Triple Trouble in Hannover

Niki de Saint Phalle’s special relationship with the City of Hannover began in 1969 with a retrospective exhibition held at the Kunstverein Hannover. She was so well received that, in 1974, the artist was offered a public commission to build a permanent installation near the town hall in Hannover, Germany.

colorful drawing of a woman in a flowery dress saying "Les nanas au pouvoir which means "Nana power" in English
Exhibition Poster for Niki de Saint Phalle: Works 1962-1968, Kunstverein Hannover 1969

The project was part of a newly derived plan proposed by Hannover city director Martin Neuffer.  His vision was to modernize Hannover and make it a funner, brighter city. He wanted to achieve this with a 3 year “Street Art Experiment” program, where the main goal was to populate the streets of Hannover with more modern and unconventional artworks. This program was approved by the city’s cultural committee and began in 1973.

Building large-scale architectural sculptures was not new to Saint Phalle by the time she received the offer from Hannover. Since 1965, Niki de Saint Phalle had been creating Nanas of all sizes and colors. It was Saint Phalle’s version of the “everywoman” – a dame or a chick, the French translation of the word Nana.

These sculptures had gained notoriety in the art world, especially the HON installation at Moderna Museet Stockholm in 1966, where visitors would enter a reclining woman figure through a doorway modeling a birth canal. The exhibition was well-visited with 100,000 patrons in 3 months, and it created a wide range of reactions from rejection to enthusiasm. Yet, whatever the reaction was, Saint Phalle cheekily wrote to her friend Clarice Rivers that “The birth rate in Stockholm went up that year. This was attributed to her [HON]”.

For Hannover, Saint Phalle decided to create three Nanas, each larger-than-life at more than 5 meters tall. They are brightly colored, massive works, in various joyous stances, made of fiberglass, polyester paint, and polychrome. As soon as the three Nanas were erected along the bank of the Leine River, the citizens of Hannover were split in both support and opposition of the sculptures.

three large, colorful women sculptures by artist Niki de Saint Phalle
Photo: Jana Shenefield

The older generation argued that the cost of the commission (180,000 DM) should have been used on upgrades for the schools and hospitals. They were angered that politicians decided what the city money was to be used for rather than allowing its citizens to have a say in it. Furthermore, they thought it was futile to adorn the streets of Hannover with street art when the city already had its share of “classical” statues. 

On the other side of this debate stood the supporters of the three Nanas, who were mostly younger people. They were excited to see Hannover develop into a more creative, vibrant, modern, and artistic city. 

Enter Michael Gehrke onto the scene: Gehrke held the civic position of the Stadtimagepfleger (city image manager) of Hannover since 1972 which involved him with the city’s public festivities, the street art program, city advertisement, and the now famous flea market of Hannover. “Mike” was also a vital figure in developing Hannover into one of the most important jazz metropolises in Germany. He founded “Swinging Hannover” in 1967, which is an annual two-day open-air jazz festival that continues to this day and is known as the largest jazz festival in Northern Germany. Nicknamed the “jazz pope” or “Mr. Jazz”, Gehrke served as the president of the Jazz Club Hannover for 40 years.

on the left a photo of Michael Gehrke in the early 70's with bowtie and horned glasses; on the right an image of Niki de Saint Phalle sitting on the ground painting one of her sculptures for the Hannover exhibition 1969
Michael “Mike” Gehrke, Photo: 
Niki de Saint Phalle at Kunstverein Hannover, March 2, 1969. Photo: Wilhelm Hauschild

As she explained in an interview from the year 2000, Saint Phalle was surprised at the public reaction to the Nanas. She said that, at the time, her friend Mike Gehrke suggested that she name the Nanas after “Hannover queens” – as a homage and a way to calm the feuding residents.

Although Saint Phalle never referred to the Nanas by their adopted names, the people of Hannover readily accepted this homage, and still use them to this day when describing each individual Nana. 

Namesake Sophie of Hannover was born Princess Sophia (1630-1714). She was a patroness of arts and sciences who had a long-standing friendship with German philosopher and scientist Gottfried Leibniz.

on the left an image of green uside down Nana sculpture Sophie; on the right a painted portrait of princess Sophie of Hannover
Photo: Jana Shenefield and Wikipedia

Charlotte Kestner (1735-1828) was the unrequited love interest of the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and inspired his influential novel “The sufferings of Young Werther”.

on the left an image of a large dancing white Nana in a bathing suit; on the right a painted portrait of Charlotte Kestner
Photo: Jana Shenefield and Wikipedia

Caroline Herschel (1750-1838) was a noted astronomer who made significant contributions to discoveries of comets, with one being named after her (35P/Herschel-Rigollet). As the younger sister of astronomer William Herschel, she often worked with him in their chosen field.

on the left an image of a voluptuous and colorful Nana sculpture; on the right a painted portrait of Caroline Hershel
Photo: Jana Shenefield and Wikipedia

The controversy of Saint Phalle’s Nanas came to a head when approximately 2000 residents marched to the town hall and demanded an open forum discussion with the political heads of the city; city director Martin Neuffer, councilwoman Jutta Engelbart, the director of the state gallery Dr. Harald Seiler, as well as other members of the board. The residents stood and sat wherever there was room and a microphone was passed around to those voicing their staunch opinions.

newspaper scan of the six city board members
newspaper scan of the citizen crowd at the council meeting
The storm over the Nanas raged on for three hours, Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung, January 25, 1974. 
Photo: Günter Kleindienst

Another news article described how the Nanas were a distraction on the roadway causing one fender bender. A pro-Nana group called “Friends of Nanas” put up a temporary street sign warning drivers to pay attention to the roadway.

newspaper scan of the three Hannover Nanas and a warning sign being hung up
Attention! Beware of Nanas, Neue Hannoversche Presse, March 21, 1974. Photo: Kaiser

Finally, it was decided that the only way to end this continuous dispute was with a good old-fashioned tug of war. On a warm Sunday afternoon, a few thousand Hannover residents met along the river bank, where the  Nanas were located. The atmosphere was light, as opposed to the night of the heated debate. The supporters and opponents of the sculptures gathered in 2 teams to tug on a 30-meter rope. There was a referee and 3 rounds were planned, all of which were won by the supporters. Finally, the Nanas could stay. 

newspaper scan of the crowd playing tug-of-war
The friends of the Nanas had no opponents, Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung, March 25, 1974. 
Photo: Viola Hauschild

Since their installation in Hannover, the three Nanas have gone through several restorations. In the 1970’s there was periodic maintenance performed on the sculptures, which consisted of high-pressure cleaning with various chemicals, which caused damage to the paint, as was later determined.

workers clean up dirt and graffiti off the sculpture
Friends and Enemies, Neue Hannoversche Presse, February 6, 1974. Photo: Pospisil

In 1988, after 14 years of exposure to the elements, Robert Haligon did a condition report of the Nanas and strongly recommended on-site restoration of the sculptures. Haligon was a renowned manufacturer of polyester sculptures and produced the Hannover Nanas with Niki de Saint Phalle.

According to Haligon’s report, the sculptures had small cracks that needed to be repaired and graffiti to be removed. The surfaces were then repainted according to the original color schemes.

In the mid-1990s to early 2000s, two more restorations were done on all three Nanas.

a worker on a ladder cleans a Nana sculpture with a pressure washer
Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung, November 16, 2000. Photo: Thomas

The most extensive restoration came in March 2002, when the Nanas had to be dismantled and transported to a workshop for the restoration. This came about when the city of Hannover joined forces with the Haligon family and one of Saint Phalles’ collaborators, artist Pierre Marie Lejeune, to survey the sculptures again. It was decided to restore all three sculptures due to the extensive damage in the concrete-filled heads and feet and interior metal corrosion caused by the concrete. The concrete inside the sculptures was removed, and the interior walls were reinforced. The outer walls of the sculptures were sanded down and repainted. 

