Love, obsession and faith


A moment captured in black and white. Four men, four pairs of eyes fixated on a fifth figure. Her heavy fringe is brushed to one side, her tiny frame swims in a Breton top and men’s slacks; she is the only one staring at the lens, the only one posing. Hands on hips in an exaggerated manner, she puffs out her chest and tries to maintain a faux serious expression under the strain of a half smile.

The woman is Niki de Saint Phalle. It’s 1962, and the French-American is the art world’s new darling thanks to her shooting paintings, for which she set up public galleries and shot at bags of paint strung to canvases with a rifle. She and her partner, the sculptor Jean Tinguely, would soon be known as the “Bonnie and Clyde” of art.

When I stumbled across this photograph in Nice’s Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (MAMAC) three years ago, I stopped still and looked at it for a long time, imagining what it might have been like to be Niki de Saint Phalle. A few months later, I was so inspired I followed her to France. It sounds ridiculous but it’s the truth: I moved to another country because of a photograph. Why? Because in that image, in her art in general, there was something that stirred the romantic in me, because I thought that if I came here maybe my life could be as creative as hers had been.

In retrospect, I see it was both hopeful and hopeless. But living in Nice has at least given me the opportunity to continue the love affair. I get a quick fix walking past her statue of Miles Davis outside the Negresco Hotel, or when I pop into MAMAC, on which she bestowed a number of important works.

There was, however, one major piece missing from my de Saint Phalle repertoire.

The Tarot Garden

Inspired by Gaudí’s Parc Güell in Barcelona, the Giardino dei Tarocchi was the artist’s “garden of joy,” a monumental sculpture park in Garavicchio, 100 km northwest of Rome. Starting in 1979, the Tarot Garden, with its 22 Major Arcana-inspired statues, was her masterwork. It opened in 1998, four years before its creator died of a lung condition caused by inhaling chemicals she had used in her art.

Last month, de Saint Phalle would have turned 80 and at the start of this year I made my resolution: to finally make my pilgrimage to her holy land. In the autumn, together with friends, I boarded a flight to Rome full of anticipation. The garden is around two hours by car from the capital and we set off down small lanes that cut across vast, rusty-green fields; occasionally, we passed through a catatonic village.

After following a trail of signposts, it came into view: a glinting rainbow in the foliage on the hillside. The four of us skipped to the entrance, the official child in our party, 11-year-old Natasha, bounding ahead. “It’s magical,” she called back over her shoulder, having reached a fountain representing three cards: Magician, High Priestess and Wheel of Fortune.

All of us were bedazzled, and bewitched; we had fallen into a real-life wonderland.

Celebrating the child within

De Saint Phalle was obsessed with fairy tales and figures of fantasy, a preoccupation with nature, monsters and animals being a way for her to keep in touch with feelings she had as an infant. “I feel,” she once said, “that the part of me that stayed a child is the artist in me.”

So it’s little wonder that the Tarot Garden renders one in a dreamlike state and makes adults instantly feel like children again. “It’s almost as if the child in me is playing with the child in Niki,” mused my friend. “It’s not childish but child-like, beautiful and pure. Alternatively, you could describe it as a mirror ball from a gay disco put through a blender.”

Mirrors, mirrors on the wall

This mirror ball effect is created by thousands of shards of reflective glass in red, blue, green, silver… on a sunny day, you’ll be blinded by the light bouncing from the walls. In her memoir, the artist described a glass and mirrored piece of 1930s furniture of her mother’s filled with crystal decanters containing coloured rose water. She was so “intoxicated by these pure magic colours” that she later evoked a similar effect in her garden.

Nowhere did she create a stronger feeling of intoxication than in the Empress. The soft, womanly creature, a shimmering sphinx-shaped goddess, is at the very heart of the giardino. De Saint Phalle lived in this “protective mother” whilst working on the project and the inside resembles an ice palace, decorated ceiling to floor in mirror, and with a kitchen and bathroom to boot.

Both sets of the artist’s grandparents owned chateaus in France and she credited the “castles” she saw as a girl for inspiring her to make fairy tale dwellings as an adult.

Watching Natasha run from the Sun to the Star, clambering over dragons in the woods and squeezing into cubbyholes, I remember a favourite de Saint Phalle quote: “In this world of so much pain, if a sculpture of mine can give a moment of joy, a moment of life to a passerby, I feel rewarded.” “Come quick, you have to see this,” Natasha shouts at me, “now this really is magical.” She pulls me into the sugar-plum interior of the Emperor, her eyes wide. And still, I’m not sure who is happier, the real child holding my hand or the eternal one trapped inside of me.

The history

In 1955, 25-year-old Niki de Saint Phalle saw Gaudí’s Parc Güell in Barcelona. It was a moment that changed her life. “I met my master,” she said later, “and my destiny.” She was determined to create a garden of her own. 24 years later, she started work, on the property of her friends, Marella Carlo and Nicola Caracciolo, in Garavicchio, southern Tuscany.

The project became much bigger than intended and with no deadline and creative freedom she went on, despite being struck with crippling rheumatoid arthritis and financing everything herself. Believing in total immersion, she moved into the Empress. Her partner, Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, was her “biggest fan” and welded over 50 percent of the garden’s iron chassis.

In 1998, the 22 sculptures of the Major Arcana, made in cement and covered in mosaic, mirrors, glass and ceramic, were ready. In the garden’s guide, its creator reflected it had been made with “difficulties, love, wild enthusiasm, obsession and most of all faith. Nothing could have stopped me.”

— Hannah Marshall, The Riviera Times