50 years ago, Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely presented their Fantastic Paradise to the public on the occasion of the Universal Expo 1967 in Montreal, Canada.
A few weeks after HON’s destruction in August 1966, the two artists envisioned a new gigantic and collective project together. This next sensational sculpture group, called : Le Paradis Fantastique in French and Enchanted Garden or Earthly Paradise in the English press, was proposed by Niki de Saint Phalle herself to the French Government for its Pavilion at the Universal Expo, which started end of April 1967.
The short time frame, the heavy extra budget it implied, and some cultural approbations still pending kept the two artists in the dark for few months…
Finally on January 6th, 1967 Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely met with Robert Bordaz, Director of the French Pavilion and unveiled the project model.
[drawing for Le Paradis Fantastique] , 1967 – Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York © 2017 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved.
The theme of the Fantastic Paradise was “Life confronted with the forces of Destruction”. Jean Tinguely’s black and sharp machines symbolically attacked the round and colorful sculptures of Niki de Saint Phalle.
The Director was very interested and agreed to showing it. However, he warned the artists that the budget would be tight. During this meeting they made the decision to exhibit the work in open air, on the terrace of the 7th floor of the futuristic building designated by Jean Forgeron.
So many times we have been taken for some idlers that this official order of the French government feels to us like a real rehabilitation! Finally we are no longer cursed.
Reaction of Niki de Saint Phalle on February 28th of 1967 in l’Aurore
Expo67 Montreal The Modern Dream – Extract from L’EXPRESS – March 1967
Following this interview, the two artists feverishly put themselves to work. Their production time was very short. They only had 6 weeks …
In a Parisian workshop in the neighborhood of les Buttes-Chaumont, Niki de Saint Phalle used 300 cubic meters of expanded polystyrene, 2 tons of polyester and 5 miles of fiber glass to give life to 9 gentle monsters, Nana-flowers and other imaginary creatures ranging in height from 10 to over 20 feet.
An enormous workshop in which she and half-a-dozen others grapple with cyclopean blocks of expanded polystyrene which will be coated with polyester and painted, once they have been carved.
Art & Artists London, April 1967
Niki de Saint Phalle & Jean Tinguely in the Parisian workshop, March 1967 – Extract from l’EXPRESS, photograph Christian Taillandier
In the meantime Jean Tinguely was in producing 6 threatening machines.
Once the two artists completed their sculptures, the Paradis Fantastique composed itself of:
- Le Char Raspoutine (The Rasputine Tank) charging back and forth at Bébé monstre (Baby monster)
- La Perceuse (The Drill) ready pierce into La Grosse Nana’ s posterior (The Big Nana)
- La Nana embrochée (Skewered Nana) turning on La Machine (The Machine) like a chicken on a spit
- La Rotozaza (The Rotozaza) petting La Bête gentille (The Gentle Beast) with its claws
- La Folle (The Crazy Girl) swirling in front of La Nana arbre (Nana tree)
- Le Piqueur (The Stinger) poking L’Oiseau (The Bird)
- La Fleur (The Flower), La Baigneuse (The Swimming Lady) and La Nana sur la Tête (Nana Upside-down)
At the end of March 1967 the 15 sculptures were ready to be packed and transported on board a cargo plane chartered by the French army.
Exhausted from frantic work, Niki lost 15 pounds and had to be hospitalized for pneumonia at the American Hospital in Neuilly.
Even before the inauguration of the Expo67, the International Press was unanimous: endorsing Saint Phalle & Tinguely to represent the French avant-garde at an event of such a magnitude was a bold gesture.
Maybe you never heard of Niki. But you will. My humble prophesy is she will be the find of the Expo 67.
Montreal Star, Canada, March 25th 1967
Once the works were revealed on April 28th, some critics were enthusiastic and … others outraged.
The only crazy incongruity [...] is on the terrace of the pavilion where the monstrous "Nanas" of Niki de Saint Phalle are almost raped by the atrocious machines of Tinguely.
Pourquoi Pas Bruxelles, May 25th 1967
The entire roof deck of the French Pavilion is given over to a spectacular exhibit of work by Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle. It’s Expo’s single most impressive sculpture exhibit.
David Bourdon for Art International – September 20th 1967
When Expo67 came to an end in October, the Fantastic Paradise was dismantled. Niki’s sculptures were cut into pieces to travel by truck and be exhibited at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. The artists had to restore the work but their “fight in paradise” received a much warmer welcome in the press and in the public than in Canada.
The new “Paradis Fantastique” show in the outdoor Sculpture Garden at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is one that will bowl you over, delight, amuse and beguile you.
Buffalo Evening News, November 21st 1967
After Buffalo, the Fantastic Paradise was moved to the Conservatory Garden Lawn, in Central Park, NYC for one year. Over there, too, the public reaction was very favorable.
A small visitor strolls amid Niki’s Nanas and Tinguely machines, and decides that “they can stay on our grass forever” – Extract from New York June 3, 1968, photograph Jill Krementz
At the end of its journey, the question arose about the future of the sculpture group. Pontus Hulten, Director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, accomplice and longtime friend of the artists offered a solution. He asked them to donate the whole set to the Moderna Museet in exchange of its life-long conservancy and display in the Swedish Capital. Jean and Dominique de Menil, collectors and friends, generously financed its return in Europe.
Since its creation in 1967 Niki de Saint Phalle repainted the Fantastic Paradise but the provoking sculpture can still be enjoyed everyday, outside, on Skeppsholmen an island in central Stockholm.