Caroline was the first Nana to be restored, followed a year later, in 2004, by Sophie and Charlotte. In May 2005, all 3 sculptures were reunited. 

Niki de Saint Phalle often spoke of her meaningful connection to the city of Hannover and its people. She left a piece of herself through the three Nanas, the decoration of the Grotto as well as the extensive donation of her art to the Sprengel Museum.

“Hannover sounds like a wonderful dream”, Niki de Saint Phalle wrote in a published letter to Dr. Ulrich Krempel, then director of the Sprengel Museum Hannover.

The love people showed me was extremely healing for me. [...] Because of the enthusiasm that people from all walks of life in Hannover showed me - forgive yourself, Niki, for your shortcomings and your human weaknesses because you brought joy to so many hearts."
Children, Artist Niki de Saint Phalle and city mayor Herbert Schmalstieg gather in front of the artwork
Niki de Saint Phalle with Hannover Mayor Herbert Schmalstieg in front of the Nanas.  Photo: Tim Herr

The Story of a Monster

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Niki de Saint Phalle’s first architectural playground titled The Golem in Israel. It is located in the Kiryat Hayovel district of Jerusalem, in Rabinovich Park.

black and white cement sculpture of a monster with three red tongues
Photograph: Courtesy of Tesra Building Conservtion and Renovation Ltd., 2022

The Golem is a massive public outdoor sculpture – a black and white dragon with three red tongues for slides. The play structure, also called  “HaMifletzet” or “The Monster”, was constructed by the artist for the children of Jerusalem. 

The journey to the creation of this “Monster” began in 1969, with the Israel Museum. Martin Weyl was the sculpture curator of the museum at this time as well as the artistic advisor to Teddy Kollek, the popular and beloved mayor of Jerusalem (1965-1993). Weyl was in New York when he saw Le Paradis Fantastique in Central Park. This was a traveling exhibition consisting of 9 painted sculptures and 6 black kinetic machines; an artistic collaboration between Saint Phalle and her husband, Swiss kinetic artist Jean Tinguely. 

Weyl considered the possibility of Saint Phalle creating a sculpture playground in Jerusalem, but had not yet met the artist. Weyl asked Willem Sandberg, the famous Dutch museum director who was a founding chairman and visiting director of the Israel Museum, to introduce him to Saint Phalle. Sandberg knew Saint Phalle from previous exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum where he was the director until 1963. 

black and white image of the construction site  and to the left a marker drawing of the sculpture project, a monster with three slides on a spiral notebook paper
Construction site and sketch drawing of Golem. Photo: NCAF Archives

At first, the museum wanted the artwork built on their property however it was important for Saint Phalle to build on a location that had a great open space and that was also in an underdeveloped, poor area of the city. When Weyl suggested creating a playground in the urban district of Kiryat Hayovel, she enthusiastically agreed.

The artist’s idea of creating a frightening, monumental monster that spits children out of its red mouth alarmed the community. Parents were so concerned this monster would scare their children that it was rejected immediately by the city council, specifically the Jerusalem Parks Commission. Mayor Teddy Kollek convinced the commission to vote once more on the project, and the second time it was approved.

At a 1996 lecture “Niki de Saint Phalle. Reflections on her Art” at the University of San Diego, Saint Phalle spoke about the significance of creating a monstrous creature for a playground. She explained that it was a way for children to conquer their fears, to turn something terrifying into something fun and playful.

the sculpture maquette
Maquette pour Le Golem, 1972. Painted plaster. 64 x 114 x 118 cm. Collection Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Saint Phalle’s construction team consisted of Jean TinguelyPaul Wiedmer, and Rico Weber. Tinguely was in charge of building the iron sculpture, with the help of Wiedmer and Weber. The trio welded many pieces of iron and worked long hours to complete The Golem. Saint Phalle remembered the commission asking why so much more scrap iron had been used than originally planned: 

Jean had got it into his head that if Jerusalem was one day destroyed by bombs, one single edifice would survive: The Golem. He had therefore asked Rico to make a chassis of scrap iron dense enough to resist anything. The Golem is a fully-fledged bunker.” 

Niki de Saint Phalle. La Fabrica/Guggenueim Bilbao, 2015

photos of the work crew and artists on the metal contract of the sculpture
From top: Paul Wiedmer, Rico Weber, Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle. Photo: Leonardo Bezzola, 1972 © Bezzola Estate

Once the steel frame was in place, it was covered with cement by spraying concrete onto the frame. With the help of local workers in the community, The Golem was completed in 7 months. The structure measured 8 x 14 x 16 meters. The face of the dragon was painted black and white, with hollow eyes and a red open mouth that led to 3 tongues that children could slide down. There was a winding staircase up the back of the dragon and the hollow base served as a seating area.

color photo of the finished Golem sculpture with children on the slides
Photo: Leonardo Bezzola, 1972 © Bezzola Estate

The inauguration, which took place on Nov 4th, 1972, was staged as a big party for children. There were balloons and flags and a huge crowd of kids. They were climbing up and down the slides, waiting in line to get to the mouth of the dragon.

children queue in line on the stairs of the Golem sculpture
Photo: Leonardo Bezzola, 1972 © Bezzola Estate
“I made a three-tongued monster which spits the kids out. I’m really proud of it. Nobody knew me in Jerusalem. I called it The Golem but they all call it The Monster. And it’s the work itself that’s known, not the artist. That was a triumph for me. I was really pleased." 

Faure, L. and Julien, A. An Architect’s Dream. DVD. France: Ideale Audience, 2014

Quickly, the insides of the Golem were covered in wall drawings and messages, which the artist took as a sign for Jerusalem having not only accepted but embraced the sculpture.

Inside of the Golem (in the Monster’s stomach) is a treasure. A place where children and adults can play and dream in. They have covered the walls with drawings and signs of their own.” 

Saint Phalle, Niki de. The birth of a Monster. Jerusalem: ASP, 1972

children playing on the inside of the Golem sculpture in the sand
Photo: Leonardo Bezzola, 1972 © Bezzola Estate

In 2007, in honor of the 35th anniversary of The Golem, the massive sculpture was cleaned up and repainted by professionals as well as students from the neighborhood working side by side. 

In 2014, a proposed extension of the light rail system threatened the landscape and size of the surrounding area of The Golem. The expansion of this transit system would result in cutting down hundreds of trees that surround the sculpture, as well as decreasing the size of the land that The Golem sits on (which would result in an overall decrease in playground area).  An online petition to request an alternative plan that would not destroy the park was signed by over 3000 people and presented to the municipal commission. Sadly, this was not enough and the “Monster Park” was decreased in size, although the sculpture itself remained intact.

Then in 2016, the city built many high-rise apartments surrounding The Golem, overshadowing and crowding the artwork even more so. Instead of beautiful trees providing natural shade over the sculpture, tall buildings tower over it now.

Saint Phalle’s vision of a large open space surrounded by the luscious greenery of trees has been diminished over the years due to city expansion and real estate development.

In spite of these detrimental changes, positive developments have occurred as well. An extensive restoration project took place this past year which resulted in the park closing for a period of time. The entire sculpture was stripped of its existing paint, cracks were patched up and smoothed out, then fresh vibrant paint was applied once more.

a construction crew is restoring the Golem sculpture with a blue crane while the red slides are covered
Photograph: Courtesy of Tesra Building Conservation and Renovation Ltd., 2022

The decades-old railing was also replaced to ensure safety for the many children that would climb up the monster’s back and slide down one of its 3 radiant red tongues for many years to come.

