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Niki de Saint-Phalle, woman and artist

January 21, 2015

1930: Born Catherine Marie-Agnes Fal de Saint Phalle at Neuilly-sur-Seine, from a wealthy family.

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1932: Her father is bankrupted after the stock market crash in 1929. Niki is sent with her elder brother to live with their grandparents in the Nievre.

1933: The family is then reunited in Greenwich, Connecticut. The family lives in the United States but often comes back to the South of France in the maternal grandfather’s castle designed by Le Notre. She started to be influenced by two different ways of living.

1937: The family moves to New York City, where Catherine Marie-Agnes, called Niki goes to the Convent of the Sacred Heart. She falls into comic book reading and pays weekly visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

She hated conformity and authority and had to go to several different schools because she never adapted to any of them.

It is only when she finally settled down in Brearly School, that she found interest in reading other literary genres such as Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky whom she admired. She then started to write her own stories, poems and plays. She had so much passion and inspiration that it got her expelled from Brearly after she painted on the Dean statuary. She graduated in 1947, from a private girl boarding school in Maryland called Old Field.

1948: She went back to New York and worked as a fashion model for the biggest fashion magazines names such as Vogue, Life, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle. She both worked in the United States and in France.

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1949: At the age of eighteen she runs away several times with Harry Mathews and finally settles in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She starts painting, exploring her inspiration, experimenting styles while her husband studies music at Harvard. She has a first child named Laura in 1951.

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1952: The couple moves back to Paris where she studies acting and where he continues his music studies. They cherish their daughter a lot and want to give her a real opening onto the world by travelling a lot through Europe mostly in Italy, Spain … always visiting artistic places such as museums and cathedrals. She is very much impressed by the elegance and the delicacy of the art and the power of faith found in cathedrals. They are a big inspiration for her future art.

1953: She is diagnosed with a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized in Nice where she paints the crisis in her mind. It is after she hits rock bottom that she realizes the importance art has on her life and starts to paint all the time, seeing it as the only way to communicate and understand the world.

1954: She slowly goes back to a social life in Paris where she meets Hugh Weiss, who becomes her mentor amazed by her self-taught style. She moves to Spain where she has a son Philip in 1955. Spain opens her to various new styles especially after she meets with Antonio Gaudi. She starts using different materials and adds sculpture and architecture to the strings of her bow.

1956: She goes back to France and lives in the Alps. She first exhibits in Switzerland and along her journey meets with various contemporary artists such as Kenneth Koch.

1959: She splits up with her husband and her children live with her ex-husband. She sets up her own studio in the impasse Rosin in Paris and drowns in her art. She collaborates with Jean Tangibly, her long-time friend and inspiration. She becomes, through her bicultural background, the link between American and French art and the ambassador of avant-gardism.

1961: She starts her series of paintings including shootings. The target of her “tirs” (shoots) are the painting, and she makes art from the shot of a rifle, cannon or pistol creating explosions of colors. She then exhibits all around the world mostly in the United States to which she is still very attached. She is introduced to Salvador Dali through her entrance in the Nouveau-Realisme mouvement and is invited to attend  one of the celebrations of Dali’s art.

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1963: She creates “King Kong” one of her most famous piece and is inspired by horror movies; starts creating monsters and dragons.

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1965: She starts thinking about the position of women in society after the pregnancy of her dearest friend Clarisse. She creates the “everywoman” named “Nanas”. One of her versions of a “Nana” is called “Hon” and is a giant, being the entrance of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The visitors enter the exhibition between her legs. She and her art start to be very discussed and related in worldwide paper.

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1967: She is exposed to toxic fumes produced by polyester she manipulates for a new exhibition “Le Paradis Fantastique”. This really spot her lungs but it is all the materials that she has been using all along which really disintegrates her vital parts.

1969: She first establishes her permanent architectural project in her south of France mansion. It is in her garden that she exposes her art from previous exhibitions and where she keeps in and out various objects in three buildings.

1971: She marries Jean Tinguely on July 13th. She writes and produces the movie Daddy in which she plays the lead role. It is a psychological and surreal exploration of father-daughter relationships as the daughter is a child, then a teen and finally an adult.

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1974: She builds three large scale “Nanas” in Hannover, Germany. They are named Sophie, Charlotte and Caroline representing three feminist figures of Hannover. She is hospitalized with serious lung issues and goes to live in the Swiss mountains for her health.

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1978: Lives for a while in Malibu, California and has her first solo show in Japan at Gallery Watari, Tokyo.

1980: First show is organized in an experimental space, called SPACE NIKI, in Tokyo. It is a huge collection of her work in medias, films and artistic pieces.

1982: She creates a fragrance entitled “Niki” first sold in the American market. She uses the money she makes from the fragrance to finance her garden in France where she gathers the biggest pieces of her collection.

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1989: She collaborates with her son Philip Mathews on an animated film based on her AIDS book. This film, drawings for the film, and a revised edition of the AIDS book, are published by The Agence Francaise de lutte contre le sida.

1991: Her husband Jean Tinguely dies.

1994: She settles down in California where she works and lives.

1996: She decides to open the Garden to the public.

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2002: She dies in San Diego, because of her chronic breathing deficiency.

I chose to write this article about Niki, because after I went to her exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, I felt so inspired and free. The colors and the forms she uses to create her art are big, shiny and colorful and make you want to be happy. Despite the problems she had, both family and medical ones, she managed to create something special of her art, an art that conveys the values she believed in like feminism. Even though her French exhibition is over for now, I would love to go back or even to visit her garden in the South of France. Maybe one day…

Léa S.

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