The Mythical Couple of “La Commanderie”

In Île-de-France, just north of the town Milly-la-Forêt, is the small town of Dannemois. In 1970 Jean Tinguely purchased a large house there, and Niki de Saint Phalle and he stayed for several years while constructing Le Cyclop. The “Commanderie”, also known as “La Louvetière”, once belonged to an Order of the Templars. Intrigued by the mysticism of the property, Saint Phalle and Tinguely searched the house for the Templars’ treasures, but never found any. They did, however, find secret passages that led out of the village and another that went to the church. During WWII the house was used as a field hospital. Between the templars and its more recent history, guests staying with Saint Phalle and Tinguely always felt the house was haunted.

“La Commanderie” Dannemois, 1994, Photo: © Rene Burri/Magnum Photos


The village is most famous because it is where Claude Francois, a french pop singer lived. When he died in 1978 he was buried in the Municipal Cemetery of Dannemois, just across the street from the artists’ house. It is the second most visited cemetery in France after Père Lachaise. A portion of Francois’ property has been turned into a museum, where visitors can see parts of the garden, the water mill, and his living room. Many residents of the town knew of Claude Francois but not necessarily of Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely. The city council and a few individuals came together and decided to change that.

The house “La Commanderie” became a kind of headquarters for a number of artists. Eighteen of them were involved in the Cyclop project including Eva Aeppli, Bernhard Luginbühl, Jean-Pierre Raynaud, Larry Rivers, and Daniel Spoerri.

Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely in Dannemois, 1973, Photo: Laurent Condominas


Other artists, as well as race car drivers, also came to visit the pair in Dannemois, like Keith Haring, Jacky Ickx, and Niki Lauda. Keith Haring recalls his visit to the Le Cyclop and “La Commanderie” in his journal.

“Niki takes us to the forest near her house to see the “head” 
Jean and the others have been working on for 15 years. It’s 
really incredible — huge and actually has movable parts. It’s 
better than Disneyland. You can walk inside of it and climb 
stairs all through it… She also takes us to Jean’s house where 
she used to live also. It is a really old (medieval) castle 
with sheep running around outside.”
Excerpt quote from Keith Haring Journals, July 1987


Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely worked on a number of projects besides Le Cyclop while in Dannemois. Both films “Nana Island” and “Un rêve plus long que la nuit” were made while the pair was there. Niki de Saint Phalle wrote the script for “Nana Island” and constructed the sets; Jean Tinguely constructed the men’s costumes but the film was never completed.  “Un rêve plus long que la nuit” was a completed 90 minute film, directed by Fréderic Rossif and Niki de Saint Phalle. Saint Phalle also wrote the script and designed the sets, while Jean Tinguely conceived the machines.

Scene from Niki de Saint Phalle’s film Un rêve plus long que la nuit, Photo: © Leonard Bezzola


In recent years, the town of Dannemois has put into motion a project to better the communal buildings and put the spotlight on Saint Phalle and Tinguely. In 2014 the team began campaigning their plans and in 2015 were elected into city council and started funding. Their project consisted of renovating and combining the school and village hall, renovating the old town hall, and creating a village square once all the communal building we linked. The space was to become a place for culture, exhibitions, and discussion. They also wanted it to be a space to enrich students and offer extracurricular activities for them.

The city council decided this would also be the opportunity to bring attention to Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely and tie in the importance of the two artists. The old town hall will be renovated and called “Maison de la Culture” (The House of Culture). It sits right across the street from “La Commanderie”.

“We could not imagine a better scenario since the future “House 
of Culture" faces the Louvetière, like a glance at destiny.”
Quote from Monique Paillet, Deputy Mayor of Dannemois


A group of kids are also honoring the artists by working on a collaborative art project together. The children decided to create a bench out of four separate chairs. Each chair would represent a season and they would paint them, assemble the chairs together, and then add additional pieces of wood and metal to create new shapes. The children were inspired by artists’ bright colors, fantasy, and importance of nature and are incorporating those ideas into their designs for the bench.