The Golem, Niki de Saint Phalle’s first commissioned outdoor public sculpture is considered a landmark in Jerusalem. Children and adults have enjoyed this “monster park” for years; parents who climbed up the winding stairs to slide down gleefully on the red tongues now bring their own children to experience the joy of this seemingly frightening monster. This sculpture also serves as the first stepping stone to Saint Phalle’s dream of building a massive sculpture garden park which would later be realized in the creation of the Tarot Garden.

a view of the Golem playground with mother and child playing in 1992
Photo: Laurent Condominas, 1992

The popularity of the playground was expressed best by Mayor Teddy Kollek in a letter he wrote to Saint Phalle, stating that The Golem had more visitors than the sacred Western Wall. (Steinberg, Jessica. Jerusalemites fear for the Monster Slide Park. Times of Israel, 20 Feb. 2014 ).

The Golem in Jerusalem is the sculpture I’m most proud of… Day after day hundreds of children play on her and dream. They have conquered the Monster.." 

Saint Phalle, Niki de. The birth of a Monster. Jerusalem: ASP, 1972

Niki de Saint Phalle and children in a workshop create models of monsters in clay
Photo: Leonard Bezzola, 1972 © Bezzola Estate

The Niki Charitable Art Foundation would like to thank Dr. Martin Weyl for his insight and help with this blog.

the word golem spelled in the artist's stylized letters

NIKI’S SPACE: Artistic Furniture and Decor

“Among other things I love is furniture. I have an irresistible urge to make things for the home. Crazy fun things.
Niki de Saint Phalle at her house in the Essonne, circa 1987. Photo: NCAF Archives

Interior design and decoration can be used as a form of self-expression, a way to reflect someone’s personality and to create a comforting, safe space in their own home. 

Niki de Saint Phalle certainly used her talent and vision to produce many types of furniture such as tables, chairs, benches, vases, mirrors, and lamps that also filled her own personal space. 

Saint Phalle first began by building sets for various theater shows and ballets, such as providing stage decoration for both  Eloge de la folie and Lysistrata, in 1966.

Once Saint Phalle began constructing large-scale livable sculptures, she created furniture to decorate the interiors. Projects such as HON (1966),  Le Rêve de L’Oiseau (1969) which consisted of 3 separate sculpture houses, and The Sphinx inside of the Tarot Garden, all housed various furniture pieces made by the artist herself. 

Although these art projects are more known for their architectural importance in Saint Phalle’s span of artwork, she did contribute to the interior aesthetic as well.

In an interview with Lea Singer published in Apartamento, Issue #28 in Autumn 2021, the artist’s granddaughter, Bloum Cardenas, was asked to describe what the domestic setting was like for Niki living in the Sphinx at the Tarot Garden. She answered:

“At the time there weren’t mirrors all over; they were in certain areas like on the chimney, around the windows, and in the kitchen. Jean made a big lamp that hangs over the dining table, like he’d done in her other house. That made it homey. I loved taking a shower in her snake shower, that was really fun. It was also the first time I ever experienced heated floors. As she was building she knew it was going to get cold and humid, so she put heaters below and then realised years later that it was really bad for her arthritis. But it was a real pleasure to walk around barefoot with heat coming from the ceramics.”
Niki de Saint Phalle inside the Empress at the Tarot Garden, 1987. Photo: Laurent Condominas 
Interior of the Empress after mirror mosaic was applied, Tarot Garden. Photo: NCAF Archives

Writer Ninon Gauthier explains in a 1983 article “… for Niki de Saint Phalle the creation of furniture is part of continuity with the rest of her artistic production. These pieces of furniture don’t just serve, they speak”.  (Gauthier, Ninon. “Des meubles et accessoires qui parient le langage de l’art” Décormag, April/May 1983, pp 29-30)

Study for Chairs, 1973. collection Sprengel Museum, Hannover. Donation Niki de Saint Phalle 2000.

Saint Phalle’s first functional art was for the set of the movie Un Reve plus long que la nuit in 1975. The movie was written and directed by Saint Phalle and she also acted in it, alongside her daughter Laura Duke, Jean Tinguely, Bernhard Luginbühl, Laurent Condominas, Marina Karella, and others. Saint Phalle created decorative elements for the film, such as thrones, tables, and mirrors, all made out of metal and polyester paint that ais to give the fantastic fairytale theme an organic and dreamy look.

When making her furniture in the 1970s, Saint Phalle used painted polyester as she did with much of her artwork up to this time. The polyester resin was the sturdiest material that the artist could use to create her iconic shapes. Unfortunately, the fumes released when the material was cut, burnt the artist’s lungs and caused her long-term respiratory damage.

One of the first exhibitions showing much of Saint Phalle’s furniture, titled Niki de Saint Phalle, was in 1981 at Galerie Samy Kinge in Paris. When the gallerist Samy Kinge was asked about the most memorable collaboration he had with Saint Phalle he responded:

“Well maybe one of the nicest moments was when Niki decided to make sculptures…every day usable sculptures; there was an armchair, there was a mirror, there were vases..tables, also a stool. I will always remember this exhibition. 

Kinge, Samy. Interview conducted by Philippe Ungar. 31 March 2011

Source: NCAF Archives

Saint Phalle created “multiple originals” of her art decor (mainly vases) to finance her large-scale projects, specifically The Tarot Garden in Italy. As noted in the MoMA PS1 catalog Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life …we must reevaluate her unique production model. Her drive toward financial freedom, coupled with her tendency toward overabundance and an excess of contradictory feigns, resulted in a profusion of multiples as well as her decision to license her artwork”. 

After Saint Phalle moved to California she continued creating furniture, this time wanting to make it out of wood. She specifically wanted to make her “serpent chairs” and was very adamant that they had to be comfortable to sit on.

Around 1994, Saint Phalle met professional woodworker Del Cover and for the next seven years, he created over 100 pieces for the artist. This includes the famous Serpent Chairs and Serpent Mirrors. The wood dying process was unique, and Mr. Cover remembers the difficulties to perfect the colors as well as the shapes.

Niki de Saint Phale and Del Cover, 1996. Photo: Julie Bubar
“It was quite a challenge because what Niki would come up with in designs were not things that you would normally try to do in wood and I don’t know how many times I’d have to say “Niki, I can’t - wood doesn’t do that but here’s what we can do” and then I’d try to find a way to get what she wanted and it was quite the challenge. A lot of engineering went into these pieces cause they’re not standard format for what you’d normally build.” 

Cover, Del. Interview conducted by Philippe Ungar. 31 November 2013

With her beautifully artistic yet functional (and comfortable!) furniture pieces, Saint Phalle gives the art enthusiast a chance to bring a little bit of herself into their home.

Source: NCAF Archives
“My house is a sanctuary where I dream, where I am with myself. I made 2 armchairs, a table, the stool, a mirror and lamps. My snake lamps are objects to be tamed. They definitely need flowers and plants, though.” 

Saint Phalle, Niki de. “Möbel für mich selbst gemacht.” Architektur & Wohnen, 2 June 1981, pp 139-143.

In 1999, Saint Phalle donated many of her decorative art pieces to the prestigious Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The list included chairs, tables, vases, lamps, carpets, and elements from films that remain as part of the museum’s permanent collection.

A collection of Niki de Saint Phalle’s furniture and decorative arts is currently being shown at the Mingei International Museum in an exhibition titled “Niki and Mingei”, whereas the term “mingei” here hints both at the artist’s relationship to the Museum while residing in San Diego, as well as “folk art with functionality in form and design”. The exhibition is on view until October 2nd, 2022.

Remembering Niki de Saint Phalle

Niki de Saint Phalle with I woke up last night, 1994. Photo: Laurent Condominas

Niki de Saint Phalle was many things to many people, and most importantly she was an artist.In the 20 years since her death, Saint Phalle’s art has gained more relevance and notoriety as time passes. Her views on social and political issues such as female roles, equality, and violence were progressive for the time period, even in the world of art. Saint Phalle always seemed to be a step ahead, in her convictions as well as in her artwork. 

On May 21st, the Niki Charitable Art Foundation celebrates the life of an artist, our artist, Niki de Saint Phalle.

