This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.
Niki de Saint Phalle was never just a pretty face—although she did have some success as a model. Arguably she was a bit of a renaissance woman, dabbling in activism, architecture, film, and acting, and what she has become best known for: her sculptures. “Otherworldly” is perhaps the only way to describe her figures, which can be found as public art all over the world.
Then again, “otherworldly” is a pretty good way to describe the artist herself.
A self-taught painter, de Saint Phalle began making art in 1950. Though she briefly began studying acting in Paris, she discovered that the visual arts were her preferred form of self-expression after suffering a nervous breakdown and using painting to help herself heal. “My mental breakdown was good in the long run, because I left the clinic a painter,” she wrote in her memoirs. Ten years later, she would be fully embraced by the art world, even socializing with the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí.
Though the artist’s “Tirs” works (which were made by shooting plaster, paint cans, and objects with a rifle) garnered her quite a bit of attention, it’s her sculptures that continue to captivate art fans today.
De Saint Phalle’s most ambitious—and impressive—project was her “Tarot Garden,” a sprawling sculpture garden in Tuscany that took decades, and millions of dollars to complete. She was first inspired in 1955 after moving to Spain and discovering the work of Antoni Gaudí (and specifically, his Park Güell in Barcelona). Deciding to create her own figures based on tarot cards, and exploring the world of found objects and ceramics, de Saint Phalle set to work on her garden in 1979, even living in one of her massive figures during the construction. The garden was opened to the public in 1998, although de Saint Phalle was still working on pieces for her project up until her death in 2002. The dazzling figures, covered in reflective mosaics and colors, are staggering in their size, their numbers, and how utterly surreal and fantastical they are.
Despite the grandeur of the Tarot Garden, de Saint Phalle’s most beloved works are arguably her “Nana” sculptures. Based on the female form, the Nanas were voluptuous, intricately decorated, and depicting women full of life. The figures were incredibly popular. Even her friend Marc Bohan (who designed for the house of Dior from 1960 to 1989) owned a few.
The Nanas truly speak to Niki de Saint Phalle’s legacy as an artist. Not only did she create visually arresting work that captivated the worlds of art and fashion alike (as evidenced by the Dior collection she inspired for Spring 2018), she also crafted sculptures firmly rooted in the female experience. Whether it be joy, rage, or simply a yearning to break free from the rigid rules that society places on women, de Saint Phalle captured the nuance and the clashing emotions of humanity.
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