A r T
Into the mystic of the tarot with Niki de Saint Phalle
D r E a M s
The Pictorial Key
To The Tarot
William Rider & Sons
‘ The true Tarot is symbolism; it speaks no other language and offers no other signs’ 1.
The words of Arthur E Waite within the talismanic operator to the mysticism of the cards, the Tarot is both a mystery and an answer. From the major arcana to the four suits, the tarot has been sought, has guided and has warned throughout the centuries it has been in circulation.
For the Outsider artist Niki de Saint Phalle, the tarot posed more than a divinatory interpretation: it presented a mystical structure Niki could inhabit, both physically and mentally, throughout the end of her life.
Pg 90 Niki de Saint Phalle
Edited by Simon Groom
There is an emotional energy omnipresent in Italy. A spirituality that sparkles in the ocean, the glimmer on trees, in the heat of the sun. It is here, on the top of a mountain, two hours north of Rome and ten minutes drive to the sapphire enrapture of the Tyrrhenian sea, that Niki de Saint Phalle chose to construct her Tarot Garden, a culmination of a life dedicated to her work and a love to the artist and her muse Jean Tinguely.
A friend of hers, Barbara Rose, remembers visiting the Tarot Garden and seeing in the middle, ‘there was a tree with phrases written in Niki’s familiar childish scrawl; one said, as I remember it, “Life is a game of cards whose rules we do not know.”’2.
If life is a game of cards we are born without knowing the rules
Joyful exuberance was always the most associative term to the work of Niki de Saint Phalle, who moved from her heart-breaking and often disturbing shooting sculptures to the mighty and immense symbolism of her nana’s (a comment on the ideas and expectations of women.) The word Nana had numerous associations which appealed to Niki: Nana was Zola’s demimonde prostitute and in current French argot the word corresponded to chick or broad.
Her work was initially aggressive, with her gun paintings and works like Tu Est Moi (You Are Me) dialectically sounding like Tuez-Moi (Kill Me) aligning love and death in unnerving expressions.
By the time the Tarot Garden was erected at the end of her career, there was no sadness, anger violence or violence in her visions: it had slipped away.
Pg 7 Niki de Saint Phalle
Edited by Simon Groom
Instead we found find Niki in her own nirvana. ‘(Her works) possess a universality of expression. The dominant feeling is one of joy – in family, sex, colour, mundane objects, the esoteric, marriage, pregnancy, violence – in short, life.’ 3.
Niki’s work was classified as Outsider Art, a term for those that either held no professional training and had a naïve, self taught style, or who worked outside the mainstream art institutions.
The label Outsider Art was an English term drawn from the cache Art Brut, that held a pre occupation with the raw, and what lay outside the defined ‘norm’.
Niki worked across multiple mediums, including assemblage, relief and sculpture. Her work was showcased alongside the Surrealists, the Dadaists, and the New Realists, all the while her creations always somewhat sitting in its own universe.
As Niki acknowledged herself on the inability to label her art: ‘If I had to define myself it wouldn’t be as an artist but an achiever of dreams.’ 4.
In her expression of life and all its colour however, there lay a sort of fifth dimension – a spirituality that seemed to come from a higher expressiveness: ‘she seemed to be very much in the world, but never quite identifiable with it.’
We see this no clearer than in her Giardino dei Tarocchi – a culmination of years of artistic expression, exploding into her very own spiritual universe. While Wall Street was ravaging the commercial possibilities of finance, money was the modus operandi and computers were coming into existence, Niki was constructing a physical environment her own imagination out of step with the other pre-occupations of the world. She was slightly otherworldly in that context: looking into herself and into the mystical, the magic.
Niki de Saint Phalle
Edited by Simon Groom
The Tarot Garden Niki built at the end of her life, holds an enormous power – a directness in its clear references, but a joyful exploration of her own impressions of the meaning behind each major arcana of the Tarot pack.
After being gifted Tuscan land by the princes Caracciolo near their family compound, this gift of a mountain allowed Niki to realise her dreams, of building a creative cathedral in homage to the majesty of the tarot and discovering its meaning: ‘I never shot at God… I shot at the Church. I glorify the Cathedral.’ 5.
Over the next 20 years, cathedrals did Niki build, dedicated to the drum of her own desire: ‘One day I had a dream many many years ago. I would make a sculpture garden.’
Based on 11 of the major arcana of the tarot, Niki embarked on her greatest construction yet.
The delightful inventiveness and her love of the monumental stand central in her construction of one of the great unknowns in life – the mysticism and mystery of the tarot cards that followed Niki her whole life. By exploring the meaning behind each major arcana, Niki constructed her monuments, in larger-than-life interpretations that embraced their symbolisms of change, strength, protection and reflection. Utilising the reflective properties of mosaic, Niki brought colour, light and refraction into the Tarot Garden.
Inspired by the Bomarzo garden of Italy, also known as the Park of Monsters, which was built in the 16th century and inhabited by grotesque monsters and classical creatures, Niki’s Tarot Garden holds undeniable similarities in their reasoning behind their construction, and their subsequent conception.
