Visiting Spain, Niki de Saint Phalle discovers the work of Antoni Gaudí and is deeply affected — especially by Park Güell in Barcelona, which plants the seed for her eventual decision to create her own sculpture garden, and inspires her to use diverse materials and found objects as essential elements in her art. Test Link
Niki takes Jean Tinguely to see Le Palais Idéal of the Facteur Cheval, a mailman who built the palace of his childhood imagination at Hauterives in the Drôme region of central France. Tinguely will later introduce the Nouveaux Réalistes to Cheval’s creation.
Niki and Jean Tinguely travel to California and visit Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in south Los Angeles.
Niki collaborates on Hon for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The piece garners worldwide attention and intensifies her desire to build her own sculpture garden. While in Stockholm, Niki and Jean Tinguely meet and work with the young Swiss artist Rico Weber, who remains their assistant and colleague for many years and will play an important role in creating the Tarot Garden.
Niki begins an association with art fabricator and polyester manufacturer Haligon, with whom she will work henceforth to produce her large-scale sculptures and work in editions.
In June 1974, Niki creates a model for L’assiette fontaine (aka Nana fontaine), which will be enlarged in 1990 and installed in the Tarot Garden in March 1993.
Niki, after being hospitalized with a lung abcess caused by years of working with polyester, travels to St. Moritz in the Swiss mountains to recuperate. There she reconnects with Marella Caracciolo Agnelli, an old friend from the 1950s in New York. Niki shares her dream of building a sculpture garden based on symbols from the Tarot. Marella’s brothers, Carlo and Nicola Caracciolo, will later propose a parcel of their land in Garavicchio in Tuscany, Italy, as a site where her dream can be realized. The Tarot Garden project will consume Niki’s thoughts and energies for nearly twenty years.
Niki returns to the Swiss mountains for an extended period, planning her sculpture park and developing the imagery that will embody and express the mystic meanings, energies, and associations of the tarot.
In 1977, Ricardo Menon becomes her assistant. He will continue to work with her for the next ten years.
Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval, 31 December 1961 (Larry Rivers, Clarice Rivers, John Ashbery, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Larcade) Photo: © Unknown Niki de Saint Phalle at Park Guëll, Barcelona, 1955. Photo: © Unknown
Niki begins laying out her “Giardino dei Tarocchi” on the estates of Carlo and Nicola Caracciolo at Garavicchio, in Tuscany, Italy. She makes initial models, based on the Major Arcana of the tarot deck, that prefigure the monumental sculptures she will create in her Tarot Garden.
Niki meets Pierre Marie Lejeune in Paris, in the studio where she has her prints and sculptures made, and engages him to help her paint her sculptures for the Stravinsky Fountain.
Niki de Saint Phalle spends most of her time in Tuscany. Land is cleared and foundations dug at the site. Niki will spend the major part of the next ten years on site, receiving assistance from many friends and supporters during that time.
Ugo Celletti, a postman, begins working at the Tarot Garden in 1979. Niki will write that he “began by making stone paths, and then graduated to putting the wire mesh on the steel sculptures to receive the cement. Later, Ugo would ask me to try his hand at putting the mirrors on the sculptures. He has become a poet of putting on mirrors.” Over time, many local residents will work on the Garden; while those named here have had the most lasting effect, there will be many others.
Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer of New York hold an exhibition of the models and photographs for Niki’s architectural projects, which then tours the United States.
In April 1980, Niki begins work on the first architectural sculptures for her Tarot Garden, The High Priestess and The Magician. Construction begins with The High Priestess (La Papesse), representing female creativity and strength. Between 1980 and 1982, Jean Tinguely and his Swiss team, Rico Weber and Seppi Imhof, begin welding the iron understructures for this first group of sculptures, which also includes The Empress (The Sphinx).
Pierre Marie Lejeune comes to the Tarot Garden for the first time. Niki has the idea of covering her works with ceramics and mirrors; Pierre Marie will work with her over the years to find new materials and techniques, traveling in Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and the United States, and has materials specially manufactured to her specifications. He devises a process for covering her sculptures with mosaic, and engages his then-wife Isabelle Dunoyer de Segonzac to direct a workshop to that end. Niki will also give him carte blanche to create benches, furniture, and other elements of the Tarot Garden.
Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely at the site of the future Tarot Garden, circa 1979. Photo: © Laurent Condominas Welding of the iron armature. Photo: Rico Weber / © Etat de Fribourg Suisse / Musée d’art et d’histoire Fribourg Suisse
Niki rents a cottage in the vicinity of the Tarot Garden and hires assistants from the surrounding farms to help her with the enormous undertaking. Over the years, their efforts will be important to the project’s success. Work on the Tarot Garden progresses.
