A Letter from Niki

Niki de Saint Phalle, like other artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso or Jean Cocteau, liked to illustrate her letters. The Niki Charitable Art Foundation Archives contain some postcards, letters and faxes Niki de Saint Phalle wrote in French, English and Italian. They are available for curators and researchers to consult. These documents are precious for both their content and layout. They reveal the artist’s personality, are sometimes so elaborate they are considered art works in themselves, and most importantly are testimony to her artistic voice.

Her Personality

In her correspondence Niki de Saint Phalle’s personality illustrates her  great imagination. She liked to include drawings or collages in her correspondence. She created stationery by making xerox copies of her drawings and sticker collages: dancing Nanas, flowers, animals, hands, or other random imagery like pliers, cowboys or Greek temples. Then she would further personalize many letters by adding her own stickers, decals and feathers.

The ornamentation would only leave room for a short message such as “Hi, Coucou, call me, thank you” and to send some light-hearted news. She also wrote longer letters in which she shared her daily life, travels and meetings peppered with secrets and humor, among other things…

While I am writing to you, Diego looks at me trough the door 
(it’s the half blind donkey Dok bought) not really useful but 
very decorative.
Extract of a letter from February 1984 to Jean Tinguely – “The Tuscan Gazette” as Niki titled it.

She used an endless list of affectionate nicknames for her close relations and herself, Jean Tinguely for instance is the little fleur de sel, Santa, the light keeper and she is: Nikita, your desert flower, the kind crocodile, the bad weed, etc… Her words give an intimate and moving portrait of the artist.

Cher Jean (Happy Easter), circa 1974

Adorned letter from 1974 to Jean Tinguely © 2017 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved.

Mail art

Among Niki de Saint Phalle’s correspondence one can find etchings, lithographs or serigraphs designed by the artist which were created for sending on special occasions: New Year, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s day, weddings and exhibition openings.

These small pieces of art, sometimes slightly different from one another and therefore often unique, were usually dedicated to her staff, friends or family. They exemplify the artist’s generosity and serve to include her in the Mail art movement.

Mail art began in the 1960s when artists sent postcards inscribed with poems or drawings through the post rather than exhibiting or selling them through commercial channels. Its origins can be found in Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters among others. It was the New York artist Ray Johnson (1927-1995), a contemporary of Niki de Saint Phalle, who in the mid 1950s posted small collages, prints of abstract drawings and poems to art world notables. This gave rise to what became known as the New York Correspondence School.

Mail art can take a variety of forms including postcards, packages, faxes, emails and blogs. It is considered to be the predecessor of net art.

Be my Valentine, circa 1988
Be My Valentine, offset from circa 1988 © 201 7 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved. 

Her artistic voice

Niki de Saint Phalle’s letters serve as vivid testimony of her artistic expression. Through letters, sometimes including preliminary drawings, she expressed her opinion on projects and exhibitions in which she participated or visited. Her writings show how much she valued her collaborator’s opinions.

In correspondence to Jean Tinguely she describes the entire building process of the Tarot Garden over more than 15 years. In some letters she indicates her vision of how things will be done. In others letters, how she overcame some technical difficulty or artistic dilemma, and in many, how Jean’s art would add to her project.

I think a lot about the archways which are beautiful. How to do 
them ? In Mosaics - veryoriental, like a jewel contrasting with 
your fountain or on the contrary with terra-cotta pots, in a 
beautiful brownish red.
Extract of a letter from 1982 to Jean Tinguely, regarding the Tarot Garden
When you will come the Falling Tower will be all polished, it 
still needs 4 or 5 days or work. I am looking for a new kind 
of mirror. Maybe slightly smoked. They said we can also find 
some slightly pink ! I will have some samples next week.
Extract of a letter from November 1984 to Jean Tinguely, regarding the Tarot Garden

Thanks to the many items of correspondence covering more than 40 years, we learn about alternative visions and the creative process that made her work so distinctive.

In Loving Memory of Harry Mathews

On January 25th 2017, we honor the memory of Harry Mathews (1930-2017), who passed away at the age of 86.

