Niki de Saint Phalle spent much of her early life trying to escape the conventions of her moneyed upbringing and find a way to express herself as an artist. Born in 1930 in France and raised in New York City’s wealthy Upper East Side, she suffered from mental illness as a young woman and after having previously had her artistic pursuits condemned by her family, was later encouraged to pursue painting as part of her therapy.
De Saint Phalle’s early influences included the work of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí – whose Park Güell in Barcelona she first visited in 1955 – and in the 1960s, she embraced the feminist spirit of that decade and became increasingly interested in archetypal depictions of the feminine, as well as the overall social position of women. It was at this time that De Saint Phalle started to create artistic representations of women that she called ‘nanas’ after a French slang word that, roughly translated, means ‘broads’. These charming, curvaceous, fertility goddess-type figures became one of the artistic endeavours that the sculptor is now best known for.
Between 1978 and 1998, De Saint Phalle embarked on the single most ambitious creative adventure of her life: in Capalbio, Tuscany, on a piece of land she (eventually) bought for the purpose, she created a large park with 22 sculptures representing the major arcana of tarot divination, through which she sought to interpret and understand the meaning of existence.
The influence of Gaudí’s trencadís (broken ceramic and glass mosaics) on these large, graceful sculptural forms is very clear. Inspiration also came from the raw, instinctual artwork of Ferdinand Cheval (creator of the Palais Idéal in France) and it had long been one of De Saint Phalle’s ambitions to create a large-scale public work that was also a thematic garden. Of course, the nanas play a prominent role too.
Originally conceived as a mythological park, the Tarot Garden eventually became an esoteric and philosophical statement, and is an exemplary work of public art. In the eyes of De Saint Phalle, one of her creations’ raisons d’être is to bring joy, humour and colour to people’s existence, which this garden most certainly does.
To finance the construction of the garden, De Saint Phalle decided to be her own patron and created a perfume, whose profits covered a third of the project’s costs. The Agnelli family (the Italian owners of Fiat) were among her benefactors at this time, and De Saint Phalle also enlisted the help of dozens of local people to assist her with everything from creating the mammoth sculptures to covering them with mosaics that incorporate a multitude of different tiles and finishes.
For followers of tarot, it is not just a card game, but an esoteric and symbolic lesson that allows you to rediscover the primitive revelation of divinity. Similarly, De Saint Phalle’s garden is intended to take its visitors on a mystical journey, with its various stages and sculptures marking the salient points of an inner transformation. The artist felt it was important that adults and children should interact with her work, and she loved to see small children climbing onto the sculptures, whose rounded edges allow them to play safely.
In the end, the Tarot Garden retraces De Saint Phalle’s long psychic evolution as an artist. Having driven out the demons she encountered during her childhood and early adulthood, this garden – featuring multiple versions of her nanas – was where she found inner peace. ‘My garden is a metaphysical place, a place of meditation, away from crowds and the passage of time,’ she said.
The official opening of the Tarot Garden took place on 15 May 1998. Today it is open during the year from 1 April to 15 October and, following the instructions given by the artist before she died in 2002, admits visitors only for a few hours each day to preserve its precious beauty.