The Bomarzo Gardens were built by Pier Francesco – a patron of the arts – to cope with the grief of his wife’s death. With sculptures scattered at random about the park, one obelisk reads: ol per sfogare il Core (‘just to set the heart free’). Much like Francesco, Niki admitted to creating the Tarot Garden out of climactic love for her long term muse, Jean Tinguely – their relationship both her sadness and her joy.
The creatures she created stand as her creative interpretation of each card’s meaning. For the High Priestess and the Magician, her open mouth, much like Bomarzo’s Hell, encourages entrance into the gorge: a door into one’s self. It was on the raised hand of the High Priestess that Niki used new materials of mirror and glass, allowing the power of the card be further determined of its meaning: reflection, memory, intuition.
Tarot Cards In Sculpture
Niki De Saint Phalle
It was in the Empress, constructed as a sphinx, that Niki chose to live, allowing her life to be fully dedicated to the garden. Niki perceived the Empress as the great goddess and queen of the sky, embodying sacred magic. Different parts of the structure held different symbols. For the front legs, Nature and Emotion. The stairs symbolism is Gimel – the Phoenician derivation often meaning justified repayment, or the giving of reward and punishment.
Inside her belly, the space reflects Mother: where Niki chose to hold her studio to live and work. For Niki, her sculpture of Satan was symbolic of ‘Sin in Strength; Drunkenness of the counter inspiration.’ 7. Its associations of magnetism, chaos and ‘Electric Fire’ 8. was without morbidity much like her sculptural figure of death. For Niki ‘there is no death. There is change. Transformation. Our life is eternal.’ 9.
Her vision of Death is of a woman abreast a steed, the horses’ coat awash with the moon and stars. Her scythe hangs by her side, rather than our traditional images we are faced with where hooded death looms forward with the physical act of killing. Niki’s interpretation is much softer, more open, and like she said about change. Death itself was merely another gateway into a different eternity.
NIKI de SAINT PHALLE
LETTER FROM NIKI
If life is a game of cards we are born
without knowing the rules.
Yet we must play our hand.
Is the tarot pack only a game of cards
or is there a philosophy behind it
I am convinced that these cards
contain an important message.
Their origins are shrouded in mystery.
It seems that the high priests of Ancient Egypt
transmitted their secret knowledge by means
of pictorial symbols and that these symbols were
the twenty-two major arcana of the tarot pack.
It is believed that Moses brought these
cards with him to Israel, having received
them from the high priests of Egypt.
That is why the Hebrew Cabala
is linked to these twenty two cards: Tarot Tora Rota.
The first tarot playing cards we know of were found
in Italy and were designed by Bonifacio Bembo
in the 15th century for the Visconti family of Milan.
Later, these cards became very popular at all levels
of society and were used as normal playing cards.
They eventually lost their significance.
It was not until the 18th century that
Antoine Court de Gébelin rediscovered
their esoteric meaning.
These same cards, with the same symbols,
were and are found all over the worlds,
in France, Egypt, Spain, Great Britain, India, etc.
inside the cupola of Sienna Cathedral, the major
arcane are found engraved in stone.
They date from the 14th and 15th centuries, a period
when many church leaders, including some popes,
were interested in alchemy and astrology.
This explains the presence of tarot symbols in Siena
Cathedral which also contains a portrait of Hermes
Trismegistus, the founder of the Hermetic tradition.
He represents The Magician, card no 1 of the tarot pack.
Mantegna too was interested in the tarot
and made some beautiful etchings of the symbols.
They are to be found in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.
Here in Tuscany I am making my versionin sculpture
of the tarot cards. They have always fascinated me.
I still remember, as a young girl, reading TS Eliot’s
The Wasteland and wondering about his mysterious
reference to the Hanged Man, card no. XII.
Tarot has given me a greater understanding of the
spiritual world, and of life’s problems and also the
awareness that each difficulty must be overcome
before one can go on to yet another hurdle until
we finally reach inner unity and the garden of paradise.
In Italy there is an illustrious tradition of fantastic gardens,
the most famous of which are the Bomarzo and the park
of the Villa d’Este. Bomarzo is near Viterbo,
and hour-and-a-half by car from my garden.
Bomarzo has a special fascination for me.
One of the central figures of my garden – the High Priestess –
with the open mouth through which water will
cascade down the steps, represents homage to these
mysterious sculptures and to the Villa d’Este.
Pg 138 Niki De Saint Phalle
The dream-like quality of the Bomarzo gardens,
with their mermaids, giants, monsters and falling
tower have a parallel in my work.
There is also a symbolic similarity between the two gardens.
Alchemy is the key to Bomarzo, the archetypes to mine.
We started the project in 1979 and who knows
when it will be finished!
Many people have worked, helped, and collaborated on it;
people from many countries – Switzerland, Holland, Argentina,
Great Britain, France, America, and the Italians,
who have contributed their own natural talent.
The local artisans I have found here have not lost any of the artistic
flair which in the past centuries was the glory of Italy.
This, the tarot garden, is not only my project,
but that of all those who have assisted in its birth. 10.