Harry Mathews was a brilliant American novelist, poet and essayist. He was a longtime editor of The Paris Review literary magazine, and is best known for his novels “My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973” (2005) and “The Conversions” (1962).

Born and raised in NYC, Mathews attended Princeton before leaving for the Navy and later receiving a B.A. in music. He spent several years associating with other future literary icons like John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. He was the only American to have been admitted to Oulipo, a celebrated experimental group of French writers and mathematicians who believe constrained writing techniques are the key to invention.

He spent most of his adult life in Europe and was married to Niki de Saint Phalle from 1949 to 1961. They had two children: Laura and Philip.

It was in Paris that he met George Perec, whose novel “A Void” was entirely written without using the letter “e”, the most common letter in French. The two became friends, translating each other’s books.

He is survived by his wife, author Marie Chaix.

Harry will be dearly missed by his readers, friends and family.

Mathews WAW Scan cropped

Mathews in Key West, Florida, 2006. Interviewed by Susannah Hunnewell, The Paris Review, Issue 180, Spring 2007 

AIDS, you can’t catch it holding hands

Book cover 'AIDS - You can't catch it holding hands', 1986

Keeping with the theme of November’s post about Niki de Saint Phalle’s political views, our December blog on World Aids Day highlights the artist’s intention to create awareness about the disease and inspire the public to fight against it.

Before there was a name for it, AIDS was already used as a means of discrimination against the gay community. It provided the perfect tool for those who feared the change in social behaviors taking place in society. Abruptly people diagnosed with AIDS were confronted by the worst kind of public hate. Niki de Saint Phalle felt she had to take part in the fight against the hate and discrimination that was surfacing. She knew many people who were affected, mostly gay men, some of whom she cared for deeply. Her personal battle against an auto-immune disease and her many relationships with professionals in the scientific and medical community helped frame her course of action.

use-a-rubberFrom 1983 to 1986 Niki de Saint Phalle wrote and illustrated AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands working with Swiss immunologist and AIDS specialist Prof. Silvio Barandun. Written in the form of a letter to her son Philip, she used her characteristically colorful and joyous style to deliver straightforward information about the transmission of HIV from unprotected sex and needle-sharing by intravenous drug use.

In the 1980’s the social climate surrounding the topic of AIDS made the publication of this book difficult. Most people were scared and uninformed because homosexuality was not accepted or discussed. Talking about sex or infidelity was considered indecent. It took three years for this collaborative humanitarian project between an artist and a scientist to come to fruition.

First published in 1986 in the USA in English by Lapis Press, the book was then released the same year in Germany by Bucher Verlag and in 1987 in France by Flammarion under the title: Le Sida, c’est facile à éviter. The book went on to be translated and published in Japanese and Italian. In total, 70 000 books were distributed for free in schools. All the benefits were donated to AIDES, the first French association fighting against AIDS.

Here’s what Doctor Willy Rozenbaum, co-discoverer of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and chairman of the French National Council on AIDS since 2003 said about their initiative in 1987:

“Niki de Saint Phalle […] proposes to de-dramatize the subject by informing us about the disease, its prevention and the attitude that one should have towards the people affected. Presented as a drawing book and in a positive almost humorous note, Niki de Saint Phalle offers us, for example, to return to Romance. Niki de Saint Phalle shows us how an artist can help convey an optimistic message on a serious subject.”

Source : Press Release, June 1987, NCAF Archives    

During this time many of Niki’s friends started getting sick. By 1987 funerals had become all to frequent occurrences. AIDS first attacked the gay community and many very close to Niki succumbed to what she called “the new plague”. The artist was greatly distressed about all the funerals of her younger friends taking place. She felt deep despair as she watched young men and women dying from a generation which had so recently embraced sexual freedom.

In reaction to what was going on, Niki de Saint Phalle pursued her interest in science and disease. She met and befriended many scientists including Dr. Haseltine of Harvard Medical School who was quoted in People Magazine when referring to the AIDS epidemic in January of 1988 as follows: This book is crucial.