Dutch artist Dok van Winsen meets Niki in Amsterdam, and subsequently collaborates with Jean Tinguely (as does Niki) on the Cyclops. Dok makes his first visit to the site at Garavicchio at the end of 1981.
Dok van Winsen joins the team, taking on Jean Tinguely’s role working on the steel construction of the sculptures. “The enlargement of my models was made perfectly with a medieval eye, by Jean Tinguely and Dok van Winsen,” Niki will write. “All of the monumental sculptures’ armatures were made from welded steel bars, formed by brute strength on the knees of the crew.”
Tonino Urtis joins the team to assist Dok van Winsen in welding the iron bars to the first works started by Jean and his Swiss team: The High Priestess, The Magician, The Empress, as well as The Sun and The Tree of Life. These structures are built almost simultaneously due to Niki’s penchant for working on multiple projects at the same time. By the end of the year they are in position to begin applying cement.
At the invitation of the Jaqueline Cochran Company, Niki creates a perfume bearing her name and uses the proceeds to help finance the Tarot Garden. She designs a distinctive sculptural vial and packaging in blue and gold with a logo of entwined serpents for the new fragrance, and sets out on a tour across the United States to promote it.
Niki de Saint Phalle suffers her first attack of rheumatoid arthritis, which will plague her for the rest of her life.
Iron armature of The Empress, Magician, and High Priestess. Photo: © Giulio Pietromarchi Welding the iron armatures of The Empress. Photo: Rico Weber / © Etat de Fribourg Suisse / Musée d’art et d’histoire Fribourg Suisse Crew members with crane preparing to lift Sun God. Photo: © Unknown
Niki moves into the huge sculpture The Empress, designed in the form of a sphinx, which will serve as her studio and home for the next seven years during a period of intense work to complete the Garden. Niki has decided to use ceramics in addition to mirrors and glass for the sculptures. Her friend and assistant Ricardo Menon discovers Venera Finocchiaro, a ceramist teacher from Rome. “Venera would become the ceramist of the garden,” writes Niki. “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.”
In 1983, Dok van Winsen, assisted by Tonino Urtis, welds the second group of architectural sculptures: The Castle (The Emperor), The Tower, The Hierophant (The Pope), Justice (except for the arms of the scale, which will be built later by Urtis using stainless steel bars), and the chapel, where The Hanged Man was initially to be installed. When Jean Tinguely undergoes heart surgery, however, Niki promises herself that if the surgery is successful, she will have a small chapel dedicated to him. Thus The Hanged Man is placed in The Tree of Life instead. The Hierophant (“Jean’s favorite sculpture of all the garden,” writes Niki) is started by Dok van Winsen and finished by Tinguely.
After the welding is done, another, thinner layer of iron is applied to all the sculptures, followed by a double layer of casting mesh. Once the ironwork for the architectural sculptures has been completed, De Villa, a highly specialized firm from Ventimiglia, Italy, is called in for the concrete work. De Villa sprays the first works. When the cementing is done, the inside of The Empress is lagged with a coat of insulating material and a layer of mesh. Later on, the cement company is called back and, before applying the last layer of white cement, applies a coat of tar to protect The Empress from the rain outside.
La Force (Le Dragon) is made in the Garden with iron, cement and mosaic. Dok van Winsen begins work on the sculpture in 1983, returning to work on it periodically in response to Niki’s evolving ideas about the mosaic layout. La Force will be completed in 1989.
In 1983, Niki creates a model for The Moon (Card No. XVIII). In 1983-1984, Tonino Urtis makes the very first mosaic of The Magician’s hand. Gerard Haligon and Pierre Marie Lejeune paint The Sun during the summer of 1983; this will be Pierre Marie’s first task at the Garden. Between 1983 and 1995, Pierre Marie will come to the Tarot Garden four or five times a year, staying for a week or so each time; from 1995 to 2002, his visits will be less frequent.
Crew members preparing to spray cement, December 1982. Photo: © Unknown Iron aramature and cement of the interior of The Empress, 1983. Photo: © Giulio Pietromarchi The Empress with cement and layer of tar. Photo: © Dok van Winsen
Marco Iacotonio begins working at the Garden, finishing the cement by hand. From 1984 to 1987, Niki spends most of her time on site at the Tarot Garden, where many of the major works are nearing completion.
Pierre Marie Lejeune and Gerard Haligon mold the serpent at the base of The High Priestess and make the first ceramics for it, molding them directly on the cement with raw earth; the ceramics will be completed by Venera Finocchiaro.
Niki creates models for Temperance (Card No. XIV) and Death (Card No. XIII), both made in September, and The Choice (The Lovers) (Card No. VI). All three will be fabricated in polyester by Robert Haligon and his sons, Gerard and Olivier.
