Rediscovering Niki de Saint Phalle

One decade ago, we were in Switzerland to scatter the grandparents ashes, smuggled across the ocean in shoe boxes.  I bought a souvenir at the Tinguely Museum, a book with all handwritten text and a photograph on the cover of a shining mosaic rising out of the trees, a sphinx-like black empress with giant breasts and sparkling blue hair.  The Tarot Garden by Niki de Saint Phalle.

What an amazing hat she wears!  

I remember looking at this book stunned not just by the boldness and the whimsy, but the sheer volume. How could one woman possibly do so much?

Now I understand it differently.  

Niki de Saint Phalle married young, became a bourgeois mother, and suffered a nervous breakdown, realizing she had become what she had always detested.  

Grandma Ga married young, became a bourgeois mother, and ran off to Switzerland to have an affair, her love for Max so overpowering, that after they were married, she carried a small vial of acid in her purse to throw in the face of any rivals.* 

Niki de Saint Phalle took up painting, drawing, mosaics.  

Ga took up making a myth of her torrid love affair with Max.

*Upon reviewing an incomplete essay "Harriet and Max", I now see that it was not Max but rather her first husband John who had inspired such jealousies.  And so it goes with myths, evolving with every telling.


Niki de Saint Phalle writing in The Tarot Garden:

Early on I chose Tonino Urtis to be the head of the crew, even though he had no experience; he had been an electrician before. I have always used my instinct in my choices, not my brain, and very often these choices proved right. I then asked Ricardo Menon, my personal assistant, collaborator and great friend who had come with me from Paris, to find me a ceramist. A few days later Ricardo presented me with Venera Finocchiaro. Venera would become the ceramist of the garden. It was total immersion. She lived at the garden and responded to my asking her to do new things in ceramics that had not been done before. The magnificent work she produced speaks for itself. She has several assistants, the main ones being Paola, Patrizia and Gemma. Sometimes the whole crew would be up at the ovens working too. After Venera left, the crew continued with the ceramics.

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