When polyester resin forms more than a sculpture: Niki de Saint Phalle and the Haligon workshop

Artist Niki de Saint Phalle squads on the floor at her studio in Soisy surrounded by colorful sculptures. She holds a brush in her right hand aiming to paint an element sculpture tiled "Profile" for "Fontaine Chateau-Chinon", a collaborative project with Jean Tinguely, located in France.
Photo: © Laurent Condominas
“I learned that when you work with good natured people, who are
honest with their work, we strive to make the most of what we can
do for them…with Niki we always move forward.”
Robert Haligon. Interview with Philippe Ungar. 12 July 2009

 

Niki de Saint Phalle had many “work families” throughout her artistic career.  The first of these, which also became one of the longest and most important working relationships she had, was with the Haligon family. 
Over a period of approximately 25 years, this family of artisans helped Saint Phalle create around 3,000 sculptures, from large scale outdoor pieces of art to smaller multiples.

The Haligon dynasty began in the 1800’s, starting with sculptor Luis Haligon. The family business was passed down generation to generation, until Robert Haligon took over in 1948 due to the death of his father.
The art studio which was originally located in Paris-Montparnasse, France was moved to Périgny-sur-Yerres. It was there that Robert Haligon, along with wife Arlette, evolved the techniques used by the generations that came before them. They began to reproduce, as well as enlarge sculptures.

The Haligons have four children who work in various capacities in the business; Olivier, Gerard, Marie, and Agnes. Gerard took over his parents’ workshop in 1994, while Olivier opened his own studio in Miami, Florida in 1998. Marie, the in-house painter at the studio since 1989, is a specialist in the reproduction of hand painting. Meanwhile the youngest sibling Agnes assists in the management of the workshop as well as the follow-up and maintenance of the technical documentation of the works.

Robert Haligon first saw the work of Saint Phalle at the 1967 Montreal World Expo. She had completed Paradis Fantastique with Jean Tinguely, which is a  set of nine monumental sculptures and six machines placed as a sculpture garden on the roof of the French Pavilion. Robert and Arlette Haligon had already embarked on the adventure of using laminated resin with artists César, Dubuffet, and Mirò. In that moment, the pair understood the interest and advantages that this new material could represent for Saint Phalle. Robert Haligon didn’t know it at the time, but later he would have the job of restoring these same sculptures in Stockholm.

Photo: Shunk-Kender © J Paul Getty Trust

In 1971 Saint Phalle set up a meeting with Robert Haligon at her studio. She asked Robert to make molds for three of her sculptures, originally patterned in clay, and he proposed to make them from resin instead of the more traditional plaster. Saint Phalle was very happy with the result and there began a collaboration that lasted for a quarter of a century.

Photo: © Laurent Condominas
“Working with Niki was always something intense. So whatever 
small thing, big thing, or personal thing it was intense and
extraordinary.”
Robert Haligon. Interview with Philippe Ungar. 12 July 2009

 

Saint Phalle kept the Haligons busy with constant projects; whether it be enlarging maquettes into life size sculptures or reproducing smaller sized sculpture editions, vases, etc. 

For the process of making editions, Saint Phalle created a sculpture in clay with which Robert could produce a mold and a prototype in plaster or resin. Saint Phalle painted the prototype that served as the sample piece for the reproduction of 8 to 12 more sculptures, in resin, with the same colors and design. It was important for her that the reproduction felt as though she herself made the piece. Therefore, Saint Phalle personally trained Marie Haligon, helping her understand the spirit, style, and requirements of the art. Saint Phalle trusted Marie Haligon and her remarkable skills to reproduce the painting style and colors that are so recognizably Saint Phalle’s.

Robert Haligon remembers that the work atmosphere with Saint Phalle was very harmonious and trusting. He explained that, because Saint Phalle was so very confident in his ability to execute her artistic vision, that there was very little need for communication or explanation. 

They would either work at his studio in Périgny-sur-Yerres or he would go to her studio. Models would be prepared and transported to his studio for the reproduction process. There were many updates and reports sent via faxes, adorned with Saint Phalle’s drawings and unique handwriting. Saint Phalle and the entire Haligon family became very close; she would lunch at Périgny-sur-Yerres. Their mealtime conversations ranged from typical work issues to more personal subjects, such as family, children and even politics.

Source: NCAF archives

In terms of technique, Saint Phalle’s approach was always changing and improving. Robert Haligon recalls that Saint Phalle was not a fan of shiny paints. She liked to use Flashe because it dried with a matte finish. When he did reproductions for her, they had to be done in the same painted format. The outdoor sculptures, on the other hand, needed shiny paint because matte paint was destroyed very quickly when exposed to the corrosive agents of the atmosphere. Haligon remembers that she had to first get used to the idea of the outdoor sculptures being shiny. In time she decided “But you know what, the shiny looks good outdoors”. This was the start of her using mirrors on the outdoor sculptures because, as Saint Phalle said “Since it must be brilliant, it will be brilliant”.  As he explained it,  Saint Phalle was a person who was open to everything and she adjusted very well to the required techniques.

Photo: © Laurent Condominas

When Saint Phalle moved to the United States permanently, for health reasons their collaboration diminished but  their close relationship remained. Robert Haligon and his wife visited her in San Diego where they spent the time reminiscing about their years long collaborations and enjoyed the time with each other.

Robert Haligon collaborated with Saint Phalle on pieces such as the Stravinsky FountainChateau ChinonThe Serpent TreeTemple of All ReligionsRicardo Cat, and some smaller sculptures at the Tarot Garden.

When Gerard Haligon took over the family business, he assisted Saint Phalle with many sculptures as well. Amongst them were the Three Graces FountainGanesh,and the Rhinoceros.

Before leaving for Miami, Oliver Haligon also took part in fabricating Saint Phalle’s monumental works in resin, at his studio in Paris, that were then painted at Robert Haligon’s studio. Such was the case for Nana Bloum 6 meters.

The Gerard Haligon Studio, now named Art and Concept is the official restorer for Niki de Saint Phalle artworks. In March 2010, Gerard and Sylvie Haligon were awarded the title of master craftsman in crafts by the French Chamber of Trades and Crafts.

“She impressed the world by her tenacity, and her courage, and 
her willingness to make everything in the best way possible.”
Robert Haligon. Interview with Philippe Ungar. 12 July 2009

 

Niki Charitable Art Foundation would like to thank the Haligon family for their insight and help with this blog.