In 1990, she produced an animated movie based on her book with the help of her son Philip for France Sécurité Sociale. The movie was shown at the Museum of Arts Décoratifs in Paris, along with an exhibition of drawings and a republication of the book for the French audience.

if-you-want-to-helpThe book, slightly updated, was for the last time published by l’Agence Française de Lutte Contre Le Sida (now integrated to the French Department of Health) and distributed in schools all around France.

Niki de Saint Phalle’s early and continuous involvement in educating the public about AIDS demonstrates the artists’ long term interest in both the political and social aspects of HIV/AIDS. The Niki Charitable Art Foundation is planning to republish her book in as many languages as possible.

For more information about how to get involved on #WorldAidsDay consult these organizations:

Images extracted from AIDS, You cant’ catch it holding hands – Niki de Saint Phalle – Bucher 1986 © Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved.

A Political Artist

All her life Niki de Saint Phalle was drawn to bigger causes than herself.

Film by François de Menil, Courtesy The Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston

 

In this video interview from 1969, while she lives in Europe, Niki de Saint Phalle made a some strong political statement suggesting that Black Power and Women Power should join forces to create a “new world of joy”. Niki de Saint Phalle is well-known for her NANAS, and through sculpture she addressed women’s roles very early on: from brides to births and finally her army of NANAS coming to take over the world, even in the form of architecture.

***

In her autobiography Harry and Me – The Family Years (1950-1960) Niki de Saint Phalle explains why in 1950, she and Harry Mathews left America for France. They wanted to escape McCarthyism, the lynchings and the psychosis of the nuclear bomb…

In 1963, after the Cuban Missile Crisis and haunted by the nuclear threat, Niki de Saint Phalle creates two significant and rebellious works: Heads of State and Kennedy and Khrushchev. In the first one, the artist points her rifle at: Castro, Kennedy, Khrushchev, Lincoln, de Gaulle and Washington, guilty of an imminent disaster and shoots them. In the second one, a reddish Tir on a dark back ground, she represents Kennedy and Khrushchev, the two mighty leaders, forced to collaborate, sharing the same body. A woman’s body. The piece was judged too offensive to be shown during Paris third Art Biennale and was withdrawn. Few months later, President Kennedy was assassinated in Texas.

Kennedy-Khrushchev, 1962 © Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved.  
Heads of State (Study for King Kong), 1963 © Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved. 

 

Niki de Saint Phalle moved back to America in 1993. She settled down in Southern California which she found diverse and young and where she became to eventually feel at home. Etienne Beaulieu who developed RU-486 in 1981, the revolutionary abortion pill, was a long time friend of Niki and introduced her to scientists like Francis Crick who co-discovered DNA in the 1950’s and Roger Guillemin known for hormone-related discoveries and the establishment of the world-famous Salk Institute.

In 2001, after G.W Bush’s nomination as 43rd President of the United States, Saint Phalle created a series of 4 rarely seen, politically-engaged lithographs. They tackled important societal matters she cared about, which are still being debated today, in America and worldwide.

Guns, 2001
Guns, 2001 © Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved.

In Guns Niki de Saint Phalle advocates against the gun industry’s lack of regulation. With adorned letters, drawings and glittering stickers, she denounces the NRA (National Rifle Association) and other gun lobbies for corrupting politicians. With gory details she shows three kids being shot, terrible fatalities which still hit the headlines nowadays. With it Saint Phalle intends to create dialogue and calls to action.

In Abortion-Freedom of Choice she defends women’s rights. With the same technique as in Guns, Niki de Saint Phalle discusses her opinions on World Hunger, teenage motherhood, attacks on abortion clinic and domestic abuse. Global Warming illustrates the threat of environmental neglect and G.W Bush caricatures the Republican President at that time who, according to her, personified all these plagues.

Tomorrow, November 8th, history is made. Don’t forget to vote!

Happy Birthday !

scorpio

My astrological sign is double Scorpio. A chart to overcome 
all obstacles. I would learn to love obstacles.

Traces – Remembering 1930-1949 

On October 29th, 1930 Niki de Saint Phalle was born in Neuilly sur Seine, France. Today she would have celebrated her 86th birthday. Those who knew Niki de Saint Phalle describe her as forward, generous, eccentric, spiritual…Here are quotes from some of her closest friends about how they remember her and what they have learnt from her:

First is the energy. Never give up on what you believe. Don’t be afraid. In life, go all out  for a strong idea. Always go to 
the very end of things and believe in what you do.

