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My terrific mother Niki de Saint Phalle II

A personal reflection on the French-born artist from her daughter, Laura Gabriela.

I became aware only recently that my first memory was related to my mother, a pretty common experience I suspect! There I was, a toddler serenely walking into the unknown on a sunny day on a hillside by the Mediterranean, on my way to find her at a time when she was in a mental institution in Nice. This was the first of a number of severances of our relationship which became obstacles that we successfully struggled to overcome throughout her life.

The visual arts, poetry, music, fashion, food and the cinema were intimately woven into the fabric of our everyday life. We travelled quite a lot too, visiting museums, cathedrals… living in different countries. It was fun and exciting, with its fair share of drama and suffering.

As a child I only saw Niki lose her temper once. In the late 1970s when she began work on The Tarot Garden she learned from her Italian crew how to express her feelings with more emotional power. Later in California she picked up on the psychological openness prevailing in this culture, thereby shedding the last inhibiting remnants of her upbringing. What she kept was extraordinary discipline, but on the wild side. For instance, for many years in the latter part of her life she would laugh voluntarily for twenty minutes every day to empty her lungs. This led, many times, to riotous moments of collective fun. It enhanced her pretty wicked sense of humour.

It is only now that I realise how much I missed the intimacy of her art when she left. I loved the smells and colours, the materials she used. It was home to me. My favourite sweets, berlingots, looked like paint! After she was gone – I was ten – I gradually started to re-create for myself what I was missing and sometimes did find elsewhere the fun and excitement that she had provided.

Niki was very inclusive in the way she worked, always. I did participate as a teenager with school friends in the making of the first Nanas, and later in the Paradis Fantastique and the Rêve de Diane. As a grown-up, I had an important part in her 1976 film Un rêve plus long que la nuit.

I had an insight into the intensity of her rage as a child when she came home one day with a very colourful and diverse pile of plates. She smashed them with a vengeance! Later we both put the pieces in fresh cement and it became fun. It was somehow the same dramatic unfolding that she later formalised in her Shooting Paintings. Come to think of it, it was the same for our relationship. It was quite dramatic to have her leave at such an early time, but throughout the years I came to understand, share and enjoy her need for creative power and freedom. She was a terrific mother.

Niki de Saint Phalle Autel O.A.S 1962–92

Niki de Saint Phalle
Autel O.A.S1962–92
Courtesy Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain © 2008, NIKI CHARITABLE ART FOUNDATION, All rights reserved

See also