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Saint Phalle's steeliness shines through the sugar coating.

EXHIBITION / Niki de Saint Phalle: Tarot Garden

Until 17 January 2010,

Fondazione Roma Museo,

Rome, Italy

Around 1955, French artist Niki de Saint Phalle had an epiphany moment. It came at Barcelona's Pare Guell, where she encountered the work of Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi. 'I met my master and my destiny,' she said later. Gaudi inspired her most fully resolved and expressive enterprise, the Tarot Garden at Garavicchio in southern Tuscany, a landscaped park studded with giant sculptures and structures based on the tarot's 22 major arcana. Forms are gloopily organic and coloured ceramics applied with audacious abandon.

The tarot is historically linked to Italy--some of the earliest tarot cards originated there in the 15th century--and Saint Phalle's bravura modern interpretation was almost a life's work. Begun in 1979, the Tarot Garden took her 17 years to complete and forms the focus of this major monographic exhibition at the Fondazione Roma Museo. Perhaps surprisingly, given the Tuscan connection, it is Saint Phalle's first ever show in Italy.

From the mid '50s, when she took up painting after an early diversion as a glacial Vogue model, to her death in 2002, the arc of Saint Phalle's career spans a particularly charged period in modern art. Early days were spent hanging out with the new realists (the show opens with a photo of a youthful Niki in Paris quaffing with Jasper Johns), but she eventually became a high priestess of her own distinctive cult, embracing sculpture, painting and filmmaking.


Saint Phalle's universe of signs, forms, colours and structures has affinities with the bestiaries of Hindu temples, invaded by wild animals and human beauties. The most familiar are the blob-like Nanas, optimistically emblematic of the feminine principal. Over the years they became her signature, yet their apparent cartoon whimsy is also underscored by a deeper resonance at a time when women artists were struggling to challenge male-dominated elites. And this is the key to Saint Phalle; the sweetness and fantasy comes spiked with something more subversive.

From the earliest days, her work had an edge, manifest in grungy, frantic assemblages of objets trouves and the famous shooting paintings, made by firing a rifle at plaster bas-reliefs decked with bladders of paint. She concocts dark, disturbing fairytales, heightened by willfully crude or random techniques yoked to skewed sexual and religious imagery. On a gold painted crucifixion relief, for instance, Golgotha turns out to be composed of dolls' heads, while Marilyn Monroe, the sex symbol of the age, is abstracted into a terrifying grotesque reminiscent of a tribal fetish object.

The viscerality of these early pieces is not sustained in the later works, which instead, rely on monumental scale and zinging polychromy for effect.

And as the originals are in the public realm, in parks and piazzas, from Paris to Jerusalem, their impact here is diluted in the need to downsize for the exhibition. Contemplating maquettes for the Tarot Garden is no substitute for actually going there, though there are extensive films documenting its construction and other key moments in Saint Phalle's career, including the shooting paintings and other madcap cavortings. The pervading impression is of an artistic and personal life intensively lived (she was married to Swiss kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely), of trails blazed and taboos overturned and of a surprising steeliness under the sugar coating.

+ A provocative and revealing insight

- No substitute for seeing the work in situ
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Title Annotation:MARGINALIA
Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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