Children painting chairs, Photo:


While the children are still working on their bench and work on the buildings are progressing quickly, the project is set to be finished any day now. Niki de Saint Phalle’s and Jean Tinguely’s signatures will also be incorporated into the project for guests to see as they enter the space. The House of Culture will have its inauguration on January 28, 2018. The Niki Charitable Art Foundation has also donated graphics to Dannemois that will be on display at the House of Culture.


The Evolution of a Woman Artist

Throughout her career, Niki de Saint Phalle was labeled a ‘woman artist’ and had to prove her art was to be held at the same level as her male counterparts. As a female, sometimes her art wasn’t what was discussed, rather the discussion focused on her appearance, marriage, and children.

“So you’re one of those writer’s wives that paint,”… I felt it 
disavowed a really worthwhile life, doing my work quietly 
with passion. I considered myself an artist, putting in full 
days, working as much as I could on my art. I could not see 
how the fact that I was married and not earning a living 
from my art reduced my work to a “housewife’s hobby”.
Excerpt quote of Niki de Saint Phalle from ‘Harry and Me


Saint Phalle wanted to combat the notion of women in their assigned roles, as wives, mothers, and caretakers of the household. She started her shooting paintings, and focused her anger and rage into these paintings/performances.

“Performance art did not yet exist, but this was a performance. 
Here I was, an attractive girl (if I had been ugly they would 
have said I had a complex and not paid any attention), 
screaming against men in my interviews and shooting.”
Niki de Saint Phalle on her shooting paintings


Many articles in the 60’s, while Saint Phalle was doing her shooting paintings, would comment on her appearance and looks, rather than discussing her art.

Newspaper clipping from the Independent, Long Beach, March 22, 1962


Saint Phalle transitioned from her shooting paintings to her works of brides, births, and whores.


         Accouchement Rose (Pink Birth), 1964                              Detail of Bride or Miss Havershems Dream, 1964


“I could not identify with Mother, our grandmothers, our aunts, 
or Mother’s friends. Their territory seemed too restrictive for 
my taste… I want the worldthat belonged to men… Very early 
I got the message that men had the power and I wanted it. 
Yes, I would steal their fire from them. I would not accept the 
boundaries that Mother tried to impose on my life because 
I was a woman.”
Excerpt quote of Niki de Saint Phalle from ‘Traces


From there, Saint Phalle’s women evolved into her nanas, large curvy colorful women that dramatized their spiritual independence.

“Why the nanas? Well, first because I am one myself. Because my 
work is very personal and I try to express what I feel. It is 
the theme that touches me most closely. Since women are oppressed 
in today’s society I have tried, in my own personal way, to 
contribute to the Women’s Liberation Movement.” 
Niki de Sant Phalle, La Metropole, Anvers, 23 February, 1972


Niki de Saint Phalle with unfinished Nanas, 1965, Photographer Unknown


One article, titled ‘Her Sculpted ‘Nanas’ Create a Big Furor’, discussed Niki de Saint Phalle’s attire and what her guests were wearing at the opening of one of her shows. Niki de Saint Phalle continued making her nanas, expanding with materials and in size.

“Long before Women’s Lib became fashionable, or even plausible, 
Niki de Saint Phalle was performing her own acts of liberation.” 
Brussels Times, March 2, 1972


Many female artist dealt with similar scrutiny and the problems of being a woman artist in the male dominated art world. Artists like Miriam Schapiro and Jann Haworth were artists during the same time as Saint Phalle, working to establish more a  female artist presence.

“The assumption was that, as one tutor put it, ‘The girls were 
there to keep the boys happy.’ He prefaced that by saying, 
’It wasn’t necessary for them to look at the portfolios of the 
female students… they just needed to look at their photos’. 
From that point, it was head-on competition with the 
male students.”
Quote of Jann Haworth from interview with Tate Magazine, 2004


Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois in Paris present through October 21st, more than a dozen feminine figures created by Niki de Saint Phalle between 1963 and 1990. The exhibition titled, “Belles! Belles! Belles! Les femmes de Niki de Saint Phalle” (Beautiful! Beautiful! Beautiful! The Women of Niki de Saint Phalle) explores what it is to be a woman according to the artist.

