The remarkable Tarot Garden in a park near Capalbio, Tuscany, is French sculptor, painter and filmmaker Niki de Saint Phalle’s crowning achievement as an artist. We explore the garden in the September issue of House and Leisure and, here, we discover her influencers.
park güell by antoni gaudí
One of Niki De Saint Phalle’s early inspirations included the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, whose famous Park Güell in Barcelona, Spain, she first visited in 1955. The influence of Gaudí’s trencadís (broken ceramic and glass mosaics) on her sculptural forms is very clear. In 1900, Eusebi Guell commissioned Gaudí to design and build a residential park for 60 single-family residences. However, the project was unsuccessful, and the park became city property in 1923.
Although incomplete, it’s now one of Gaudí’s most colourful and playful works, featuring ‘visual jokes’ such as columns modelled after palm-tree trunks and quilts of ceramic tiles. It’s not hard to find inspiration in this architectural jungle.
palais idéal by ferdinand cheval
Inspiration also came from the raw, instinctual artworks of Ferdinand Cheval, creator of the Palais Idéal in Hauterives, France. It had long been one of De Saint Phalle’s ambitions to create a large-scale public work that was also a thematic garden. Independent of any artistic trend or architectural boundaries, the Palais Idéal has influenced many artists for more than a century.
Apparently the sculpture came to Cheval, a postman at the time, in a dream, and took 33 years to complete. On his daily commute, he would collect stones that he then used to build the Palais Idéal by hand. Filled with poetry, sculptures and unique artistry, it’s a wonder to gaze upon – and is completely unclassifiable.
owl house by helen martins
Although not a direct inspiration to De Saint Phalle, the similarities between Helen Martins’ Owl House in Nieu Bethesda and the Tarot Garden are undeniable. Both women suffered mental illness and both found refuge in sculptures. At a glance, the Owl House looks like many other homes in the region, however, an arch that leads into the Camel Yard and the many cement owls staring out through glass-bottle eyes indicates otherwise.
No doubt eerie to behold, Martins’ work is a thing of artistic beauty. Driven to despair by the dullness of her daily life, she took steps to transform her world with light, colour and texture. And so the garden became a magical playground that drew upon the Bible, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and the Orient for inspiration. It has gone on to inspire many others, including local playwright Athol Fugard who, after seeing the sculpture garden, wrote his play, The Road to Mecca.