The large, boisterously bright sculptures of voluptuous women dotted around public squares, museums, gardens, and train stations across the world are instantly recognisable as the work of French/American artist, Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002). Those who do not recognise them are taken with the sheer scale and quietly imposing qualities they possess. Not only an artist and sculptor, Saint Phalle is acknowledged as an important contributor and creator across various media.

Ranging from simple paintings to fully-illustrated books and films, her creative versatility is boldly evident in all her works. Perhaps the most astonishing qualities about Niki de Saint Phalle is that she had no artistic training and was entirely self-taught. She did, however, seek inspiration from various artists with Gaudi’s Parc Güell having tremendous influence over her artistic creations; specifically her Tarot Garden that she created on land donated by friends in Tuscany. Her whimsical and eccentric Tarot Garden is a culmination of over two decades of work.

Her vitality for life has been described as “spring water that never gets dry” [1], a remark that can also be attributed to her art. Although she suffered from ill health most of her adult life, her artistic focus never wavered and her determined uncompromising nature “provided a way to make something outside the narrow confines of the Modernist abstraction that was dominating the avant-garde [2].”

It caused quite a stir at its inauguration in Moderna Museet in Stockholm as spectators were invited to enter the large female sculpture through her vagina. This sculpture (23 metres long and weighing 6 tonnes) was the start of the Nana generation. The nanas are completely different from Saint Phalle’s earlier work, they are bold and daring, with a bountiful use of primary colours. Although her first Nana appeared in 1964, they were not in the spotlight until the unveiling of Hon/Elle.

The Nanas represent all the stereotypical stages of womanhood in an exaggerated manner; including being a bride, pregnancy, giving birth, and being a mother. “Saint Phalle took great interest in representations of women, creating liberated female images characterized by vivid colours and dynamic forms in the Nana series, which still appeals to a wide audience [3].”

“These pop goddesses with bulging curves were partly a metaphor for the cliché of women as mindless baby machines, but there was more to them – these curved creatures became iconic, powerful. They represented a powerful new matriarchal future [4]”. The appreciation and glorification of feminine attributes that her work represented demonstrated a freedom, an independence that coincided with this era of female empowerment. “I love the round, the curves, the undulation, the world is round, the world is a breast [5],” wrote Saint Phalle.
“I would like to insist that the rebirth and resurrection of Nana, who was called up from the distant past of millennia and given life by Niki, has put a period to the degrading history of women over the past two thousand years and brought about a glorious turning point [6].”

Saint Phalles’ Nana’s are often depicted in motion, either leaping or dancing. Their implied movement brings them to life, giving the impression of being mid-stroll or pirouette. Life is an important aspect in all her work, just as her earlier “shooting” paintings represented her desire for movement, for a glimmer of life, instead of paint being applied by paintbrush. Life is only be possible through women as the image of Mother Nature attests. Mother Nature’s feminine qualities are attributed to these nanas who represent fertility and the nurturing aspects of womanhood. They are certainly different from the stereotypical perception of a beautiful woman and migrate away from Saint Phalle’s own past as a model.

The bright colours of the Nanas also bring this aspect of movement and life to the forefront for her viewers. Displayed in many public locations across the world, these pieces become synonymous with a location and their history, a part of the citizen’s everyday life. Her passion for life, the living, movement, and her liveliness in art all infiltrate the locations of her artwork.

Saint Phalle’s art became a form of awareness of social issues as she fought against the traditional views imposed onto her during her upbringing and moved away from her personal struggles as a woman. Saint Phalle was not one to sit idly by; she provoked controversy and stood up for what she believed. She expressed and presented corporeality in her sculptures but also brought a voice to those who suffered. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, she penned a book called AIDS: You Can’t Catch it Holding Hands. Her activism resonated through her creativity; fighting for a specific cause overturned her desire to fight for generalised female empowerment. She was revolutionary in a way that the world had not yet encountered.

She inspired many throughout her life and one such individual was Yoko Shizue Masuda, founder of the Niki Museum in Nasu which opened its doors in 1994. Utterly taken with the artist’s charisma, confidence, and artistic reasoning, she worked tirelessly to promote de Saint Phalle’s work in her homeland of Japan and the two remained close friends for over 20 years. Although the Niki Museum closed its doors in 2011, her efforts to promote her work were not in vain as Niki de Saint Phalle will be honoured posthumously at the National Art Center in Toyko; a three month exhibition will run from 14 September until 14 December, 2015, giving viewers the opportunity to experience her representations of life and womanhood firsthand.

To reflect upon Niki de Saint Phalle’s particular style of Nana sculptures as well as other sculptures from a variety of artists, pick up a copy of Parkstone’s 1000 Sculptures of Genius or if you are passing through, visit the Tarot Gardens in the beautiful Italian countryside to fully immerse yourself in her artistic world.

Text By Elizabeth Thompson


[1] Yoko Shizue Masuda, Everlastingly Provocative Niki de Saint Phalle
[2] Francesca Gavin, Niki de Saint Phalle: Lock ‘n’ Load, 2008 March issue of Dazed
[3] The National Art Center Tokyo, *Niki de Saint Phalle: Outline
[4] Francesca Gavin, Niki de Saint Phalle: Lock ‘n’ Load, 2008 March issue of Dazed
[5] Francesca Gavin, Niki de Saint Phalle: Lock ‘n’ Load, 2008 March issue of Dazed
[6] Yoko Shizue Masuda, *Everlastingly Provocative Niki de Saint Phalle