 Jean-Gabriel Mitterand, Galerist

No matter what you are, you can do whatever it takes to be 
somebody or achieve something. She made me feel very strong, 
by looking at her, by experiencing being with her. 
I became a very strong person. 

Lita Montiel, Staff

Doing something fun and killing ourselves laughing, 
it happened quite a lot !

Clarice Rivers, Friend

niki-in-la-jolla

Niki de Saint Phalle, La Jolla 1999 – Photo by Pascal Le Segretain
Quotations from interviews conducted by Philippe Ungar between 2010 and 2011.

Vive Niki !

Museum Tinguely turns 20

On October 3rd,1996 the Museum Tinguely opened its doors to the public. Just five years after the artist’s passing about 30 percent of his surviving works were collected in a brand new museum in Basel’s Solitude Park on the banks of the Rhine.

Love, friendship, tenacity and generosity made the project possible and its realization successfully completed. But in the meantime some said it was undertaken against the artist’s will. Indeed, in his lifetime, Jean Tinguely did not express the wish of having a classical museum under his name to shelter his delirious machines, but rather an “anti-museum”.

Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely at La Commanderie, France

Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely at La Commanderie, France, 1973 – © Laurent Condominas

In 1988 Jean Tinguely started working on an immersive and collaborative project at La Verrerie, an abandoned glass-factory he bought between Fribourg and Lausanne. To visit this anti-museum, the public would need an appointment and to follow an eccentric path. At that time Niki de Saint Phalle suggested to set-up a foundation, but Jean Tinguely refused.

niki-de-saint-phalle-la-jollacopyright-mahf-photo-rico-weber_bigWhen Tinguely passed away in 1991, he left to Niki de Saint Phalle most of his pieces and moral rights. She sought for the best solution in order to preserve the artist’s fragile works. It’s Paul Sacher, husband of the late sculptress and patron Maja Sacher from whom Jean Tinguely was very close to, who suggested to Niki de Saint Phalle a lasting solution for the future of Jean’s pieces. Niki de Saint Phalle wrote about her concerns in an essay “A little of my story with you Jean” published in the Museum Tinguely catalogue :

“The survival of your work was an obsession for me. By keeping your work alive, I was keeping you alive.”

Niki de Saint Phalle in La Jolla, CA, 1996
© Rico Weber

Paul Sacher, retired conductor with family ties to F.Hoffmann-La Roche, the Swiss Pharmaceutical headquartered in Basel, proposed the company celebrate its up-coming bicentennial with a striking philanthropic action : the Museum Tinguely.

This proposition made sense to Niki de Saint Phalle because she knew the Sachers were great supporters of Jean Tinguely and had a true interest in the arts. Moreover Hoffmann-La Roche had purchased many imposing Tinguely’s pieces in the past for their corporate collection. She decided then to donate 53 sculptures and over 90 drawings/gouaches of Jean Tinguely to Hoffmann-La Roche in order to launch the project.

construction-1

construction-2

On-going construction in Basel, 1992 and 1993

Mario Botta, Tinguely’s friend would be the architect of the Museum building.

Josef Imhof, Tinguely’s former assistant, would take care of the machines and have his own workshop inside the museum.

Finally Pontus Hulten, a lifetime friend of Niki and Jean as well as first director of the Centre Pompidou (Paris) and founding director of MOCA (Los Angeles), would be the director in Basel. Niki de Saint Phalle specifically insisted on that last point, she believed nobody else could ensure that Tinguely’s energy, irreverence, humor and complexity were present in the new space.

 

Joseph Imhof & Mario Botta in front of Grosse Méta Maxi-Maxi Utopia, in Museum Tinguely, Basel – Cooperazion 20.11.1996

In October 1996, between the river and the park, a clear space made of glass and pink sandstone is officially opened to the public. It included a huge central hall on the first floor where alone there was enough space for twenty machine-sculptures, a walking gallery along the river, four exhibition spaces on a mezzanine, a crypt, a shop, a bistro maned Chez Jeannot overlooking the Rhine and a fountain at the entrance.