Niki Saint Phalle used her art to express her views on issues beyond her own personal life: female independence and equality, racism, LGBTQ+, AIDS, abortion, gun violence, and the environment are some of the topics her artistry covered. 

Since her passing in 2002, there have been 780 exhibitions featuring Saint Phalle’s art worldwide, with 139 being solo shows and installations. Notable among them are the major retrospective Niki de Saint Phalle at the Grand Palais in Paris, curated by Camille Morineau and Lucia Pesapane in 2014 before traveling to Muséo Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain in 2015.

View the video created by Réunion des Musées Nationaux here

Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life in 2021 at MoMA PS1 in New York was the artist’s first major US survey show after her passing, curated by Ruba Katrib. It featured an extensive body of works, film, and photographs.

Photo: MoMA PS1

The remarkable exhibition Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s opened at the Menil Collection in Houston last year. It highlights the ten years during which Saint Phalle created her tirs and Nanas, and was curated jointly by Michelle White of the Menil Collection and Jill Dawsey of MCASD.
The show traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego where it is currently on view until July. For more information and to plan your visit, go to the museum’s website:

Photo: Emily Corkery / MCASD La Jolla
Photo: Emily Corkery / MCASD La Jolla

A more unknown fact is that when Niki de Saint Phalle passed away on May 21, 2002 it was already Jean Tinguely’s birthday in Europe due to the time difference. The two were friends, lovers, spouses, competitors, and collaborators united in their art.

Jean Tinguely remains truly contemporary in his work; a kinetic metal poet to be rediscovered. This Sunday, May 22nd, Jean Tinguely’s monumental sculpture Le Cyclop reopens to the public after a major two-year restoration. Visit to organize your visit. 

Garden setting with Saint Phalle's sculptures in the background. In the forefront Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely walk toward the camera.
Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely in Dannemois, 1975. Photo: Laurent Condominas

We miss you, but your spirit lives on!

“All the World’s a Stage”: Niki does Theater

“Part of me wanted to be an actress, another part wanted to direct plays, a third part wanted to write and yet I keep on doodling all the time like in school…Some of my drawings look like those of mad people. Don’t we all have madness in us? Some of us are able to express it more easily."

In her book Traces, Saint Phalle remembered her childhood in the context of acting and role play. Having a reputation among the siblings for her creative imagination, she described play acting with them, and that her love for performing blossomed at The Brearley School, an all-girls private school in New York. She started reading Shakespeare out loud, performing in classical Greek and modern plays, notably in the role of queens. “Brearley encouraged me to write and act. My first play was about the Witches of Endor. […] I remember playing queen Clytemnestra in Agamemnon of Euripides. It was there that I wrote my first poems.”  

Photograph of Niki de Saint Phalle and siblings. Traces. Lausanne, Acatos Publisher, 1999.

Niki de Saint Phalle expressed her creativity through various types of art: painting, sculpting, shooting paintings, writing and theater. She created scenery for various plays, acted in some, and wrote her own as well. 

“Apart from as a source of inspiration for her own works, she regarded theatre and stage performance as an opportunity to trigger reactions in the audience and to have it play an active role. The biggest chance of winning a new audience that was unfamiliar with art, de Saint Phalle believed, was on stage.” (Kemfert, Beate  At last I found the Treasure, Kehrer Verlag 2016)

Saint Phalle’s first involvement with stage performance occurred in a small Parisian theater in 1961. This “avant-garde” happening titled “Variations II: Homage to David Tudor, 1961” was, indeed, a homage to the experimental music composer and pianist David Tudor. It was based on a musical piece that was given to Tudor as a birthday gift by American composer John Cage. The participants included Jean TinguelyRobert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. Rauschenberg shot at Saint Phalle’s Tir “Shooting Painting American Embassy”. In 2012, the Niki Charitable Art Foundation gifted this artwork to MoMA New York.

Photos (left and middle): Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust.
Photo (far right): Niki de Saint Phalle. Shooting Painting American Embassy, 1961 © NCAF

In 1962 Saint Phalle participated a play titled The Construction of Boston. The script was written by American playwright Kenneth Koch and directed by American dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. This was a “one-night-only” showing taking place at Maidman Playhouse in New York, owned by John Wulp. Wulp himself was a scenic designer, director, and producer. Besides Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely and Robert Rauschenberg, notably Frank Stella, Henry Geldzahler and Maxine Groffsky joined this performance. “Rauschenberg chose to make the weather and the people; Tinguely chose to make the architecture; Niki de Saint Phalle chose to bring art to Boston; I wrote the text” (Koch, Kenneth, A Change of Hearts, Vintage Books: 1973).

Koch and the artist group were worried that no one would come to the play but the exact opposite occurred; the show’s 200 tickets were completely sold out within 1 hour and there was a strict policy that no tickets were to be given out for free or put aside for press, VIP or family. Many important persons in the art world showed up such as Marcel Duchamp, Virgil Thomson, Leo Castelli, and various art directors and dealers.

John Wulp described in his Esquire Magazine article, The night they all saw, at last, what was happening (1963), that once Senator Javits and his wife showed up demanding to get in, the theater doors completely opened, and that everyone waiting outside flooded in to watch the performance. The crew was completely surprised that a 15-minute performance with tickets being sold for $3 a seat would be in such high demand! 

The play was all over the place: Tinguely constructed a brick wall to obstruct the stage view partially, all while wearing a gown, channeling Mae West. Saint Phalle created a plaster object “Vénus de Milo” and shot at it, disguised as Napoleon Bonaparte. 

On the set of The Construction of Boston, 1962
Photos: Sam Kron/Courtesy of Joan Kron and Daniel Kron

A few years later, Saint Phalle ventured yet again into another creative field by lending her artistic abilities to create scenery and costumes for the ballet “L’Éloge de da folie” by Roland Petit, in March of 1966. 

“The aim was to create a contemporary ballet, ‘made in 1966’, in which modern follies were to be visualized and made tangible, not only through dance…the visual artists de Saint Phalle, Raysse, and Tinguely not only designed stage sets and costumes in the classic sense, but also brought in their ideas and images, which became part of the overall concept.”  (Kemfert)

Lysistrata, also brought to the stage in 1966, was based on the classical Greek comedy by Aristophanes and tells the story of the women of Athens uniting to rebel against their men as a way to stop the ongoing war. It was directed by Rainer von Diez and performed at the Staatstheater in Kassel, Germany. Diez was introduced to Saint Phalle’s art through her HON exhibition in Stockholm earlier that year. Diez (a.k.a. Rainer von Hessen) would later commission her to build her first architectural Le rêve de l’oiseau in the south of France, and play the main character in Saint Phalle’s film DADDY (1972). Here, for Lysistrata, Saint Phalle produced the scenery and costumes for the play, cleverly creating a version of HON…: a walk-in torso as a symbol of the Acropolis in Athens…as the centerpiece on stage.

The actors and stage set of Lysistrata. Photo: Sepp Baer
Photo courtesy of NCAF Archives

Niki de Saint Phalle collaborated once again with director Rainer Diez on her first own play titled “Ich” (also known as Me, Moi, All About Me), also performed at the Staatstheater in Kassel, in June 1968. It premiered at the opening of “documenta IV“, a prominent German exhibition featuring contemporary, avant-garde art that is still being held every 5 years. The script was co-authored by Saint Phalle and Diez, with the main subject being a young woman’s journey of self-realization as she revolts against her family. During the play, a projection of drawings is shown while the main character “Ich” narrates a fantastic story. 

Sequence from Ich

Clark Cooldridge contre l’Assemblée des femmes d’Artistophane was Saint Phalle’s final theater collaboration, once again with Rainer von Diez. The theme of this play was a modernized version of Lysistrata. Saint Phalle and Diez approached Laurent Condominas to write the adaptation. 
The plot involves “…a fictitious character by the name of Clark Cooldridge, a lost spaceman who lands on a desolated planet. Cooldridge gradually discovers that he has actually returned to Earth, which has been devastated by a nuclear war. The primitive population lives in holes in the ground and caves, and worships a giant stone phallus.” (Kemfert)
Condominas described the play as “a sort of science fiction adaptation of Aristophane’s famed sex war when women decided to stop men from starting a war by declaring they would go on a sex strike”

Saint Phalle created the stage settings and poster, while daughter Laura Condominas designed the costumes.