The cement work is completed for the remaining architectural sculptures (The Emperor, The Tower, The Hierophant, and Justice) with the help of Niki’s team, which has learned how to use the cement machinery, working long days. A small electric oven is purchased for ceramic work, and small tiles are made and glued to the mouth of The High Priestess. The eyes and the face of The Magician are made up with mirrors. The first ceramic firings are done by Dok van Winsen’s wife, Toni, then by Venera Finocchiaro, who joins Niki in making the ceramics that cover the garden today. Two new ovens are purchased. From this point on, all ceramics are made on-site.
The mirrors on the exterior of The Tower are begun in 1984-1985. Started in 1984 and completed in 1985 is the large High Priestess serpent, made with molded ceramics. The face of The Magician is completed during this same time.
Works based on Niki’s Tarot figures are exhibited at Gimpel Fils, London and at Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer, New York.
Jean Tinguely constructs a machine for The Tower of Babel: called Eos, it is a welded sculpture (300 x 400 cm) made of iron with an electric motor and symbolizes the wrath of God. Other machines created by Tinguely for the Tarot Garden will include the Fontaine de la Fortune (Fountain of Fate, a variation on the Wheel of Fortune), a welded sculptural fountain made of iron with an electric motor, set up in the water basin in front of The High Priestess in 1988; and L’injustice (Injustice), a welded sculpture made from iron, found objects, lamps, and electric motors, which will be installed inside Justice (Tarot VIII), locked up with a huge padlock. The sidewalk outside is inscribed: “Jean Tinguely a piégé l’Injustice à l’injustice à l’intérieur de la Justice et a fermé porte à clef.”
Full-size versions of Temperance (in February) and The Choice (The Lovers) (in March) are created based on the models created in 1984. They are fabricated in polyester by Robert Haligon and his sons. In April, a model is created for The Devil.
In 1985 and 1986, mirrors and mosaics are begun for The Empress (the blue mirror for her hair), The High Priestess, The Fountain (the external stairway), The Magician (his face and the steps), Justice (the black and white mosaic), the chapel (the interior mirrors), and The Hierophant (The Pope) (the first mosaics laid).
Crew member molding cermaics to the serpent of the High Priestess. Photo: © Dok van Winsen Crew memebers attach mosaic of mirrors on The Falling Tower. Photo: © Giulio Pietromarchi Jean Tinguely welds La Roue de Fortune. Photo: © Unknown
Niki de Saint Phalle spends most of the year at the Tarot Garden, where more sculptures are installed. Ricardo Menon introduces Niki de Saint Phalle to Marcelo Zitelli, who becomes an important assistant and collaborator to Niki. The mirrors on the exterior of The Tower are completed in 1986-1987.
Claudio Celletti begins working at the Tarot Garden.
Over the period 1987-1993, as she begins to spend more time in Paris again, Niki will create many of the Tarot Garden’s smaller works there, including Death, The Hermit, The Fool, The Devil, The Chariot, The Hanged Man, The Oracle, The Sage, The World, The Star, La Conversation, and Le Pouf Serpent.
In March, Niki creates an enlarged (300 cm) version of The Moon (Card No. XVIII) based on the 1983 model. This version will later be judged too small and replaced by an even larger version (500 cm) executed in 1992-1993.
The Hierophant and Justice are completed in 1987-1988.
Niki asks Pierre Marie Lejeune to create the benches around the fountain at the foot of the Empress (the Sphinx). Pierre Marie proposes a small amphitheater with seating in the rocks, which is created with much help from other members of the team.
Galerie Bonnier in Geneva exhibits “Oeuvres récentes” by Niki de Saint Phalle, including limited editions of works based on sculptures in the Tarot Garden: polychrome sculptures and reliefs in polyester, ceramics and glass; signed and numbered silkscreens; and polychrome sculptured vases in polyester. Proceeds are used to help fund the Tarot Garden.
Models of Lune and The Choice (The Lovers) inside The Empress. Photo: © Unknown Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely with Le Monde at La Commanderie, France. Photo: © Laurent Condominas Crew members apply mosaic of mirrors on The Hierophant, November 1986. Photo: © Giulio Pietromarchi
Niki creates the full-size version of Death (Card No. XIII) in January 1988, based on the September 1984 model, with her assistant Marcelo Zitelli. The Hermit (Card No. IX) is created in clay in June 1988. Both are fabricated in polyester by Haligon.
All aspects of The Magician (Card No. I) and The High Priestess (Card No. II) are completed by 1988-89. Work focuses on The Empress (Card No. III) and, immediately therafter, on The Emperor (Card No. IV).
Finding it too oppressive to live inside “the womb of her mother” — i.e. the Empress (the Sphinx) — Niki has a New York loft-style studio built underground at the Tarot Garden. By 1988, she is already spending part of her time there, and she eventually moves into it altogether.
Alessia Celletti begins working at the Tarot Garden.