“At any moment, metallic bangs and crashes can be heard erupting in different corners of the building; if all the machines were to come alive simultaneously, the museum would sound like the engine room of an old battleship”. 
Herald Tribune International – Tuesday, October 8th 1996

Twenty years later, the Museum Tinguely celebrated this important date with a big party in the Solitude Park and a parade of Klamauk in the streets of Basel !

Discover Jean Tinguely’s works this October 2016

25 years after its passing, Fribourg pays a festive tribute to Jean Tinguely

Grand%20Prix%20Tinguely%202016

On Saturday September 3rd, the Swiss honored Jean Tinguely’s memory with a brillant and loud procession of backfiring motors on Fribourg streets. One hundred vintage vehicles paraded along with tanks, groups of children and “guggenmusik”, the typical incoherent music played during carnaval parades. The festival was in full swing throughout the afternoon, attracting about 10,000 people under a bright sunshine.

Cotège 1

Race cars and classic cars alike rolled down the streets, reflecting Tinguely’s love for movement and speed. This “Grand Prix Tinguely”, as City organizers baptized this hommage event, also illustrated the friendship that united the sculptor to the racing driver Jo Siffert.

The highlight of the parade was the appearance of Le Safari de la Mort Moscovite, an itinerant work of Tinguely realized in 1989. The Tinguely Museum in Basel lent the piece for the occasion.

Safari de La Mort Moscovite 1After the parade, the crowd gathered around the Jo Siffert Fontaine to enjoy and listen to the “heart” of the work that was part of a sound installation and various musical performances. At 10 pm the fountain was adorned by a thousand lights, a tribute to Fribourg Formula One legend, and fireworks started to illuminate the sky

René Progin, sculptor and long-time friend of Jean Tinguely took part in organizing the event and Niki de Saint Phalle’s grand-daughter participated in the festivities.

Safari de la Mort Moscovite 2

Other events, like the inauguration of a Tinguely alley in Neyruz, exhibitions, plays and shows, are planned until the end of year to honor the Swiss sculptor.

To find out more about them, consult the website : http://www.tinguely2016.ch/ and the official program.

#GrandPrixTinguely @Tinguely2016

Photos credit : Sandra Beate Reimann, Curator and Digital Curator Museum Tinguely @SB_Reimann

A major Niki de Saint Phalle exhibition started in Finland

The first major Niki de Saint Phalle’s exhibition started on Saturday, August 20th, at Taidehalli in Helsinki. With the exception of an exhibition at the Galerie Forsblom in 1984, Niki de Saint Phalle has never been presented to the Finnish art public.

Poster Helsinki

With more than sixty art works on display, including paintings, figurative assemblages, graphics, Nanas, sculptures and models of dreamy architectural projects, this new exhibition gives the Finnish audience the opportunity to understand the extend of Niki de Saint Phalle’s energy, creativity, techniques and social commentary.

One striking example of this exhibition is the mysterious double-faced polyester sculpture, Grande Tête from 1971.

This unusual piece is part of a series of large and unique artworks made at the beginning of the 70’s and titled almost the same. The name of the first one made in 1969 : Le Témoin (The Witness) leads to a peculiar interpretation of their meaning… Stoic and earless are these enormous heads silent observers? Do they stare? Do they judge?

Les 3 Têtes            Le Témoin (The Witness), 1969                     Grande Tête, 1970                                            Grande Tête, 1971 
© 2016 Niki Charitable Arts Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Perhaps a conclusion can be made from Niki de Saint Phalle’s experience of watching the Japanese movie: Rashomon in 1950. In the movie, three witnesses tell the story of what they saw, each version being different … In her book Traces she reflects:

Which version was true? All of them? None of them? Is perceiving is only personal? Does that mean my version is only mine? Where does that put reality? Does it exist? Do I exist? Is life a dream? My dream that I can choose to make a nightmare or a song?

Grande Tête is a giant head divided in two sides. Its faces are decorated with her signature style : flat lines and bold colors. On one half the hair is painted in large locks of light blue, green, red and orange. The nose and the eye, which slightly blinks, are made-up with playful designs as well. On the other half the hair is wavy and grey, there is no make-up and the eye is wide open.

