation of young people who started rejecting social conventions by developing alternative models of behavior and lifestyles. The artists were largely influenced by the European avant-garde legacy and that was how the Neo-avantgarde was born. Although the leading proponents of the movement were mostly men, there were also a few women who managed to stand out and construct outstanding practices, one of them being Niki de Saint Phalle.

This peculiar, yet bold American figure of French descent had a chaotic life, which included her abusive relationship with her parents and the unstable, and in some cases extreme, emotional relationships which reflected on her feminist-oriented oeuvre. Saint Phalle expressed herself through assemblage, sculpture, performance, and film, exploring various formal issues, as well as certain aspects of daily reality e.g. the society and politics. Throughout her fruitful career, the artist collaborated with notable figures active at the time such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, John Cage, and architect Mario Botta. However, the artist's most important collaboration was with the iconic Swiss kinetic artist Jean Tinguely, to whom Saint Phalle was married. The artist later suffered from numerous chronic health problems as a result of the exposure to petrochemical fumes and glass fibers which evaporated from the experimental materials she used in her pioneering artworks.

Saint Phalle gained prominence for her 1960s shooting actions titled Tirs (she used to shoot her grand assemblages with a rifle) where she combined painting, sculpture performance, and body art. That is how she became a part of the Nouveau réalisme movement. Then she started producing Nanas, colorful, large-scale sculptures of monsters, animals, and female figures which gradually turned in an ambitious project of a large sculpture garden titled the Tarot Garden.

This outstanding site located in Pescia Fiorentina, Garavicchio, in the Italian municipality of Capalbio (province of Grosseto, Tuscany) took almost forty years to finish and was open for public in 1998. Ever since then, this garden, consisting of various sculptural formations, has been attracting many tourists and has become a genuine attraction that shows the domains of a pioneering woman artist.

Niki de Saint Phalle – Death at giardino dei tarocchi capalbio italy
Niki de Saint Phalle – Death, part of the Tarot Garden. Image via Flickr.

The Development of The Tarot Garden in Tuscany

The Tarot Garden is, as the title suggests, based on the esoteric tarot. Niki de Saint Phalle was inspired by Antoni Gaudí´s Parc Güell she saw in 1955 while visiting Barcelona. Another garden which dazzled the artist was the Parco dei Mostri in Bomarzo, in Tuscany. In the late 1950s and early 1960s together with Jean Tinguely, the artist also visited two astonishing sites of outsider art, Le Palais Idéal built by Ferdinand Cheval in Hauterives, France, and the Watts Towers made by Simon Rodia in Los Angeles, both built by ordinary working men.

That is how Saint Phalle came to the conclusion that she wanted to develop a grand sculpture garden, the first to be created by a woman. The Tarot Garden consists of twenty-two large scale figures representing the artist’s idea of the greater Mysteries of the tarot made of reinforced concrete and embellished with mirrors and ceramic mosaic.

Niki de Saint Phalle - The Tarot Garden

The Chronology of The Site

The story about the Tarot Garden starts in 1974 when Saint Phalle was recuperating from a pulmonary abscess (the result of working with polyester) in St. Moritz in the Swiss mountains where she reconnects with her friend from the 1950s in New York, Marella Agnelli. There the artist shares her obsession with a fantasy garden with Agnelli whose brothers offered Saint Phalle their land in Tuscany for the site four years later.

Now, before the parcel appeared as an option, in 1975 Saint Phalle made a film called Un rêve plus long que la nuit (A Dream Longer Than the Night, later also called Camélia et le Dragon) in collaboration with her friends where some of the monsters appear similar to the ones made for the Tarot Garden a few years later. Before the first intervention on the site in 1977, the artist also collaborated with the English writer Constantin Mulgrave and produced design sets for The Traveling Companion (based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale), and the same year she traveled to Mexico and New Mexico, in search for inspirations.

Finally, in 1978, Saint Phalle started forming the sculpture garden on an abandoned parcel located about 100 kilometers north-west of Rome along the coast. Sites were cleared the following year, and the first foundations were posed. During the same period, Saint Phalle initiated a new series of monumental sculptures called the Skinnies. Together with the mentioned Nanas series, they found their place in the Tarot Garden project.

