Niki de Saint Phalle was a French-American artist/sculptor, born near Paris in 1930, and died in San Diego, California in 2002. She was a pioneer and celebrated the world over in feminist and monumental art. During the later years of her life she lived in San Diego, where there are many sculptural masterpieces that can be found throughout the area. If you aren’t already familiar with her work, please allow us to introduce you to Niki by way of this digital “tour” of her incredible legacy—culminating in her magical “Tarot Garden” in Tuscany, Italy. Shall we begin? Please follow us!
Mingei International Museum—San Diego
Balboa Park is legendary in San Diego.
It’s composed of 1200 beautiful rolling acres of urban green space. Several museums, gardens, theaters, and an outdoor amphitheater. Located on El Prado, in the heart of the park is the Mingei International Museum. Outside the entrance is Niki’s “Nikigator—a large lizard-like form made of colorful mosaics and mirrored pieces, inviting children to climb and explore the art from every possible angle. The materials, style and spirit of the sculpture is classic Niki, as we will see throughout this tour. Sit back, spark your imagination and enjoy!
Poet and Muse—San Diego
The second sculpture just outside the Mingei museum is called “Poet and Muse,” completed in 1998. This is a two figure piece, featuring a female angel or muse perched atop a male figure. The angel is a favorite motif that Niki uses again and again in her works to represent “feminine energy,” or unbounded creativity. The male form is a bit more buttoned-up in a suit, orange shirt and finished with a red tie.
We wonder if Niki was inspired by Rodin‘s Poet and Muse sculpture by the same name. Perhaps. Rodin also used the female figure as a muse, hovering over a male poet. But, Rodin‘s sculpture created around 1900 is a monochromatic, realisitic, serious carved marble statue, while Niki’s is bright, whimsical, and colorful, with shimmering mosaics. She always enjoyed making her art controversial and certainly used techniques that were unique to her, that others seemingly dared not do. Perhaps Niki was a bit of an idealistic artist contrarian.
Museum of Contemporary Art—La Jolla
Thirteen miles up the coast is La Jolla Village, where more Niki sculpture lives. Although it’s technically located “in the museum,” it’s actually in the garden area behind the museum which makes it easily accessible, as well as free! The first thing you’ll notice about this piece is that there are no mosaics. Big Ganesh is smooth and painted to be compatible with the previous Niki style, but is made of fiberglass instead—a technique that Niki used for many of her later works.
Ganesh(a) is one of the best known gods in Hinduism and is the remover of obstacles. Ganesh is depicted as having a human form, but with the trunk of an elephant, Traditionally, riding on a lowly mouse. Here, the mouse has gained independence and is actually standing alongside Ganesh—a companion in equal standing—the much preferred Niki interpretation
Sun God—University of California San Diego
Perched atop a topiary hedge, Sun God watches over a peaceful grassy area on the UCSD campus. Installed in 1983, it was Niki’s first outdoor commission in the US. The fourteen-foot bird is made of painted fiberglass and is carefully hidden from view within the greenery.
The Sun God is a deity celebrated in many myths and religions. In Hindu, it’s a Bird God, while Helios (Sun God) was the Greek version. Perhaps Niki’s Sun God blends these two entities into one magnificent creature.
In July, 2016, Sun God received a “make-over.” Restorers removed the original paint down to its base layer. The paint had suffered cracking due to its proximity to the ocean. After removing the surface damage and sanding the base coat, the sculpture received fresh acrylic paint. Finally, clear coats were added to seal out the harsh elements. The next restoration will most likely not be needed for another 20 years. We hope!
Kit Carson Park—Escondido
About 17 miles northeast of Sun God, is the town of Escondido. The park there is a delightful place for a picnic or family outing. But, in addition to being a destination, the park has the distinction of being the site of Niki‘s amazing sculpture garden—Queen Califia’s Magical Circle. It’s the last major international project that Niki created, which was completed in 2003. Nine sculptures are encircled within a serpentine wall. All of the pieces are mosaic with ceramic and mirrored tiles.
Queen Califia stands on the back of a five-legged eagle in the center of the garden. The surrounding totems include representations and symbols from many cultures, including Native American, Mexican and Pre-Colombian. As is typical of her style, Niki embraced and interpreted these cultures through her vivid imagination. The result is both fantastical and whimsical, yet always highly provocative. The playfulness of her work can sometimes hide the seriousness of her underlying messages.
Queen Califia was a warrior-queen who ruled the mythical island of California. The fictional character was invented by Spanish writer Garci Rodrigues de Montalvo around 1500. Califia’s story is the reconciliation between Islam and Christianity, probably representing the struggles between the two religions which had collided in Spain. Califia is also thought to be the preferred depiction of California, symbolizing bounty and beauty with an untamed nature.
Coming together—back in downtown San Diego
This is one of our favorite pieces. It stands majestically in a small garden, adjacent to the Convention Center on beautiful Harbor Drive. Niki’s design depicts the human challenge of integrating the opposing forces within all of us—the wholeness that comes from acknowledging the yin and yang of our existence.
The sculpture speaks to our ephemeral and delicate nature with the lacy design—almost invisible and translucent at times. The striking task she highlights is to bring the two halves of our existence together, integrating the shadow, depicted in the black and white portion of the sculpture, with the incredible bright colors reflecting the light of our limitless possibilities. The colors and contrasts on a sunny California day are awesome, much like the beauty of human form.
You may want to visit our “Behind the Scenes” story about Niki and her “Coming Together” sculpture—We call our story “Neither Black Nor White. Just click on the title.
Waterfront Park—San Diego
Three whimsical Niki sculptures grace Waterfront Park: Serpent Tree, Cat and Baseball Player, forming a trio of playful pieces that are irresistible to children and adults alike. The sculptures are on loan from Niki’s charitable foundation, but hopefully will be able to stay long term, making Waterfront Park the perfect location as their permanent home. Swing by and take a look, and maybe even play for a while!
The Tarot Garden—Tuscany, Italy
Niki discovered the incredible work of architect Antoní Gaudí in Barcelona Spain and was inspired to create her own magical park in Italy. She found a large wooded property to develop in southern Tuscany where she would design and build her fantastic creations—each year a new sculptural form emerged, peeking out above the tree-tops. This ongoing project was truly the culmination of her life’s work as an artist/sculptor.
Allow us to take you there by way of the following short video. The house you will see that’s literally built inside an enormous woman—Black Nana, as she called her, was Niki’s home where she would live while working every summer on her forever growing garden paradise. The Nana series was a favorite that Niki sculpted again and again, representing feminine energy. She created black versions, as well as white.
The mechanical sculptures shown in the Taro Garden video were done by Niki’s husband Jean Tinguely, a famous Swiss sculptor. They completed many projects together over their lifetimes.
The beautiful opening photo of Niki with a stylized snake painted on her face was first seen in the French Quarter magazine in an article called “Niki de Saint Phalle, French-American Heroine.”
Niki’s work can also be found around the world in Paris, France; Nice, France; Kiryat Hayovel Jerusalem, Israel; Stockholm, Sweden and Zurich, Switzerland. You will also find a number of artists with similar works that were influenced by her style.