Grande Tete Profil AFP Photo Sam Yeh

Grande Tête Profil Getty Images – Credit Sam Yeh

This sculpture is a piece to be experienced. Indeed from the side, Grande Tête is large and seems voluminous and round, but from the front it reveals itself narrow, flat and almost sharp, creating a strong visual effect !

Other major artworks featured at Taidehalli are Niki de Saint Phalle’s infamous Autoportrait (1958-1959), a black Nana Lady Sings The Blues (1965), an homage to R&B legend Billie Holiday, and Le Pendu or The Hanged Man (1988) from the Tarot Garden series.

Mosaic Image ReadyPictures from the opening night

We hope you visit Niki at Taidehalli before November, 20th 2016 and share your thoughts and pictures online !

We would like to thank the Taidehalli Museum staff and guests, curators Camille Morineau and Satu Metsola as well as MAMAC Nice, Galerie GP&N Vallois and private lenders for their generous help in organizing this beautiful exhibition.

Flying Work Of Art

In 1980, the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation made an original proposal to Niki de Saint Phalle: devise a design for the exterior of a twin-engine airplane, the Piper Aerostar 602 P, that was to be exhibited at Le Salon du Bourget in France in 1981. The artist accepted and first painted a 32 by 31 by 25 cm model of the plane.

Niki & Jean Piper Aerostar-v

Picture of Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely holding the Piper Aerostar model in his hands. © Leonardo Bezzola.

She created a design in which some blue arabesques crawl along the wings, her painted flower elements blossom below the cabin and a big red nose finishes the front end of the fuselage. She also designed original and colorful outfits for the pilots.

Piper Aerostar Actuel 1981-v
C.S.E Aviation Ltd workers, in Oxford, applying the final touch to the Piper 602 P – Actuel, circa June 1981

Because she was allergic to tobacco smoke, she added, under the plane’s belly, the logo “no smoking” as a mischievous nod to the famous cigarette manufacturer, sponsor of the initiative.

On June 6 of 1981, the aircraft soared in the air for the first transatlantic, Paris-NewYork-Paris, air race with the French pilot Jean-Pierre Chauzit at the helm. The race lasted 3 days, 17 nations were in competition flying with single and twin-engined planes. The race was organized by the Aéroclub de France as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first East West Atlantic Crossing by the French pilots, Costes and Bellonte (towards the prevailing winds).

"Believe it or not this airborne psychedelic wonder will be 
flying from France to Connecticut and back this week-end 
as an entry in the first transatlantic air race."
Quote from the New York Post on June 6, 1981 
Piper Aerostar - Figaro Mag-v
The Piper Aerostar 602 P, Le Figaro Magazine on June, 5th 1981 

The Piper Aerostar 602 P painted by Niki de Saint Phalle was the most modern airplane in competition and arrived brilliantly in second position. The artist was at Salon du Bourget to witness its arrival.

***

Few other artists were invited to paint planes before and after Niki de Saint Phalle.

Like Alexander Calder, who was commissioned by the Braniff International Airways to paint two airplanes in 1973 and in 1975, one for South America in his signature red, blue, and yellow geometric shapes, and another for the United States in wavy red and blue swirls to celebrate the bicentennial of the Independence Day. Calder’s preparation models were shown at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2010.

Alexander Calder Plane
American artist Alexander Calder (1898 – 1976) paints the fuselage of a Boeing 727291 passenger plane as a commission from Braniff International Airways, Dallas, Texas, 1975. Getty Images – Credit Camerique

In 1989, Keith Haring, contemporary artist alongside Niki de Saint Phalle, was asked to paint a gigantic banner for an airship to be flown over Paris as part of Galerie Celeste, a project with Soviet painter Eric Bulatov commemorating the bicentennial of the French Revolution.