The actors and stage set of Clark Cooldridge contre l’Assemblée des femmes d’Artistophane. Photo: © Rico Weber

The show played for a month in 1974, in a theater called “The Palace” which later became “the most famous, scandalous and trendiest nightclub; a Parisian equivalent to ‘Club 54’ in New York City,” as Condominas notes.

Niki de Saint Phalle was very vocal in describing the remarkable, family-like relationships she formed with her assistants and work crews. With as much support Saint Phalle had from her colleagues, she greatly supported their endeavors as well.

When Marcelo Zitelli, then assistant of Saint Phalle’s and a lifelong friend, returned to the theater, he said Saint Phalle was ecstatic for him. Zitelli, a life-long actor and director, produced a play in 1998 titled La Tragedia Comica (The Comic Tragedy). 
It was based on the original 1988 French play by Ives Hunstad and Eve Bonfanti. Saint Phalle was not only familiar with it, she was also very fond of the story it told. It was a tale of a fictional theater character (with a large wooden nose) that was searching for a human who was fated to become an actor, and who would be able to embody his character. The play involved audience participation, and was recognized for its humor and poetry. 

Poster for La Tragédie Comica 

Saint Phalle designed the poster for Zitelli’s version. Unfortunately, she was not able to see the production because it was shown at the Teatro Concerto in Argentina. Marcelo Zitelli affectionately recalls how supportive Saint Phalle was, and that their connection was so strong because of their shared love of the theater. “We had a lot of conversations about theater. We even started a project for a film and began writing the script for her to act in.” 
He remembered Saint Phalle telling him on several occasions that “my sculptures are connected to the theatre because they have always told a story”

Men say she has a magic pistol. 

Which can turn plain glass to crystal.

And can change an apple cart 

to a splintery work of art.

Shooting at a person she 

makes him a celebrity!

Everything she does in not what it was –

Niki, bring us beauties virtue!”

-Kenneth Koch

I lie where I want to lie… The artistic path of Rico Weber

Niki de Saint Phalle and Rico Weber circa 1996. Photo: Julie Bubar

Rico Weber, Saint Phalle’s first and longest assistant worked with both her and Jean Tinguely for 15 years, helping the two artists with projects such as Paradis Fantastique in New York,  Golem and Noah’s Ark  in Jerusalem, Tinguely’s Le Cyclop in France and Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden in Italy. Through art, Saint Phalle, Tinguely, and Weber formed a familial bond that lasted a lifetime. 

Rico Weber was born on Oct 7, 1942, in Hinwil – a small district of Zurich, Switzerland. Not much is known or written about Weber’s childhood, except that it was difficult. He had a very strict upbringing and was terrorized by his teachers at school due to his dyslexia.  

In his early adulthood, Weber joined the hippie movement and traveled through Europe for the next 3 years. He settled in Stockholm, Sweden where he took a job as a cook/dishwasher at the Moderna Museet. 

In 1966 artist Niki de Saint Phalle was working on a temporary indoor sculpture installation called HON at the very same museum Rico Weber was working in. Saint Phalle was creating this monumental sculpture in collaboration with fellow artists Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt. Weber met Saint Phalle at the museum and began working on the HON with the artists. 

“He soon came to work on the HON and we quickly became friends. He decided to join up with us and to become our first assistant. He was both Jean’s and my assistant, which is a unique situation considering the diversity of materials and work. And we worked together for many many years…”

In the documentary Rico Weber: Spurensuche im magischen Kabinett by Stefan Hugentobler (2006), many friends and fellow artists describe Weber as a loyal and dedicated assistant to Saint Phalle and Tinguely. During his time with the couple, he never worked on his own art because he did not want to use their notoriety or artistic influence to advance his own career as an artist. 

“A great friendship and complicity grew between me and Rico and Jean over the years. We shared our way of life with him and he was always ready to go along with any mad project we had in mind…nothing was impossible”
Rico Weber and Niki de Saint Phalle working on Hon, 1966, courtesy NCAF Archives

Over the 15 years of working together, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, and Rico Weber became a family unit. Weber’s exposure to many diverse artists and experiences in various projects fueled his own creativity and desire to create.

As described by Bloum Cardenas (Saint Phalle’s granddaughter) “Jean and Niki were like parents to Rico”. Weber remarked they were so close that the 3 of them were waiting for “the end” together.

Pictured from left: Rico Weber, Niki de Saint Phalle, Laura Duke, Jean-Jacqueline Harper,
Jean Tinguely, and Bloum Cardenas. Photo © Laurent Condominas

Rico Weber was an immense help to Niki de Saint Phalle-especially when she began creating large-scale sculptures. Saint Phalle would make a maquette, decide she wanted to enlarge it 100 times bigger in size, and Weber would be at her side, helping her realize the vision. 

Weber was the first to try fiberglass with Saint Phalle; they learned many new techniques together.  According to Swiss sculptor and friend Rene Progin, it was Weber who proposed the use of wet cement to be sprayed onto the large sculptures. Progin remarked that, in a sense, Weber was not just Saint Phalle’s assistant but also co-creator. (Hugentobler, 2006).

Construction of Golem, Jerusalem 1972

After years of assisting Saint Phalle and Tinguely, Weber (with the endless encouragement of Saint Phalle) decided it was time to focus on his own art. 

“When Rico was 40 he decided he had to make a choice; either to remain a first-class assistant for the rest of his life or to take the plunge and to realize his lifelong ambition of becoming an artist in his own right. This is what he chose, and he is now a successful artist

As an artist, Rico Weber was influenced by photorealism. According to his friends, he was his own harshest critic. Niki de Saint Phalle noted, that “he spent several difficult years unsatisfied with what he was doing. Rico is a long-distance runner. He never gave up. He kept on going, experimenting with new materials and new ideas.”

Rico Weber’s artistic debut occurred in 1978 at Galerie Felix Handschin in Basel. The exhibition was called Hammerausstellung. According to the book Rico Weber: Energie Magie Souvenir (Blanchard, Raoul., et al. Kunstahalle Burgdorf, 1995) the artist participated in the show with a series of plaster casts of himself lying down, arms crossed behind his head. He called this series “Ich liege, wo ich liege möchte” [transl. I lie where I want to lie]. 

Molds of these “life-size Rico’s” were used to create multiple sculptures that would be placed in various locations at Le Cyclop. This 74-foot monumental sculpture created by Jean Tinguely is hidden in a forest outside of Paris. Le Cyclop took 20 years to complete and was a collaborative effort between Tinguely and many other artists, including Saint Phalle and Weber. There are 12 Gisants (recumbent Weber figures) at Le Cyclop. Several have been placed inside the massive sculpture and several hidden in the green grass of the forest that surrounds it.

Gisants [Recumbent Figures], 1978

Rico Weber continued experimenting with various mediums and, as noted by artist Rene Progin, the first pieces that Weber was truly satisfied with were the ones tied with fetishes, religion, culture (Hugentobler, 2006).

Es werde Licht auf dem Olymp (Let there be light on Olympus), 1995

Weber explored the fetish of voyeurism with an art piece titled Die Unbekannte von vis-a-vis [transl. The stranger from across]. The series consisted of window boxes illuminated from behind, showing shadows of body silhouettes. Weber wanted to exemplify life in a large, populated city with people living so close to one another (Blanchard, Raoul., et al.)

