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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."