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Niki de Saint-Phalle (French/American, 1930-2002)


Also known as:  De Saint-Phalle, Niki; Mathews, Niki; Saint-Phall, Niki de

Birth Place: Paris (Ville de Paris department, Île-de-France, France)

Niki de Saint Phalle was born near Paris on October 29, 1930. She and her family moved to the United States in 1933 after struggling through the Great Depression. She graduated from a Maryland school in 1947, and then spent a few years working as a fashion model, gracing the covers of Life and French Vogue.

Niki de Saint Phalle eloped with author Harry Matthews at age eighteen, and together they had a daughter and a son. It was also during this time that Phalle began painting, experimenting with different media and styles. After divorcing Matthews, Phalle lived with Jean Tinguely, a sculptor. She became a member of the Parisian group who called themselves “Nouveaux Realistes.”

Phalle’s first art exhibition was in Switzerland in 1956, where she displayed her oil paintings. She then took up work in collage, often depicting weapons in her work. In the 1960’s, Phalle presented her “shooting pictures,” paintings that were the result of shooting at polythene bags filled with paints that were covered in white plaster in human form.

Her work then turned to a focus on female’s roles in modern society. Phalle’s most well-known works are “Nanas,” colorful, exuberant, buxom female figures made of wool, yarn, paper-mache and wire scaffolding, and later polyester. In 1966, she collaborated on a large-scale sculpture of a reclining woman called “hon-en katedral” which invited viewers to enter the internal environment by entering between her legs. The piece elicited vast public reactions from across the globe.

Inspired by Antoni Gaudi’s Parc Guell in Barcelona, Phalle began work on The Tarot Garden in Tuscany in 1979. The garden, containing sculptures of the symbols found on Tarot cards, took nearly 20 years to complete. In 1988, Phalle collaborated with Tinguely to design the world-famous “Stravinsky Fountain” in Paris. This whimsical work includes sixteen works of sculpture and moving and spraying water, representing the works of composer Igor Stravinsky.

In 2000, the Japan Art Society presented Phalle with the Praemium Imperiale award for sculpture. The same year, Phalle donated 300 pieces of her art to the Sprengel Museum in Germany. The next year she made another donation of 170 pieces to the MAMAC museum in Nice, France.

Phalle died in 2002 after suffering from emphysema, an unfortunate consequence of inhaling toxic polyester fumes for years while working on her projects. Her success continues posthumously.

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