Die Unbekannte von vis-a-vis, 1987

In the late 1980’s Rico Weber further explored art by creating what he described as “energy-still life”. Weber created reliefs from wall cutouts and mounted everyday items such as cables, lamps, and electrical outlets onto them. He explained it as follows “Still life comes from painting…The objects are shown in real life, the whole thing has little in common with reality because it’s not a cutout from any wall. Therefore it is a still life, namely an arrangement. Energy, especially electrical energy, simply represents the time I live in…I am fascinated by the everyday life of these things.” (Blanchard, Raoul., et al.)

left: Roues Dans Roues (Wheels on wheels), 2000
right: Prise étanche (Waterproof socket), 1992
For the last few years, Rico has made some remarkable unique reliefs. Gray-lead. Out of these strange new materials that he has created. He transforms daily objects like an electric socket into a magic talisman

Although Weber had moved on from being an assistant to developing his own art and living a life separate from Saint Phalle and Tinguely, unity continued to exist. Bloum Cardenas noted that the sudden death of Jean Tinguely in 1991 not only had a great impact on Weber but also brought him close again to Saint Phalle.

In early 2000 Weber traveled to Jerusalem to oversee the construction of Saint Phalle’s Noah’s Ark. At that point, Saint Phalle’s health had begun to deteriorate so Weber visited her in California one last time. Speaking of this last meeting, Cardenas said that Saint Phalle was Weber’s emotional protector and when she died, he no longer had her as his armor. Soon after, Rico Weber was diagnosed with cancer. He fought hard to get better so he could continue creating his art. “I hope to be able to work the maximum few years that I have left to live. (Rico Weber. Hugentobler, 2006).

Film stills from documentary

In Hugentobler’s documentary, many colleagues and friends commented on Weber’s spirit and his positivity, as they did not know that he had cancer until the very end of his battle. Towards the end of the disease, Weber made several self-recorded videos describing his physical and emotional state. A video clip from the documentary shows a note Weber left on his bed the last time before entering the hospital:

Dated: September 2, 2004

I will surely come back OK. I still have a lot to do!! Rico

Film still from documentary

Rico Weber passed away on October 8, 2004. Weber’s archives were donated, as requested by him, to the Museum of Art and History, Fribourg.

Posthumously, there has been a renewed interest in Rico Weber’s art. His creations and his spirit have been celebrated in a number of art exhibitions, most in his home country of Switzerland:

2021 Body Double, Galerie Maria Bernheim, London
2020 Silver Dust, Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich
2019 Cruise Kidman Kubrick, Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich
2018 Colors on Speed, Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich
2018 Interiors, Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich
2018 Rico Weber, an homage, Ortsmuseum Hinwil, Hinwil
2017 Swiss Pop, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Geneva
2017 Retral Images, Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zurich
2017 Beauty & Room, PALP Festival, Sion, Switzerland

Rico Weber: Eine Hommage (Ortsmuseum Hinwil)

“Meet You at The Sun God”

Niki de Saint Phalle and Dagny Runnqvist. Photo: NCAF Archives

Among the many monumental sculptures Niki de Saint Phalle created for San Diego County, like Coming Together and Queen Califia’s Magic Circle, the first structure built in 1983 was Sun God.

Sun God is a 14-foot bird installed on a 15-foot concrete arch. It was commissioned by the Stuart Collection which was founded by James Stuart DeSilva for the University of California San Diego. 

Niki de Saint Phalle was the first artist to be commissioned to make an artwork for UCSD and Sun God was actually Saint Phalle’s first massive outdoor sculpture in the United States. The artist was chosen by the Stuart Collection Advisory Board, which consisted of Pontus Hultén, Pierre Restany, and Jim Demetrion, amongst others. Hultén and Restany were good friends of Saint Phalle and familiar with her creative spirit and artistic vision. Naturally, they were very much in support of her getting this project. 

Saint Phalle submitted three different ideas for the proposed work; Life SaviourNana House, and Sun God. She, herself, favored Sun God, describing it as an “homage to the Southwest”.

“Birds have been a major theme in my work; I think they’re free and spiritual. I hope if I get reincarnated I’ll get turned into a bird. I love their magic, their freedom.”
Niki de Saint Phalle drawing, My Love (You are my bird), 1971. Currently on exhibition at MoMA PS1

In 1981, Saint Phalle visited the UCSD campus with husband and fellow artist Jean Tinguely to choose a location for the sculpture, which she found in a grassy field near the Mandeville Center for the Arts. 

"When I came to UC San Diego, Jim DeSilva rented a helicopter to go around the campus for me to choose the place for my piece - and I was scared to death. I thought a lot about the roots of California, which were Native American and Mexican. I wanted something that would mean something on a spiritual level. And I chose an eagle."

Niki de Saint Phalle envisioned this massive 14-foot bird to be perched on an enormous concrete arch, which had to be built on-site at the university. Working off a miniature styrofoam maquette made by Saint Phalle, artist Mathieu Gregoire assisted in creating the arch made of steel, wire mesh, and spraying it with gunite.

Construction site. Photo: NCAF Archives

The bird itself was constructed in the Haligon workshop in France and then transported to the school campus. The Haligon family had been working with Saint Phalle since the early 1970’s – creating molds for her sculptures, reproducing editions, and enlarging sculptures.

Various Sun God Maquettes, Photo: NCAF Archives

Mary Livingstone Beebe, longtime director of the UCSD Stuart Collection was vital in the planning and installation of Sun God. During this 3 year process, she also became a good friend of Saint Phalle. 

In 1983, Sun God was finally delivered to the UCSD campus and installed on top of the enormous archway.

Beebe describes in her book Landmarks: Sculpture Commissions for the Stuart Collection at University of California, San Diego (University of California Press, 2020.): “A crane lifted Sun God, wrapped in packing garb, and flew it to the base. It was cemented in, and the Stuart Collection really had begun; Our bird was here to stay.”

Installation of Sun God, 1983. Photo: NCAF Archives

“And it was met with a mixture of delight, distress, dismay, but it immediately became embraced as a campus character and almost an informal mascot so you know that has been very successful.” (Beebe, Mary Livingstone. Interview by Philippe Ungar, 10 May 2011)

Stemming from the Sun God sculpture, UCSD began organizing a campus festival of the same name Sun God Festival.  It is an annual music and arts event, taking place every spring, that began in 1984 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Sun God installation. Over the years the festival has evolved, with booth sponsors, food trucks, and even waterslides to cool down from the San Diego heat.

Early on, Sun God became a landmark and meeting place for students on campus. Throughout the years, students have decorated and celebrated the big bird; wearing a cap and gown for graduation, holding a book, and yearly decorations for Sun God’sbirthday as well as holidays such as Christmas.

Photos: UCSD Stuart Collection

Albeit being in such a busy, public location, the Sun God has never been vandalized. The sculpture has been restored twice in its long-standing existence. In the early ’90s, Sun God began to fade due to sun exposure so the Haligon family traveled from France. The artisans removed all the paint off in order to re-do the paintwork and the gold leaf. Then in 2016, Sun God was again stripped down to its original white base because of paint cracking from weather exposure. This second restoration was headed by La Paloma Fine Arts who used Saint Phalle’s original sketches to match the color and gold leaf application.

Photos: La Paloma Fine Arts, Sun God Restoration. Facebook July 2016 

Sun God is a significant sculpture for Niki de Saint Phalle and San Diego, not only because it is the first outdoor large scale artwork made by the artist in America, but also because of the meaning it had for her.

“It is a celebration, not just of the immensity and the beauty of the climate and the beauty of the landscape, but also the cultural identity between Mexican art…and Indian art. So there’s many cultures that meet here, many different landscapes. So that’s how this creature god of the sun, the life-giving force came about and that’s why he’s here today.” 
Photo: Richard Schulte (2019)

Honoring Female Artists

AWARE, which stands for Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions, is a non-profit organization specializing in women artists. Its new podcast series The Great Ladies of Art explores the history of 20th century female artists through their own words. The first episode of the podcast is about sculpture and who better to start off in this incredible series than Niki de Saint Phalle!