Saint Phalle and her team practically made the first sculpture in the garden in 1980. For the purposes of the project progression, she started attending an Italian course to establish easier communication with the local workers. Among the team members was postman Ugo Celletti who was responsible for the mosaic work on the project throughout thirty-six years and even involved his family members (some of them still working on the site today). The project also gathered numerous artist friends from different countries, as well as dozens of ironworkers, architects, ceramicists, and other craftsmen.

All the sculptures have a basic shape made of welded steel rebar, with a second layer of steel reinforcement bars, and two layers of expanded metal. Each object was covered with a layer of tar for waterproofing and a final layer of white cement as well.

In 1980, Niki de Saint Phalle started selling a series of polyester snake chairs, vases, and lamps to support the projectand she suffered from her first attack of rheumatoid arthritis, a painful disease that affects the joints of the skeleton. The artist nevertheless continued working fiercely on the project, and in 1981 she rented a small house near the Tarot Garden and hired young people from the local community on the site. Jean Tinguely led a Swiss team during that time, and they started welding the frames of the sculptures, while the following year the welding operations were conducted by the Dutch artist Doc Winsen.

To promote and finance her project, Niki de Saint Phalle designed and marketed a specially crafted perfume in 1982, while from 1983 until 1988 she used to live on the site in a small apartment located inside The Empress, a house-sized sphinx-like garden sculpture. During that period Saint Phalle made a decision to cover her Tarot Garden sculptures in durable ceramic colored tiles including pieces of mirrors and glass. One of her assistants, Ricardo Menon, connected the artist with a ceramics teacher from Rome Venera Finocchiaro, who taught local women new ceramic techniques.

In 1985 Jean Tinguely made motorized and static steel sculptures and fountains, and from 1987 until 1993 Saint Phalle produced many of the smaller sculptures for the garden. She used to organize exhibitions featuring her art to support the project, and she also dealt with the bureaucracy regarding permanent legal structure for the preservation and maintenance of the site.

Nicki de Saint Phalle - The Garden of Tarot, giardino dei tarocchi capalbio italy
Niki de Saint Phalle – Tarot Garden. Image via Flickr.

The Outstanding Legacy Behind Niki de Saint Phalle's Tarot Garden

In 1992–1993 the first maintained of the Tarot Garden was conducted to secure mirrors and glass elements and withstand weathering. The last restoration process of re-attaching mirrors was launched in 2017.

To summarize the whole project, it is necessary to state that it was built for more than thirty years, with a budget of roughly $11 million. In 1997 the artist managed to establish The Foundation of the Tarot Garden before it was opened in 1998.

The finished garden contains works representing twenty-two cards of Major Arcana found in the Tarot deck, as well as other smaller artworks spreading on the site around two hectares large on the southern slope of the hill of Gravicchio, in Capalbio.

It is also important to mention that a very good friend of Niki de Saint Phalle, architect Mario Botta, constructed a protective wall and a gateway at the very entrance to the garden to make a proper separation from the outside world. The entry structure consists of a ticket office, a gift shop, and restrooms, while the park itself includes also courtyards, fountains, a multilevel tower, and a number of large scale mythical creatures. The artist even designed a brochure with a map and other useful information for garden visitors.

The Tarot Garden was Niki de Saint Phalle’s life project; a specially crafted place where one can wonder and contemplate while admiring the skillfulness of the executed sculptures and other artifacts found in the garden.

Editors’ Tip Niki de Saint Phalle and the Tarot Garden

Inspired by Antoni Gaudí’s Parc Güell in Barcelona and the Mannerist park Sacro Bosco in Bomarzo, Niki de Saint Phalle, together with her partner Jean Tinguely, created her sculpture park in Garavicchio, in the southern-most part of Tuscany. In this vast garden, the 22 cards of the tarot’s Major Arcana are represented in the form of enormous sculptures, 12 to 15 meters high, made of painted polyester and reinforced concrete, covered with mirrors, mosaics, multicolored ceramics and Murano glass. This enchanted world was, for her, the ultimate achievement of her oeuvre, its culmination. The volume consists of text written by Saint Phalle herself and explaining her thoughts and intentions as well as photos of all sculptures.

Featured image: Card VI - The choice (the lovers); Card 17 - The Star, Card 3 - The Empress, Card 19 - The Sun, and The Wheel of Fortune at the Tarot Garden by Niki de Saint Phalle, Tuscany. Photos by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, and Yellow.Cat via Flickr.

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