Galerie Vallois entrance, Photographer: Philippine De Merac


In the two gallery spaces (33 & 36 rue de Seine) women sculptures with revolutionary and unconventional shapes welcome the visitors. Ending the exhibition is a video interview of the artist which gives the public one answer. “Are these Nanas a portrait of yourself?” a journalist asks Niki de Saint Phalle. The artist answers, “Yes of course, I am all of them”. Saint Phalle wants women to be free from what she calls the “conneries” (bullshits) of sentimentality, marriage, etc. The video provides a beautiful end to a very rich show. Be sure to check out the show before it comes to an end this Sunday, on October 22, 2017!

Niki de Saint Phalle with Lili ou Tony, 1966, Photo: © E. Hubert

A Monster in Belgium – The Dragon of Knokke

During the summer of 1968, Belgian collectors Roger and Fabienne Nellens saw Niki de Saint Phalle’s Nana Dream House. It was a Nana that took on the form of an architectural structure guests could peer and walk into. The couple was inspired to commission the artist to create a play house for their son Xavier, in the garden of their home in Knokke-le-Zoute.

Niki de Saint Phalle had created two larger outdoor architectural projects by this time. In the South of France she had created a collection of three structures, called Le rêve de l’oiseau. One contained the kitchen, one was the living space, and the last had the bathroom. Then, in 1972, Saint Phalle built Golem, a playground commissioned for children in the City of Jerusalem. The black and white monster features a staircase that rounds up into the Golem. This leads children to the mouth of the monster, where they can slide down one of three bright red tongues, one for each religion.

“I have always had a dream of doing architectural things.
It started with my sculptures getting bigger and bigger.”
Reaction of Niki de Saint Phalle, W. News, November 30, 1973


In 1973, with the assistance of Jean Tinguely, Niki built Dragon for young Xavier. Originally, the Nellens had thought the structure would be in the middle of the garden. However, Niki suggested putting it along the hillside.

Concrete Spraying – Dragon Knokke from Niki Charitable Art Foundation on Vimeo.

-Excerpt from Construction of Dragon de Knokke, 1973, footage by Rico Weber


After laying the foundation, the welding of the iron skeletal structure started. Jean Tinguely and Rico Weber could be seen climbing all over the structure as they welded, sometimes long into the night. Once the steel frame was in place, it was then covered in cement. At first the men laid the cement in by hand, then used a method of spraying the concrete onto frame. This method was first used on the Golem and proved effective and was used again later for the monumental sculptures at the Tarot Garden. The concrete was then smoothed by hand with brushes before it was fully set.

Painting of Dragon de Knokke       Child on slide of Dragon

-Niki de Saint Phalle and assistant painting the Dragon, 1973, photograph Rico Weber/ © MAH Fribourg


As summer approached, Dragon was ready to be painted. Niki de Saint Phalle walked around the bright white creature, outlining the imagery that would cover the Dragon. Then, everyone was put to work on painting, including Roger Nellens. A panther, a spider, snakes, and many other images took shape in bold bright colors across the structure. A Formula 1 race car was also painted on the monster, and the famous driver Jacky Ickx contributed to painting it. Like Golem, Dragon has a tongue slide for Xavier and other children to slide down. The Dragon’s mouth and tongue were painted bright red. The tail that ran through the garden’s hillside was also tattooed with images. Portholes in the roof and the side of the structure illuminated the interior space. Custom windows had to be designed to fit into the monster’s bulbous eyes. A kitchen, bath, toilet, and heating system were also added, while sleeping accommodations were on the second floor. In the end, the structure was 21 feet high and 110 feet long, colorfully painted to stand out against the landscape. Journalists at the time estimated it had cost between $30,000 and $40,000.

