22/10/2010 - Capalbio

The Tarot Garden

Portrait of Niki de Saint Phalle

All is not as it seems in the Tarot Garden, located in Garavicchio in southern Tuscany.

Among the trees are weird and wonderful figures: a woman with a tiny head, huge body and wild blue hair; another bizarre form with two heads, one on top of the other. These distorted humanoids are Niki de Saint Phalle’s personal interpretation of tarot card figures.

Her project for 22 monumental sculptures took shape as of 1978. The park opened officially 20 years later, strongly influenced by Gaudi’s Parco Güell in Barcelona and the XVI century Parco dei Mostri  in Bomarzo created by Vicino Orsini.

Born into a rich French family, Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 – 2002) moved to the USA when she was a child after her father lost his business in the Wall Street crash of 1929. She attended various schools, and was expelled from prestigious Brearley School in New York City after painting the fig leaves on the school’s statues bright red.

Niki should either have psychiatric treatment or leave school
 Headmistress of  Brearly School, NYC

De Saint Phalle was barely 18 when she appeared as a model on the cover of Life magazine. That same year she eloped with the writer Harry Mathews and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. While her husband studied music at Harvard, de Saint Phalle began to paint, experimenting with different media and styles.

Together with their first child, the couple moved to Paris in 1952 where de Saint Phalle met the American painter Hugh Weiss who became her friend and mentor. He encouraged her to continue painting in her self-taught style. In 1956 she met the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, who later became her second husband and partner in building the Tarot Garden.

The sixties saw her as an important member of the avant-garde Nouveaux Réalistes group, working alongside  Yves Klein, Arman, César, Tinguely, Daniel Spoerri, Rauschenber and Pierre Restany.

The Tarot Garden, in the lush Tuscan countryside, is undoubtedly her greatest work. The land was donated by the wealthy Carracciolo family, in particular by Carlo and Nicola, brothers of her philanthropist friend with a huge passion for art Marella Agnelli. De Saint Phalle dedicated more than 17 years of her life to creating the giant figures or Nanas as she affectionately called them. Like her other sculptures around the world, the works are made with steel and concrete, and covered with brilliantly coloured glass, ceramics, mosaics and mirrors.

For a while she even lived inside the park, transforming the giant statue of the High Empress into a home: the bedroom occupied one breast, the kitchen another, the bathroom one foot. She shared her time in the park with her companion Tinguely, who also contributed several of his enormous mechanical installations.

The park is open from April to October.


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