Loading…

We couldn't find that.
Let's go back home and try again.

Finding travel inspiration in the global installations of renowned artist Niki de Saint Phalle

Travel editor Elizabeth Hansen travels the world to enjoy the iconic artist's works

Niki de Saint Phalle, Buddha, 2000. Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Published
By

It started with the Sun God. French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s monumental sculpture appeared on the UC San Diego campus in 1983, about the time I started teaching a class for aspiring travel writers. I parked nearby one day and did a double take. The work is a multi-colored 14-foot bird-like creature, perched on top of a 15-foot-tall vine-covered pedestal. It would have been hard not to notice it. 

Niki de Saint Phalle’s Sun God was the first piece acquired for the Stuart Collection on the UC San Diego campus. Photo courtesy of Adams / Hansen Photos
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Sun God was the first piece acquired for the Stuart Collection on the UC San Diego campus. Photo courtesy of Adams / Hansen Photos

I can’t say it was love at first sight, but I was definitely drawn to the handsome figure who never failed to make me smile. UCSD students immediately loved him, and the first Sun God Festival was held a year after the arrival of the statue and quickly grew into a wildly popular annual campus event.  

Hey, You Look Familiar

Fast-forward a decade or so, and I found myself staring at a strangely familiar bird-like creature, except this one was standing in the Stravinsky Fountain next to the Centre Pompidou in Paris. I checked my guidebook and learned that all the colorful figures in front of me were the work of Niki de Saint Phalle. 

It was a joyful scene. Kids splashed around the edges of the pool and squealed with delight when they were soaked with streams of water shooting out of a colorful sculpture of a large reclining woman. 

The Stravinsky Fountain is a whimsical public fountain in Paris featuring 16 sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle. Photo courtesy of Adams / Hansen Photos
The Stravinsky Fountain is a whimsical public fountain in Paris featuring 16 sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle. Photo courtesy of Adams / Hansen Photos

Back home, I started to connect the dots during lunch at Barbarella in La Jolla Shores. When I commented on the creative mosaic tile around the restaurant’s pizza oven, founder Barbara Beltaire explained that it was the work of her good friend Niki, who had moved to La Jolla for health reasons.

At that time, Saint Phalle was working on a major installation in Escondido. Queen Califia’s Magical Circle includes ten very imaginative figures dominated by a 24-foot tall legendary Black Amazon queen. It is her only American sculpture garden and the last major project she created. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve visited this site and still marvel at her creativity.

Niki de Saint Phalle created “Le Paradis Fantastique” with her husband Jean Tinguely.  Photo courtesy of Moderna Museet / Åsa Lundén, Stockholm
Niki de Saint Phalle created “Le Paradis Fantastique” with her husband Jean Tinguely. Photo courtesy of Moderna Museet / Åsa Lundén, Stockholm

Just When You Think You Know Someone

Sun God, Paris, Queen Califia — I was already familiar with Saint Phalle’s work, but I learned more at a recent panel discussion at the La Jolla Historical Society: A friend of the artist shared that when Saint Phalle lived on Princess Street in La Jolla, she turned her 51-foot living room into an art studio. Her daughter Laura Duke Condominas also mentioned that she loved to walk on La Jolla Shores Beach, but I was especially interested in the comments made by Erika Torri, Executive Director of the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library.  

“She is beloved across Europe,” Torri said, “especially in Germany. You can see her work in many places.” 

As soon as I heard this, I knew I wanted to add Saint Phalle’s projects to my travel plans. I love trips where I can walk in scenic places, visit gardens, and explore the natural environment, and her sculptures in parks, gardens, and other outdoor settings feel like natural add-ons. 

My appreciation for her talent and personal story took another giant step forward when I spent an afternoon at Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla. The exhibit, which closes on July 17, includes several Nanas, her popular sculptures of oversized, well-endowed, liberated women that can be seen around the world joyfully dancing, riding dolphins, and generally enjoying life. mcasd.org/exhibitions/niki-de-saint-phalle-1960s

Following Niki’s Path

Hanover, Germany also loved Saint Phalle and she loved them back, gifting their Sprengel Museum about 400 pieces of her work. I’m looking forward to experiencing Hanover’s flea market along the Leine River where colorful Hannover Nanas (Sophie, Charlotte, and Caroline) watch over the proceedings. Also, in Germany, more Nanas hold forth in Hamburg and several other cities.

Three joyful Nanas greet visitors along Germany’s Hanover’s Red Thread.  Photo © Hannover Marketing und Tourismus GmbH / Lars Gerhardts
Three joyful Nanas greet visitors along Germany’s Hanover’s Red Thread. Photo © Hannover Marketing und Tourismus GmbH / Lars Gerhardts

A Global Artist

In addition to numerous open-air settings, Niki de Saint Phalle’s work is included in more than 20 museums around the world. The Niki Charitable Art Foundation is the best resource for confirming current exhibitions, public works, and museum holdings. The interactive map on the foundation’s site is updated to reflect work that has been removed for restoration or loaned to another location. nikidesaintphalle.org

The 14-acre Tarot Garden in Tuscany is considered Saint Phalle’s life work. Inspired by Antoni Gaudi’s Guell Park in Barcelona, she began this project in 1978 and it opened in 1998. The sculpture park is home to 22 monumental figures that are all over 40 feet high. I want to see it, but I confess that I think it might be a bit spooky. 

Unlike the Tarot Garden, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in England has only one piece of Saint Phalle’s work — a beautiful seated Buddha covered in mirror, glass, and stone mosaic. It’s located in a rural setting with other sculptures and gorgeous views over lush green countryside.

In Switzerland, I’m looking forward to seeing the Nana angel in the bright swimsuit that has hovered over passengers in the Zurich Train Station for 25 years. She was made in La Jolla and was too big for a cargo plane, so she traveled to her new home by ship and train. Also in Switzerland, Saint Phalle’s sculpted athletes work out in front of the Olympic Museum in Lausanne.

More bucket list destinations: The Three Graces in South Korea (the jolliest of dancing Nanas), The Hakone Open Air Museum in Japan (Miss Black Power in a colorful, patterned dress), The Moderna Museet in Stockholm (playful sculptures on an island within the city).

I’m looking forward to these trips because Saint Phalle’s art is joyful and liberating. Barbara Beltaire says that her friend loved life, and I can feel that passion in her work. My journey with Niki started with the Sun God and has now become an adventure of boundless possibilities.   

The colorful guardian angel at Zurich Main Station was “born” in La Jolla. Photo © Zürich Tourism; photo by Andreas Omvik
The colorful guardian angel at Zurich Main Station was “born” in La Jolla. Photo © Zürich Tourism; photo by Andreas Omvik

Featured Photo Niki de Saint Phalle, Buddha, 2000. Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Comments

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.