Ricardo Menon dies of AIDS. His death is devastating for Niki. She creates a sculpture of a cat in Ricardo’s memory, so that there will be a reminder of him in the Tarot Garden forever. Niki will lose many friends to AIDS during these years.
The experience of the Tarot Garden carries over in Niki’s use of materials, particularly brilliantly colored or mirrored mosaics, in other works. In January 1989, The World (Card No. XXI) is created, then fabricated in polyester by Robert Haligon and his sons; a mosaic version will be installed at the Tarot Garden. Niki creates an enlarged version of The Devil (Card No. XV) in February 1989 based on an April 1985 model, and creates The Fool (Card No. 0) and The Hanged Man (Card No. XII) in clay in Paris with her assistant, Marcelo Zitelli, in August and November 1989 respectively.
At Niki’s suggestion, Pierre Marie Lejeune creates a cement path, which he inscribes with hieroglyphs and other signs and symbols.
La Force (Le Dragon) is completed in 1989.
Niki de Saint Phalle and Venera Finocchiaro within her studio. Photo: © Laurent Condominas Niki de Saint Phalle painting Chat de Ricardo, 1989. Photo: © Laurent Condominas Niki de Saint Phalle inscribing cement path. Photo: © Laurent Condominas
In September 1990, an enlarged version of L’assiette fontaine is created based on a maquette from June 1974. The Hanged Man (Card No. XII) is installed in The Tree of Life at the Tarot Garden in November; The Devil (Card No. XV) is installed that same month.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Niki begins spending less and less time each year at the Garden. Nevertheless, progress on the Tarot Garden continues, with maintenance of the Garden and its sculptures becoming increasingly important. In 1992-1993, restoration of the sculptures begins, using new gluing techniques and employing acetic silicones for the mirrors and glass. Meanwhile, Niki works on legalizing the status of her garden.
In August 1991, Jean Tinguely passes away in Bern, Switzerland. Niki’s health deteriorates as she simultaneously works to create a Tinguely Museum in Basel; there, she becomes good friends with architect Mario Botta.
The Fool (Card No. 0) is installed at the Tarot Garden in November. The Fool, being a vagabond, has changed location a few times and will do so again…
A new and larger (500 cm) version of The Moon (Card No. XVIII) is created.
L’assiette fontaine (aka Nana fontaine) is installed at the Tarot Garden in March 1993. The Moon (Card No. XVIII) is installed in June.
In 1994, for health reasons, Niki moves to La Jolla, California, where she lives for the next eight years. She establishes a studio for working with mirrors, glass, and stones, which she is increasingly using in her sculptures instead of paint. Pierre Marie Lejeune makes several trips to California to look for materials and set up a mosaic workshop there.
Giampiero Ottavi begins working at the Tarot Garden as gardener. Pierre Marie Lejeune designs and executes furniture in iron and glass. In 1995-1996, almost all of the mosaics for the sculptures are complete.
Pallas Athéna and Thoëris outside of the studio, 1990. Photo: © Laurent Condominas Crew working on the floor of the The Emperor’s Castle. Photo: © Unknown Mario Botta and Niki de Saint Phalle in her La Jolla studio, 1994. Photo: © Julie Bubar
The Garden’s “anti-boutique” and furnishings, created by Pierre Marie Lejeune, are put into place by Pierre Marie and other members of the team. The Foundation of the Tarot Garden is constituted in Rome on August 4, 1997.
In 1997, Stefano Mancini begins working as the administrator of the Tarot Garden, taking over for Gigi Pecorano, who had been handling administrative matters. Architect Mario Botta builds a gateway at the entrance to the Tarot Garden. “I asked my friend Mario Botta to make the entrance of the garden in contrast to what was inside,” Niki writes, “Mario made a masculine fortress-like wall of local stones which marks clearly the separation of the world without and the world within. The wall symbolizes for me a protection like the dragon who protects the treasure in fairy tales.” The Tarot Garden (which has already been attracting visitors for some time) is officially opened to the public on May 15, 1998.
Around 2000, Tonino Urtis makes two trips to the United States to teach Niki’s new team in southern California the ceramic techniques needed for her final project, Queen Califia’s Magical Circle.
Fabio Mancini begins working at the Tarot Garden in 2002; Massimo Menchetti will arrive in 2004.
Even after moving to the United States, Niki has not abandoned the Tarot Garden. She plans a maze for the Garden, for which land is cleared and metal rods put into place. But on 21 May 2002, at the age of 71, Niki dies in La Jolla, California. Upon her death, in accordance with her wishes, all new development at the Tarot Garden comes to an end.
On July 8, 2002, the Region of Tuscany grants official juridical recognition to the Foundation.
Construction outside of the entrance designed by Mario Botta. Photo: © Unknown Overview of the Tarot Garden. Photo: © Laurent Condominas