GAR­DEN Dis­cover a Tarot-in­spired sculp­tural park in Tus­cany by artist and film­maker Niki de Saint Phalie

The re­mark­able Tarot Gar­den in a park near Ca­pal­bio, Tus­cany, is French sculp­tor, painter and film­maker Niki de Saint Phalle’s crown­ing achieve­ment as an artist


Niki de Saint Phalle spent much of her early life try­ing to es­cape the con­ven­tions of her mon­eyed up­bring­ing and find a way to ex­press her­self as an artist. Born in 1930 in France and raised in New York City’s wealthy Up­per East Side, she suf­fered from men­tal ill­ness as a young woman and after hav­ing pre­vi­ously had her artis­tic pur­suits con­demned by her fam­ily, was later en­cour­aged to pur­sue paint­ing as part of her ther­apy.

De Saint Phalle’s early in­flu­ences in­cluded the work of Span­ish ar­chi­tect An­toni Gaudí – whose Park Güell in Barcelona she first vis­ited in 1955 – and in the 1960s, she em­braced the fem­i­nist spirit of that decade and be­came in­creas­ingly in­ter­ested in ar­che­typal de­pic­tions of the fem­i­nine, as well as the over­all so­cial po­si­tion of women. It was at this time that De Saint Phalle started to cre­ate artis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of women that she called ‘nanas’ after a French slang word that, roughly trans­lated, means ‘broads’. These charm­ing, cur­va­ceous, fer­til­ity god­dess-type fig­ures be­came one of the artis­tic en­deav­ours that the sculp­tor is now best known for.

Be­tween 1978 and 1998, De Saint Phalle em­barked on the sin­gle most am­bi­tious cre­ative adventure of her life: in Ca­pal­bio, Tus­cany, on a piece of land she (even­tu­ally) bought for the pur­pose, she cre­ated a large park with 22 sculp­tures rep­re­sent­ing the ma­jor ar­cana of tarot div­ina­tion, through which she sought to in­ter­pret and un­der­stand the mean­ing of ex­is­tence.

The in­flu­ence of Gaudí’s tren­cadís ( bro­ken ce­ramic and glass mo­saics) on these large, grace­ful sculp­tural forms is very clear. In­spi­ra­tion also came from the raw, in­stinc­tual art­work of Fer­di­nand Che­val (cre­ator of the Palais Idéal in France) and it had long been one of De Saint Phalle’s am­bi­tions to cre­ate a large-scale pub­lic work that was also a the­matic gar­den. Of course, the nanas play a prom­i­nent role too.

Orig­i­nally con­ceived as a mytho­log­i­cal park, the Tarot Gar­den even­tu­ally be­came an es­o­teric and philo­soph­i­cal state­ment, and is an ex­em­plary work of pub­lic art. In the eyes of De Saint Phalle, one of her cre­ations’ raisons d’être is to bring joy, hu­mour and colour to peo­ple’s ex­is­tence, which this gar­den most cer­tainly does.

To fi­nance the con­struc­tion of the gar­den, De Saint Phalle de­cided to be her own pa­tron and cre­ated a per­fume, whose prof­its cov­ered a third of the project’s costs. The Agnelli fam­ily (the Ital­ian own­ers of Fiat) were among her bene­fac­tors at this time, and De Saint Phalle also en­listed the help of dozens of lo­cal peo­ple to as­sist her with ev­ery­thing from cre­at­ing the mam­moth sculp­tures to cov­er­ing them with mo­saics that in­cor­po­rate a mul­ti­tude of dif­fer­ent tiles and fin­ishes.

For fol­low­ers of tarot, it is not just a card game, but an es­o­teric and sym­bolic les­son that al­lows you to re­dis­cover the prim­i­tive rev­e­la­tion of di­vin­ity. Sim­i­larly, De Saint Phalle’s gar­den is in­tended to take its vis­i­tors on a mys­ti­cal jour­ney, with its var­i­ous stages and sculp­tures mark­ing the salient points of an in­ner trans­for­ma­tion. The artist felt it was im­por­tant that adults and chil­dren should in­ter­act with her work, and she loved to see small chil­dren climb­ing onto the sculp­tures, whose rounded edges al­low them to play safely.

In the end, the Tarot Gar­den re­traces De Saint Phalle’s long psychic evo­lu­tion as an artist. Hav­ing driven out the demons she en­coun­tered dur­ing her child­hood and early adult­hood, this gar­den – fea­tur­ing mul­ti­ple ver­sions of her nanas – was where she found in­ner peace. ‘My gar­den is a meta­phys­i­cal place, a place of med­i­ta­tion, away from crowds and the pas­sage of time,’ she said.

The of­fi­cial open­ing of the Tarot Gar­den took place on 15 May 1998. To­day it is open dur­ing the year from 1 April to 15 Oc­to­ber and, fol­low­ing the in­struc­tions given by the artist be­fore she died in 2002, ad­mits vis­i­tors only for a few hours each day to pre­serve its pre­cious­gia­rdinodeitaroc­

T HIS PAGE, CLOCKWISE F ROM TOP LEFT De Saint Phalle worked with the land­scape to present ‘a small Eden, where man and na­ture meet’; even the un­der­sides of the sculp­tures are in­tri­cately de­tailed; to start the tour of the gar­den, vis­i­tors pass un­der...

T HIS PAGE, CLOCKWISE F ROM TOP LEFT ‘My gar­den is a meta­phys­i­cal place, a place of med­i­ta­tion,’ said De Saint Phalle; an­other of Tinguely’s works can be seen on top of The Fallen Tower; the card of The Star takes the shape of a nana pour­ing ‘the...

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