As one of the most famous female artists of the 20th century, Saint Phalle made a name for herself in an often male- dominated industry. She used various mediums as forms of her artistic expression, political and social views and life experiences; from her early shooting paintings (Tirs) to the full-bodied, brightly painted Nanas made of polyester resin. Saint Phalle’s sculptures became larger and larger, as she created a massive sculpture park titled The Tarot Garden, along with children’s play structures like Golem in Jerusalem, and various monumental sculptures that have been installed internationally (Hon, Hannover NanasComing Together).

AWARE was co-founded by curator and art historian Camille Morineau in 2014. The website describes the organization’s mission as follows:

“The primary ambition of AWARE is to rewrite the history of art on an equal footing. Placing women on the same level as their male counterparts and making their works known is long overdue.”

Camille Morineau is a distinguished curator who has been working in various major Parisian museums for twenty years; ten of those years she spent at the Centre Georges Pompdiou where she curated elles@centrepompidou, which ran from 2009-2011. It was a landmark exhibition, featuring over 130 works from exclusively female artists in the national museum of modern art’s collection. In 2014, she curated a comprehensive and impressive survey of Saint Phalle’s works at the Grand Palais in Paris. Morineau worked as director of exhibitions and collections at La Monnaie de Paris from 2016-2019, and curated Women House (2017-2018) along with the museum’s exhibition curator, Lucia Pesapane. In 2020 Morineau was awarded the Legion d’ Honneur. She was also appointed president of the board of directors of the Ecole du Louvre by decree of the President of the Republic, after being a member of the Board of Directors for a short time.

Along her curatorial journey, Morineau published exhibition catalogs and books, including a retrospective on Niki de Saint Phalle, written in 2014 with co-authors Patrik AnderssonLaurence Bertrand DorléacÉmilie BouvardCatherine DossinNathalie ErnoultCatherine FrancblinCatherine GonnardAmelia JonesUlrich KrempelKalliopi Minioudaki, Lucia PespaneÁlvaro Rodríguez Fominaya and Sarah Wilson.

left: Niki de Saint Phalle, RMN 2014
middle: Women Artists elles@centrepompidou, Centre Pompidou, 2009
right: Niki de Saint Phalle. Gallimard/RMN-Grand Palais, 2014 

When asked what was her incentive in creating AWARE in 2014, Morineau responded:

I think there’s a lack of information on women artists and that the internet is an important tool to share information. It enables students, researchers and the public to find information on our bilingual website. We’ve already published 500 biographies on women artists and we’d like to publish several thousand. Information is more easily available in Europe or North America but we need to work more on Latin America, Asia and Africa. Soon I’m going to recruit somebody who will be responsible for international development so we can establish a network of specialists, obtain information and organise events in other countries and continents. We want to establish better relationships with universities, museums, collectors, galleries and artists. (

AWARE has created a very comprehensive and all-inclusive website that displays the depth of their involvement and commitment to all things women art, as well as their many collaborative efforts with other organizations.

The organization hosts and takes part in a variety of symposiums and webinars, open to the public who can meet with guest speakers for discussions and questions on topics such as  Women in Abstraction, (organized with the Musée National d’Art Moderne and the Département Culture et Création – Centre Pompidou) or Reclaim: Narratives of African Women as part of a larger collaboration with a project called the Africa 2020 Season.

In 2017 AWARE created the PrixAWARE Reward. It began out of observation that women are underrepresented among artists who win prizes in art world (only 20-30% of artists selected are female). Two winners are chosen each year; the Prix AWARE Prize (for artists whose career began less than 10 yrs ago) & the Outstanding Merit Prize (for artists whose career began 30 years ago or more-lifetime achievement). These awards are supported by Ministry for Culture and CHANEL Fund for Women in Arts and Culture.

The Prix Prize winner will have one or more of her works acquired by the Cnap collections and a production grant for a solo exhibition to be held within the d.c.a (French Association for the Development of Contemporary Art Centres) and/or Platform network (cluster of Regional Contemporary Art Funds).

The Outstanding Merit Prize winner would receive a 10,000 EUR grant and a monographic publication. The winners for 2021 were just chosen this month with Gaëlle Choisne as the 2021 Prix Prize winner, and the Merit Prize winner is Barbara Chase-Riboud.

Congratulations to both artists!

left:  Gaëlle Choisie. Installation element of Temple of Love at Bétonsalon 2021. Source: Twitter
right: Barbara Chase-Riboud, La Musica Red #4, 2003. Source: TL Magazine

At the AWARE headquarters in Paris, there is a documentation center, which gives researchers and students direct access to 2400 references (compiled of monographs, exhibition catalogues, essays, and reviews) on women artists and feminist art. Visitors can access the references in person or online via the documentation center portal. It is also possible to hire a consultant to assist in research.

© Christophe Beauregard

AWARE is an extremely valuable organization, bringing light to amazing female artists that otherwise may be overlooked in the art world. AWARE gives the public access to learn about powerful, creative, yet underrepresented women artists, giving them the credit they deserve.

Just as AWARE’s new podcast series The Great Ladies of Art explores and honors females in art, the New York-based MoMA PS1 is celebrating the monumental works of Niki de Saint Phalle in their exhibition “Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life” (11 March- 6 September 2021).

The exhibition catalogue can be ordered online at MoMA PS1 Artbook Store

Showcased are Saint Phalle’s exploration into large-scale sculpture projects such as houses, parks, and playgrounds. “This exhibition foregrounds the artist’s interdisciplinary endeavours, focusing on the visionary architecture and utopian sculpture environments that formed the core of her later work.” (Source: MoMA PS1)

Exhibition views. MoMA PS1, 2021

Finding Joy In Life And Art

This month the Niki Charitable Art Foundation is marking the occasion of Niki de Saint Phalle’s 90th birthday!!!

Joy is a major subject in Saint Phalle’s art that is rarely addressed, if only to make a dismissed reference to it being whimsical, which it is not. 

I used to think there was a need to provoke, to attack religion, and the generals. And then I understood that there is nothing more shocking than joy.” 

Catherine Francblin, renowned art historian, author and biographer of Niki de Saint Phalle, explored this topic in her essay Niki de Saint Phalle: The Joy Factory, published in the Beaux-Arts Mons exhibition catalog of 2018 titled Niki de Saint Phalle: Here everything is possible. Francblin is the first and only author to write a scholarly biography on Saint Phalle: Niki de Saint Phalle. La Révolte à l’oeuvre (Editions Hazan, 2013).

clock, Nana, flowers, heart, plate, dream machine  and the calligraphy in the artist's famous style saying "I  would like to give you everything"
I would like to give you everything, 1970. Photo: © Niki Charitable Art Foundation

The idea of joyous art was first discovered by Saint Phalle in 1955 during her visit to Antoni Gaudí’s Park Güell in Barcelona, Spain. 

That day, my life changed. I told myself that one day, I too would build a garden of happiness. I saw the mothers with their children, and felt an air of freedom; the people seemed to have left the worries of their daily lives far behind. Adults and children were there in an atmosphere of dreams, and of joy, and I thought that one day, I too would make a garden like that.” 

Francblin explained that even from Saint Phalle’s early days as an artist, she had a desire to make her art for the public; to connect spectators with her art and with her life.

Saint Phalle went through a long creative process and several phases of creation to expel her anger: her infamous Shooting Paintings, followed by her figurative assemblages made of toys and creepy imagery, such as BirthsBrides and Têtes.  Francblin noted that even though Saint Phalle was performing the violent act of shooting at her Tirs, there was still a sense of positivity for the crowd that was watching, sometimes participating in the event.

Having been a long-time rebel with a rifle, and after a long career in art, I am giving something back to society. I want to bring people joy." 

