Tarot Artist Niki de Saint Phalle
French-American Artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) is having a retrospective this month at the Nohra Haime Gallery in New York City. So, this seems like a good time to talk about her iconic Tarot Garden, an installation of twenty-two monumental sculptures depicting the major arcana.
In 1955, two defining events caused Niki to abandon her life as a conventional Parisian wife: she visited Antonio Gaudi’s garden in Barcelona, and she met the artist Jean Tinguely who was to become her husband and life-long artistic collaborator. She transformed herself into an artist driven by a yearning to create a garden filled with sculptures large enough to live in. Niki also had a life-long fascination with Tarot, which she believed embodied ancient Egyptian wisdom.
In 1978, these two strands of her creative life came together when an aristocrat family donated land in Tuscany for Il Giardino dei Tarocchi (The Tarot Garden). Soon after, Niki had the opportunity to create a signature perfume whose sales helped financed the garden. For seventeen years, she collaborated with an international team of artists, as well as local craftsmen, to create monumental tarot sculptures constructed of iron skeletons covered in wire mesh and concrete embedded with glass mirrors and mosaic tiles. Most of the sculptures double as dwellings or habitats which you can climb into for a view of the countryside.
Niki felt she was being guided in her work, and that fate often turned creative disasters into something better than she could have planned herself. She envisioned the Emperor as a castle and tower depicting the essence of tradition and authority. When something went terribly wrong with the construction, Tinguely came to the rescue, opening the top of the tower and inserting one of his metal sculptures. When he was done, the installation had been transformed into Trump 16, the Falling Tower.
While focusing intensely on the tarot sculptures, Niki had experiences shared by many tarot artists and authors – she felt the tarot archetypes working through her life in a very tangible manner. In an interview with Prince Michael of Greece she said, “not only am I making the tarot cards, I am also living them, playing with forces that must be respected…Ever since I started work here I’ve been living outside of time.”
In 1985, Niki created a limited edition book, Tarot Cards in Sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle illustrated with her tarot art, photos of the garden under construction, and her hand-lettered comments. In 2002, she issued a serigraphic major arcana deck in fifteen colors based on her drawings of the Tarot Garden sculptures. Serigraph is a labor-intensive silk screen process that’s ideal for reproducing the large areas of intense color characteristic of Niki’s style. When you run your hands over the cards, you can feel ridges where thick patches of ink butt up against each other.
Niki lived inside the Empress sculpture until the garden was nearly completed. She moved to La Jolla, California in 1994 to be near her children; and the garden opened to the public in 1998. San Diego has the largest collection of Niki’s art in the U.S. including two large outdoor installations, The Sun God at the U.C. San Diego campus, and Queen Califia’s Magic Circle in a botanic garden in Escondido.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s art and life were an outpouring of joy, vitality, intense color and fearless self-expression. Tarot was essential to her artistic vision.