Keith Haring & Airship

Keith Haring photographed by Tseng Kwong Chi, Paris environs, France, 1989

Finally the latest spectacular example of painted airplane, is the one realized by Brazilian twins brother artists Osgemeos in 2014. They entirely customized the outside of a Boeing 737, aimed to transport the Brazilian Football Team during the last World Cup. They covered it with dozens of portraits, meant to represent the diversity of Brazil. They were rendered in artists’ signature style: yellowish-skinned figures with elongated faces and quirky outfits. Watch the whole process of painting the plane here.

Can you think about other examples of Flying Works Of Art? Share them with us on Twitter @NikiCAFondation!

50 years since HON

Hon : a Cathedral

Couple at HON copy

“The Biggest & Best Woman in the World”

June, 3rd – September, 8th, 1966

50 years ago, HON, Niki de Saint Phalle’s first accessible sculpture, was inaugurated in Sweden at the Moderna Museet of Stockholm under the watchful eye of Pontus Hulten, director of the museum.

In 1966, Moderna Museet was the most innovative art center in Europe, and very likely in the world. Open from noon to 10 pm, accessible to blue collar workers, with a 27-year old visitor on average, it included a restaurant and a garden where you could drink coffee or beer in between two exhibitions. Back then avant-guard concerts, conference talks or Rauschenberg’s happenings were already part of the programmation like we are used to see today, at high profile cultural institutions. Later the same year, Claes Oldenburg would take over the space for his solo exhibition.

Conception of the HON

In a video interview, Pontus Hulten relates the conception process of HON. With a giggle he says : it was quite an experiment. For almost four years he hoped to organize an exhibition created on-site. Therefore, he spontaneously invited three international artists and friends to create an in-situ installation to be shown over the summer: Niki de Saint Phalle (French), Jean Tinguely (Suisse) and Per Olof Ultvedt (Swedish). In the same interview, Pet Olof Ultvedt reports: In 1966 we wanted to make big things, build castles and animate them! Niki was fascinated by Facteur Cheval’s castle in France and she wrote a long letter describing what we would do to build a castle inside the museum, full of life and animation.

On April 28th of 1966, Saint Phalle and Tinguely arrived in Stockholm. Hulten and Ultvedt went to pick them up at the airport and the discussions about what to do started right away. An Opera? A mechanical theater? A rite of passage made of twelve stations with a religious inspiration? Consensus was nowhere to be found among the crew, and after a day of unproductive discussions, doubt and anxiety crept in. The crew was so discouraged about not finding the right idea, they considered the alternative of giving up and flying to Russia!

On the second day, in the car, Hulten threw up the idea of making a giant “nana” similar in type to Niki de Saint Phalle’s earlier ones. All at once they embraced the idea! At the same moment Ultvedt names her: “HON”, SHE in Swedish.

In The Car copy

Back to the Museum, in an entirely transformed atmosphere, the dimensions of HON were discussed and Tinguely drew up the well-know preliminary outlines of this gigantic project!

Preliminary Outlines copy

Construction

We got going already the next day and it went very fast. Jean already figured a basic idea about of how to do it… It had to be built with rebar, covered with chicken wire and glued fabric on top, and then painted. That was a major step to know how to proceed… And it went very fast – remembers Pontus Hulten in the same interview.

Indeed, it went very fast, the three artists with the help of five assistants worked for 40 days almost day and night to build a 82 feet long, 30 feet wide and 6 tons heavy sculpture!

HON’s construction went through four stages, as it is described in the catalogue of 1966:

The Iron Age (10 days) when her rebar skeleton was constructed. At that moment, Jean Tinguely discovered that a dish-washer in the restaurant of the Museum, is a Swiss art student, Rico Weber, who is hired on the spot. With this a life-long friendship and collaboration started.

Iron Age copy

Then, to mark the beginning of a new period, the team bought new white working clothes and entered the Glue Age (7 days). Carpenter’s glue is boiled for days, all day, 20-30 liters at a time, to fix the fabric sheets on HON’s armature. The odor of the glue made from animals’ bones smelled godawful.

We decided nobody would see what we were up to so we set up a temporary wall… The sheet were brown-pink-grayish, it looked so awful. That lady lying there. Stretched out, dirty and ghastly. So nobody wanted to go in there at all. Then she started to crack, when the sheets dried, they stretched and cracked in large, horrible rifts and I thought  : My god how will this end ? Pontus Hulten

The original hands and feet were rejected, they were far too realistic to suit a nana. Look !