This is the time when she started creating her first Nanas. Francblin described Niki’s Nanas in her essay: ‘They demonstrate a solidarity between the different moments of her evolution and allow us to understand the manifestation of joy in her work as the fruit of having conquered the painful, oppressive feelings that brought her desire to fly high in the sky crashing down.’ 

Joy is expressed in Niki de Saint Phalle’s art through many ways; monumental artwork, colors, curves, arabesque, dance. The use of color is one of the first things that one notices about Niki de Saint Phalle’s art. As Francblin stated ‘…colour has always been a part of the artist’s basic arsenal; it is one of her primary resources in the manufacture of joy.’ 

La Femme et L’Oiseau Fontaine, 1967-1988. Installed at La Petite Escalère. Photo © DALiM  via

Niki de Saint Phalle created art that was large, loud, bursting with colors as equally as it was containing layers of details, symbolism, and secrets. She chose joy to be at the forefront of her artistry; turning sometimes serious subjects into playful experiences.

Saint Phalle also used her colorful style to address various social, political, and environmental issues that she was passionate about. One of these causes was raising awareness about AIDS during the height of the virus’ impact globally. For Saint Phalle it started on a personal level when people she loved were dying all around her from the disease. AIDS was a topic that spread fear and death as the world faced this new and unknown virus.

As Saint Phalle’s granddaughter, Bloum Cardenas explained, ‘In the mid ’80s condoms had been out of use for some time and were not easy to reintroduce to the public. Saint Phalle tried endlessly to create colorful ones to make their use “fun”. The condom designs then became sculptures called Obelisks from which Saint Phalle made trilogies. The idea took a life of its own within her art, reflecting a certain sense of humor.’

Niki de Saint Phalle’s 1986 illustrative book AIDS: You can’t catch it holding hands was published in English, French, German, Japanese, Italian and Romansh. Saint Phalle used her vivid colors and playful images to teach the world about AIDS in a simple yet informative way.

Excerpt from AIDS: You can’t catch it holding hands. Verlag Bucher (1986)

Catherine Francblin further examined Saint Phalle’s various artworks and their symbolization of joy. She noted Saint Phalle’s fondness for arabesques, her preference for rounded shapes, and her love of trees.

Francblin pointed out the arabesque form of Saint Phalle’s Nanas with arms outstretched and one leg up in a twirling-like position and the roundness of their curves serve to express joy, happiness, and sensuality of the female body. Saint Phalle’s upside down Nanas look as if they are doing a hand stand or somersault. Francblin compared this to an acrobat, reminiscent of a circus, creating joy in nostalgia.

Photos: NCAF Archives

The monumentality of her works, and of the Nanas in particular, makes an essential contribution to turning the art of Saint Phalle into a kingdom of joy. Like love, joy touches the hyperbolic; it grows us, augments us, and increases our sense of expansion and power.’ (Francblin, C. The Joy Factory)

Due to the major impact that visiting Gaudí’s Park Güell had on her art, it is apparent that Saint Phalle created sculptures with outdoor display in mind. Throughout her time living in France, many of the sculptures could be found sprawling in the grass. During her time in California, she created many sculptures and installed them in public venues throughout San Diego County.

In 2006, the Niki Charitable Art Foundation worked with the Atlanta Botanical Garden to bring a major outdoor art exhibition of Niki de Saint Phalle to the City. Niki in the Garden was a six-month exhibition featuring approximately 30 of Saint Phalle’s life-size sculptures that visitors could enjoy in harmony with nature. The exhibition drew 225,000 visitors during its installation.

Nana Maison II, 1966-1987. Installed at Atlanta Botanical Garden, 2006. Image by Holly Smith via

The show then traveled to the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago in 2007 and continued to St. Louis where it was shown at the Missouri Botanical Garden in 2008.

What is glorious about her is the way in which she engaged with the social and therefore the political terrain, through work that is far removed from any realistic perspective. The joy that electrifies, the joy that defies gravity, the joy that energizes, the joy that connects and subtly confronts power, and turns her art into a realized utopia.’ (Francblin,C. The Joy Factory)

Niki de Saint Phalle with Lili ou Tony, 1966.  Photo © E. Hubert
I felt my new message was to give joy. […] I feel that what I’m supposed to do is bring joy into people’s hearts. And if people tell me that they’ve had 5 minutes of joy looking at my art, it makes me feel good an it makes me feel that my art is worthwhile. 

Niki de Saint Phalle, Interview with Kazunori Tsujikawa and Yoshiro Toriumi, Sankei Shimbun Newspaper: June 2000

Niki Charitable Art Foundation would like to thank Catherine Francblin for her insight and help with this blog.

Happy Birthday Niki!

GianCarlo Montebello: A Life for Art and Jewelry

GianCarlo Montebello,

The Niki Charitable Art Foundation is honoring the life and work of designer, craftsman, and jeweler GianCarlo Montebello, who passed away this September in Milan.

Montebello was born in Milan in 1941, and the Italian designer remained in his beloved city throughout his life. He attended the Art School at Sforza Castle, which was followed by a 3 year working relationship with influential and visionary industrial designers, Dino Gavina and Maria Simoncini. Montebello worked in their studio, meeting various craftsman and architects that helped him discover his other artistic interests, such as jewelry design.

In 1967 Montebello founded GEM Montebello, creating high quality and affordable limited edition multiples of jewelry in collaboration with over 50 artists. Some of the famed artists he worked with included Pol Bury, Rafael Soto, César, Lucio Fontana, Arman, Matta, and Man Ray. 

Montebello’s relationship with Man Ray was vital to his development as a jeweler and the two worked together until Man Ray’s death in 1976. When Montebello worked with artists he “always learned by listening and watching, it is learning with the eyes and the ears to progress”. (GianCarlo Montebello interview by Philippe Ungar, 09/18/2017)

LeTrou ring by Man Ray an GEM Montebello, 1970. Photo: Christie’s

Another one of these long standing collaborations he formed was with Niki de Saint Phalle. The two were introduced by friend and fellow artist, Fausta Squatriti at an exhibition in Milan celebrating the 10th anniversary of New Realism. Of his first meeting with Saint Phalle, Montebello described it as “Beautiful, completely natural, as if we already knew each other.” (Ungar, 2017)

Montebello and Saint Phalle created many pieces together throughout the 1970’s, the first being a Nana made in gold, of which 12 signed and numbered copies were created. Earrings, necklaces, brooches, and cufflinks followed.

Bouche (necklace), 1973. Photo: © Antonia Mulas
“With Niki, she wanted a collaboration, she didn't want a passive person. The unique pieces were of course made by Niki, with the help of her assistants. But when she was making multiples, or jewelry in small series, which can be considered multiples, she wanted the opinion of the person who was working with her on one of her ideas…She wasn't imposing anything, she wanted that other person to participate because it brought the play to life, it wasn't a reproduction, it was authentic.”

From: Ungar Interview, 2007

Le Poet et sa muse, 1974/2013. Photo: Louisa Guinness Gallery
Serpent (cufflinks), 1971. Photo source: Pinterest
Assemblage (necklace), 1974. Photo: Aaron Serafino

Saint Phalle had plans to collaborate with Montebello on more projects but that was never realized due to her death in 2002.

GEM Montebello was closed in 1978 after his jewelry was stolen at a public exhibition in Italy. Montebello described this experience as “…so strong that I disappeared to recover from this shock…” (Ungar Interview, 2017) The jeweler then focused on making his own designs, the first of which he named “Punto Colore”. These creations focused on the mobility of the jewelry and led to many more beautiful and different pieces which have been shown all over the world in galleries and museums alike.

POIGNET bracelet by GianCarlo Montebello, 2002. Photo: Archimagazine
“I’m not an art critic. It is the experience of a person who has always worked with the material that becomes jewel, and these jewels are designed to be worn, and not to be displayed in a shop window"

From: Ungar Interview, 2007

GianCarlo Montebello was a master at turning artists’ visions into wearable art and his exquisite designs are evident of this.