A transforming life: From model to ‘Nanas’


Niki de Saint Phalle was born Catherine Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle in 1930 in France into a life of wealth and privilege. Her father was a French aristocrat and her mother a wealthy American. The family was wiped out financially, however, during the Great Depression and immigrated to the United States.

In New York, young Catherine, now going by Niki, adapted to life on the Upper East Side, attending a series of private schools from all of which she was expelled for insubordination. She eloped when she was 18 with the 19-year-old musician/novelist Harry Mathews, who took her to Cambridge where he completed his studies at Harvard.

A beautiful young woman, de Saint Phalle modeled for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle and appeared on the cover of Life magazine. She and Mathews returned to Europe in 1952, where they both developed their cultural lives.

In Paris, de Saint Phalle functioned as a liaison between the European and American art worlds. She met the American poets John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, and the American artists Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers. She was championed by Pierre Restany, the critic behind the “Nouveau Réalisme” (New Realism) movement, a French version of American Pop art. Among the Nouveau Réaliste artists she was associated with were Swiss kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely, whom she later married; Christo; Yves Klein; and Arman.

De Saint Phalle caused a sensation with her “Shooting Paintings.” For these performance-based works, which she made from 1961 to 1963, she attached balloons filled with paint to canvas and then shot them with a rifle so that the paint dripped out in a parody of action painting.

During these years, she also designed sets and costumes for the ballet and theater.

In 1965, inspired by a friend’s pregnant form, de Saint Phalle started making her “Nanas,” zaftig but contemporary earth mothers. (Nana can be translated as “chick” or “babe.”) Her most famous Nana, “Hon” (Swedish for “She”), also caused an international sensation. A 1966 room-sized reclining woman installed in the Modern Art Museum in Stockholm, it could be entered between the legs.

In 1967-68, de Saint Phalle and Tinguely collaborated on a major work for the French Pavilion at the Montreal World’s Fair. In 1982, they also collaborated on the Stravinksy Fountain adjacent to the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

De Saint Phalle’s major effort at the end of her life was the “Tarot Garden” she created in Tuscany. For more than 20 years she worked on a project blending art and nature that had been a goal of hers since 1954 when she saw Gaudi’s Parc Guell in Barcelona.

In 1994, de Saint Phalle moved to San Diego. In 2000, she received the Praemium Imperial for Sculpture from the Japan Art Association, one of the most prestigious awards in creativity in the world.

She died in San Diego in 2002.

— David Bonetti, Post-Dispatch Visual Arts Critic

Photo: Niki de Saint Phalle painting “Le Monde” in her studio in France circa 1981. (Laurent Condominas)