If you have wandered around the Centre Pompidou in Paris, you have most likely stumbled upon the work of two very special artists: Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely, also know as the Bonnie & Clyde of Art because they were a fascinating couple and they liked to use shotguns and explosives in their shocking pieces and installations.
Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely in 1961.
So to one side of the Pompidou there is big fountain with a group of sculptures. It’s called La Fontaine Stravinsky and it is one of their last joint works of art and also one of their most famous, probably due to its fantastic location. This fountain is the perfect symbol of their personalities and styles, so different and yet so complementary. On one hand we have Jean’s masculine, sharp, metallic and mobile sculptures. On the other, the colorful, feminine and voluptuous pieces of Niki. At first sight they don’t seem to match at all but, on closer look, you discover how they empower and highlight each other. That perfect contradiction also happens when you examine the couple.
La Fontaine Stravinsly (1983), Paris.
Niki was a French-American girl (born in 1930 in the south of France but educated in the United States) that worked as model for Vogue and Harper’s Baazar, got married at 18 and became a mother at 21 before even considering the possibility of entering the world of Art. It was actually thanks to her first husband, Harry Matthews, a musician that liked to hang out with plastic artists, that she got in touch with the world of creation, moving together to Paris in 1952. But as much compromised with Art as she became the following years, she never neglected her aesthetical appeal, that she learned during her modelling years. She always had a very personal and styled look, often wearing custom-made Christian Dior dresses and cultivating a sophisticated look that in the 60’s and 70’s collided with the uprising feminist trend, that was prone to judge that taking care of the outside was sexist, conservatory and, worst of all, shallow. Niki never minded that and, as much as “hands-on” as she was, and as much dirty as she got while doing her Nanas (to the point of dying due to a respiratory illness produced by the toxic fumes of the polyester paints she used), she always ended looking more a like a flamboyant movie star than an careless artist.
Blanc Jaune et Noir (1956) and Trois points blancs (1955), by Jean Tinguely.
Swiss born Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) was a well-known kinetic artist that had left Basel for Paris in 1953. Trained as a decorator, a work he did for several years, it was painting and sculpture that won him in the end. His style was quickly recognizable and appreciated: rough mobile pieces that looked like strange machines, a style that had it roots in Marcel Duchamp and that even got a proper name: metamechanics. He was then married to another painter, Eva Aeppli, and also had a daughter. The atelier they shared in Paris was a meetig point for all the artist of the city, from Brancusi to Yves Klein, but in 1955 they received a visit that changed his life: a North-american called Harry Matthews and her young wife, Niki de Saint-Phalle, a self-taught incipient painter, already fascinated by Antonio Gaudí (her main influence), whose work she had got to know through several trips to Spain.
Jean and Niki modelling a Nana at their Paris house in 1966.
But it wasn’t until five years later, in 1960, when they had both divorced their first partners (in friendly terms) that they started their tumultuous and prolific relationship rooted in Paris. They both took part in the exhibition called The Movement at the Moderna Museet of Stockholm, and fell in love in the process. Jean proved to be final push that Niki needed to become an artist on her own terms. They both maintained separately successful careers, but their collaborations were constant and celebrated. The mix resulting from crossing their personalities had allure and strenght. Masculine vs. feminine. Sharp vs. round. Besides, they also helped and influenced each other in most of their individual pieces, so its difficult to draw a separating line in their bodies of work.
One example is the Study for an end of the world, an habitual concept in Tinguely’s work (he did two studies between 1961 and 1962), which consisted of a representation of chaos and destruction by the explosion of a series of sculptures with dynamite and fireworks. The audience of this art action witnessed a series of figures violently exploding and jumping in the air, that ended with a French flag descending from the sky to the ground with a parachute.
Niki got famous when she began her shooting paintings, a new type of piece, half painting and half performance, because they only happened when she shot (with a proper shotgun) plaster-covered collages she had previously designed with attached bags filled with painting that exploded in dripping colours. But it was her Nanas that became her trademark: big sculptures in the shape of curvy women painted in bright colours.
Niki at one her shooting paintings, Malibu (1962).
They also were part of the gang of agitators of the 60’s New York, formed by John Cage, Merce Cunningham, David Tudor, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella amongst others, and they took part on several happenings and performances that were seminal for both Contemporary Music and Art.
Diagram of Hon, their inhabitable sculpture project in Stockholm (1966).
In 1966, again in the Moderna Museet of Stockholm and again curated by Pontus Hulten (a fundamental figure in their careers) they created of their most interesting and influential projects: Hon, a giant size Nana that hosted several spaces (from bars to a cinema) for people to walk through and whose access was in her sex, like a huge fertility goddess. It was revolutionary, controversial, new and funny (and if you take a look to Atelier Van Lieshout’s currents projects you will find more than a common point). It lasted three months, and was destroyed after.
Public entering Hon (through her sex), Moderna Museet Stockholm (1966).
During the following years and decades, they never stopped creating, from little sculptures to huge installation, paintings, even films. In 1979, they started their bigger and most ambitious project, and Niki’s dream of a lifetime: the Tarot Garden. A tale-like park inhabited by her fantastic creations, no longer in sculpture size but reaching architectonic scale, all together creating an epic piece of land-art. Niki had been fascinated by Gaudí’s Güell Park since visiting Barcelona in the 50’s and from that moment on, she never stopped dreaming of building a space of her own. Jean always encouraged her to do it. It was a huge project that took many years to be finished. In fact, Jean Tinguely never saw it completed (he died in 1991), and it only stopped when also Niki died, in 2002. She wrote about it: “When I met Jean for the first time, I was a 25 year old girl with my pockets full of drawings. I dreamt of building a crazy castle, like a chapel for all religions. But when I told him, he didn’t laugh. He took it seriously. I said my dreams were bigger than my abilities, and he answered me with a sentence that changed my life: ‘Niki, the dream is everything. The technique is something you can learn’. With his brilliant help I realized my obsession of building something of monumental proportions“. So they found a lost location, in the middle of the Tuscan landscape, in Italy, and started constructing Niki’s masterpiece with Jean’s distinctive touch. A public space for people to experience and enjoy the fantastic, imaginative universe these two persons created for themselves and for all of us.
Part of the Tarot Garden, Tuscany (Italy, 1979-2002).