Page Excerpt from NdSP on Dragon of Knokke

-Excerpt from exhibition catalogue Niki de Saint Phalle at Museum Boymans-van Beuningen Rotteram, 1976, photograph: L. Bezzola


Roger had never asked for a building permit for the structure, anticipating that his request would be denied. There were daily visits from the police, warning him against building such a large structure without a permit. However, once the Dragon was completed, even the police couldn’t resist asking for a photo in front of it!

In later years, artist Keith Haring stayed in the Dragon while working on a mural in the Knokke Casino. The Dragon was one of Keith Haring’s most favorite places to work.

“The moon was almost full last night and sleeping inside the 
Dragon at the Nellens’ house was really strange… light was 
pouring through all the round holes in the windows… Sleeping in 
Niki’s dragon is a lot like a dream anyway.”
Excerpt quote of Keith Haring from Keith Haring Journals, 2010


He was so inspired by the space and asked Saint Phalle if he could paint a portion of the interior. She was thrilled to accept and now there is a fresco lining the staircase wall. Jean Tinguely also contributed not only to the structure of the Dragon, but to the interior as well with a set of chairs and a lamp.

-Keith Haring’s fresco along the staircase inside the Dragon, source: Google


Since the Dragon’s creation, it has been classified as a Monument Historique of Belgium. People from all over the world have gone knocking on Roger’s door to see it. Despite being on private property, Roger has graciously opened the door of the Dragon for visitors to get a glimpse.  He always shares his vivid and joyful memories of Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, and their friends that were part of the creation of the Dragon.

“I would tell her that she and Jean, they were my life. It was my life. My life. My life. My life. I have never had anything like 
this in my life. My life changed because of them. We shared each others lives.”
Excerpt quote of Roger Nellens from Interview by Philippe Ungar, March 2011

The Fantastic Paradise turns 50 !

50 years ago, Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely presented their Fantastic Paradise to the public on the occasion of the Universal Expo 1967 in Montreal, Canada.

A few weeks after HON’s destruction in August 1966, the two artists envisioned a new gigantic and collective project together. This next sensational sculpture group, called : Le Paradis Fantastique in French and Enchanted Garden or Earthly Paradise in the English press, was proposed by Niki de Saint Phalle herself to the French Government for its Pavilion at the Universal Expo, which started end of April 1967.

The short time frame, the heavy extra budget it implied, and some cultural approbations still pending kept the two artists in the dark for few months…

Finally on January 6th, 1967 Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely met with Robert Bordaz, Director of the French Pavilion and unveiled the project model.

drawing for Le Paradis fantastique, 1967
[drawing for Le Paradis Fantastique] , 1967 – Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York © 2017 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved.

The theme of the Fantastic Paradise was “Life confronted with the forces of Destruction”. Jean Tinguely’s black and sharp machines symbolically attacked the round and colorful sculptures of Niki de Saint Phalle.

The Director was very interested and agreed to showing it. However, he warned the artists that the budget would be tight. During this meeting they made the decision to exhibit the work in open air, on the terrace of the 7th floor of the futuristic building designated by Jean Forgeron.

So many times we have been taken for some idlers that this official order of the French government feels to us like a real rehabilitation! Finally we are no longer cursed.

Reaction of Niki de Saint Phalle on February 28th of 1967 in l’Aurore

Press Clip from L’EXPRESS about Montreal Expo67
Expo67 Montreal The Modern Dream – Extract from L’EXPRESS – March 1967

Following this interview, the two artists feverishly put themselves to work. Their production time was very short. They only had 6 weeks …

In a Parisian workshop in the neighborhood of les Buttes-Chaumont, Niki de Saint Phalle used 300 cubic meters of expanded polystyrene, 2 tons of polyester and 5 miles of fiber glass to give life to 9 gentle monsters, Nana-flowers and other imaginary creatures ranging in height from 10 to over 20 feet.

An enormous workshop in which she and half-a-dozen others grapple with cyclopean blocks of expanded polystyrene which will be coated with polyester and painted, once they have been carved. 

