The Nanas

I had made my first NANA house in 1967. It was a doll’s house for adults – just big enough to sit and dream in.

Niki de Saint Phalle Nana Noire Upside-down 1965–6

Niki de Saint Phalle
Nana Noire Upside-down 1965–6
Paint, wool, fabric on wire mesh
1500 x 1050 x 1080 mm
Donation de l’artiste. Collection Mamac, Nice

Niki de Saint Phalle’s early sculptural female figures of brides and women gave way within a few years to the series of Nanas. The Nanas, large-scale and brightly coloured sculptures of women, were voluptuous goddess-like creatures. Triumphant and larger than life, they are enduring emblems of maternity and femininity.

The Nanas first appeared in 1964 and took their inspiration from Saint Phalle’s pregnant friend, Clarice Rivers. Initially made of fabric with found objects attached, as in Venus 1964 and Erica 1965, Saint Phalle began to introduce polyester to create plumper, more active and vibrant figures. Several black and white Nanas were created in reaction to the Black Rights movement in America, a testament to the artist’s belief that all women are goddesses, regardless of colour. 

The ultimate Nana was Hon, a monumental reclining sculpture created in collaboration with Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvel, exhibited at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm in 1966. She was the epitome of the empowering Nana and filled an entire exhibition hall. Hon was destroyed at the end of the exhibition but the figure has retained a vital place within art history.

Works produced for Saint Phalle’s Tarot Sculpture garden in Italy, a lifelong project to produce a large sculpture park based on a pack of Tarot cards, would be influenced by the Nanas. As seen here in Temperance (Jardin des Tarots) 1985, the sculpture takes the characteristic rounded forms of the Nanas but is transformed into the tarot character ‘Temperance’. In the late 1980s Saint Phalle produced The Skinnies, pared down transparent versions of her voluptuous sculptures, forms which also appear in her Tarot works.

Other works in this room

Venus 1964
Wool, various objects on wire mesh
1700 mm
Donation de l’artiste. Collection Mamac, Nice

Erica 1965
Fabric and wool on wire mesh.
1100 x 950 x 650 mm
Donation de l’artiste. Collection Mamac, Nice

Crucifixion c.1965
Various objects on wire mesh
245 x 160 x 50 cm
Centre Pompidou, Paris
Musée National d’Art Moderne / Centre de Création Industrielle

Black Rosy or My Heart Belongs to Rosy 1965
Material, wool, paint and wire mesh
2250 x 1500 x 850 mm
Artist’s collection. In deposit at Mamac, Nice

Le Pendu 1988
2840 x 1000 x 100 mm
Collection Sprengel Museum, Hannover, DE

La Temperance (Jardin des Tarots) 1985
720 x 530 x 230 mm
Collection Sprengel Museum, Hannover, DE

Nana Ecartelee 1965
770 x 1310 x 690 mm
Collection Sprengel Museum, Hannover, DE

Nana Noire (Maillot de Bain Vert) 1965
770 x 1310 x 1280 mm
Collection Sprengel Museum, Hannover, DE