Main HON copy

And then started the Black Age (9 days), time to paint the outside in bright colors and the inside all in black in stark contrast. Despite some technical difficulties – masses of cracks to repair and repaint in addition to many sleepless nights – they succeeded to transform the HON into a beautiful lady. In the middle of it, on May 21th, Pontus and Jean flew to the Monte-Carlo Rally to escape just for a day.

On May 24th, the era of furnishing begun. The list of things which were brought into HON was as long as surprising: a coin telephone, a love-seat sofa, a cinema for twelve people, a bar, a plastic pool, a museum of fake paintings, an automatic sandwiches vendor, two machines of Tinguely, an installation of Per Olof Ultvedt, a slide for children… just to name a few.

Watch this 3 minutes movie to follow HON’s construction here :

Reactions

In the three months of her life, HON welcomed 100 000 people of all ages and from all around the word. It triggered a wide range of reactions among the public and the Press, from intense aggressiveness to ecstatic enthusiasm. Here is a cloud of words and adjectives HON was compared to in international newspapers:

A plane, a whale, a church, an Easter Egg, a factory, a cathedral a zeppelin, a whore, Mama, a fertility Goddess, 
a Tower of Babel, a return to the womb, an amusement park, 
Coney Island, Luna Park, Noah’s Arch, Sophia Mosque, 
Venus of Willendorf, a dilated hatcher, an adult fun house, 
a female Gulliver, Bibendum - the jolly Michelin rubber man, 
gargantuan, pharaonic, colossus, a mammoth construction, 
the most enormous woman in waiting with the exception of 
the Statue of Liberty in the world today

It was a sensation, but the day after the opening we had no press. We had a press showing, but nothing was published in the newspapers. Because nobody knew what to think or say … – Pontus Hulten

Photo de la Hon repeintePhoto de la HON repeinte © 2016 NIKI CHARITABLE ART FOUNDATION, All rights reserved.

But even if the HON was the talk of the town, very few journalists expressed an artistic opinion.The articles were mostly descriptive.

Some of them underlined the poetic allusions made to the organs of the human body. The milk-bar was in one breast, waste was disposed of down a chute into Tinguely’s formidable glass-breaking machine below – the whole thing was felt to allude to the digestive process. A gold-fish pond occupied the site of the womb and this required no commentary. Ultvedt’s heart was not simply a flapping, rocking, pumping shape; but a man could be found in HON’s heart.

It is impossible to say if these allusions were intentional. The very fact that it was possible to take practically every shape as a poetic symbol was the best evidence of the idea’s inherent strength. HON transformed a very random idea occurring on the inside into something new, giving it a meaning that it would never have had outside of the sculpture.

HON was, therefore, really a “cathedral”, since in a cathedral, the placement of individual parts in a whole creates a transformed concept.

What’s left today ?

Right after the show, at the end of August 1966, HON was destroyed and only her head was kept, which is still today part of the Moderna Museet’s permanent collection. Other small pieces were glued to the limited edition catalogues and sold.

HON HEAD Moderna Museet 2016 -5

Courtesy of Moderna Museet, Stockholm

But that’s not it : at a time when the Grand Palais invites an international artist to invest and transfer its giant Nef, Monumenta, into a new and immersive environment, every two years, sometimes with more or less success given the size of the space. When Yayoi Kushama’s Infinity Room is touring around the world. When the Rain Room tickets are sold out months in advance or when Banksy’s Dismaland created a media landslide, we can easily say that 50 years after HON, the public is still craving for immersive and gigantic art projects and rare are the artists who can pull off such an amount of work, even with a crew. Those who experienced Kushama or Kapoor environments know how strong the amazement is and how long it lasts. There are some art installations which live forever in the viewer’s minds.

HON was such a great achievement in terms of reflection, courage and team work ! No wonder she was built at the most innovative place of the time and let’s just say we regret not having seen it, too.

All images excerpt from “HON: en historia” – catalogue of the exhibition, 1966 – Photos of Hans Hammarskiöld.