Art & Artists London, April 1967

Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely working on the Fantastic Paradise, in Les Buttes-Chaumont, Paris, Press Clip from L’EXPRESS 6-12 March 1967
Niki de Saint Phalle & Jean Tinguely in the Parisian workshop, March 1967 – Extract from l’EXPRESS, photograph Christian Taillandier

In the meantime Jean Tinguely was producing 6 machines that “threatened” Niki’s whimsical sculptures.

Once the two artists completed their sculptures, the Paradis Fantastique composed itself of:

  • Le Char Raspoutine (The Rasputine Tank) charging back and forth at Bébé monstre (Baby monster)
  • La Perceuse (The Drill) ready pierce into La Grosse Nana’ s posterior (The Big Nana)
  • La Nana embrochée (Skewered Nana) turning on La Machine (The Machine) like a chicken on a spit
  • La Rotozaza (The Rotozaza) petting La Bête gentille (The Gentle Beast) with its claws
  • La Folle (The Crazy Girl) swirling in front of La Nana arbre (Nana tree)
  • Le Piqueur (The Stinger) poking L’Oiseau (The Bird)
  • La Fleur (The Flower), La Baigneuse (The Swimming Lady) and La Nana sur la Tête (Nana Upside-down)

At the end of March 1967 the 15 sculptures were ready to be packed and transported on board a cargo plane chartered by the French army.

Exhausted from frantic work, Niki lost 15 pounds and had to be hospitalized for pneumonia at the American Hospital in Neuilly.

Even before the inauguration of the Expo67, the International Press was unanimous: endorsing Saint Phalle & Tinguely to represent the French avant-garde at an event of such a magnitude was a bold gesture.

Maybe you never heard of Niki. But you will. My humble prophecy is she will be the find of the Expo 67

Montreal Star, Canada, March 25th 1967

Once the works were revealed on April 28th,  some critics were enthusiastic and … others outraged.

The only crazy incongruity [...] is on the terrace of the pavilion where the monstrous "Nanas" of Niki de Saint Phalle are almost raped by the atrocious machines of Tinguely.  

Pourquoi Pas Bruxelles, May 25th 1967

The entire roof deck of the French Pavilion is given over to a spectacular exhibit of work by Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle. It’s Expo’s single most impressive sculpture exhibit.

David Bourdon for Art International – September 20th 1967

When Expo67 came to an end in October, the Fantastic Paradise was dismantled. Niki’s sculptures were cut into pieces to travel by truck and be exhibited at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. The artists had to restore the work but their “fight in paradise” received a much warmer welcome in the press and in the public than in Canada.

The new “Paradis Fantastique” show in the outdoor Sculpture Garden at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is one that will bowl you over, delight, amuse and beguile you.

Buffalo Evening News, November 21st 1967

After Buffalo, the Fantastic Paradise was moved to the Conservatory Garden Lawn, in Central Park, NYC for one year. Over there, too, the public reaction was very favorable.

A small visitor strolls amid Niki’s Nanas and Tinguely machines, and decides that “they can stay on our grass forever” – Extract from New York June 3, 1968, photograph Jill Krementz

At the end of its journey, the question arose about the future of the sculpture group. Pontus Hulten, Director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, accomplice and longtime friend of the artists offered a solution. He asked them to donate the whole set to the Moderna Museet in exchange of its life-long conservancy and display in the Swedish Capital. Jean and Dominique de Menil, collectors and friends, generously financed its return in Europe.

Since its creation in 1967 Niki de Saint Phalle repainted the Fantastic Paradise but the provoking sculpture can still be enjoyed everyday, outside, on Skeppsholmen an island in central Stockholm.

Fantastique Paradise - Photo Albin Dahlström : Moderna Museet
The Fantastic Paradise in Stockholm – photograph Albin Dahlström / Moderna Museet  – © 2017 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved.

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 - very oriental, 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 of 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 !


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 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.



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