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She would create an alternate reality—“a sort of joyland,” she once said, “where you could have a new kind of life that would just be free.”In the decades after her recovery, Saint Phalle became a star.
Downhill, the Devil stands amid some shrubs, a rainbow-winged hermaphrodite with a sweet face, womanly hips, and three gold penises.Her signature creation was the Nanas—big, bright female dancers with small heads and huge hips and breasts.In the later decades of her life, she devoted herself to public works, installing pieces in California, Germany, and Israel.Amid peaceful olive groves and ochre fields grazed by horses and sheep sits a house-size sculpture of a sphinx, with mirrored blue hair and a bright-red crown, a flower blooming on one of her breasts and a lavender heart on the nipple of the other.The interior is covered in shards of mirror, as if a colossal disco ball had been turned inside out.Outside the Centre Georges Pompidou, in Paris, her work is on permanent display in the giddy “Stravinsky Fountain”: a group of her sculptures—red lips, rainbow-colored birds, mermaids—facing off with the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely’s kinetic iron machines, all spewing water at one other.
But she considered the Tarot Garden, in Tuscany, to be her life’s work.
“I still remember how good the food was.” Her mother, Jacqueline Harper, had been born in America and brought up in France, in a château with gardens by Le Nôtre, who also designed the grounds of Versailles.
In New York, Jacqueline took her children to the Metropolitan Museum on Sundays, and to the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center in the winter.
“I’m following a course that was chosen for me, following a pressing need to show that a woman can work on a monumental scale,” she wrote, in one of the scores of letters preserved in her archive, in San Diego.
Before there was a women’s movement, before she was on the cover of or had love affairs with royalty, before she poured a glass of beer on Saul Steinberg’s head when they were out with Giacometti, even before she did the “very worst thing a woman can do” and abandoned her children to pursue an artist’s life, Niki de Saint Phalle was captivated by liberation.
I can’t remember the punishment, but it must have been awful.” Their mother had a vicious, unpredictable temper, and often beat Niki’s younger sister, Elizabeth, “with the prickly side of a hairbrush.” Saint Phalle recalled that her little brother, Richard, “still can’t eat fish because Mother sometimes would spend hours forcing him to finish everything on the plate.