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Artist Niki de Saint Phalle leaves Swiss legacy

De Saint Phalle was married to the late Swiss artist Jean Tinguely

(Keystone Archive)

Niki de Saint Phalle, whose marriage to the Swiss sculptor and painter Jean Tinguely was one of the 20th century's most important artistic partnerships, has died in the United States at age 71.

Tinguely, who died 11 years ago, is best known for his kinetic sculptures which are like fantasy machines depending on movement for effect. They were made from everyday objects, such as metal from abandoned machinery.

De Saint Phalle's most familiar creations are also sculptures, for example the trademark "Nanas", mother figures reminiscent of prehistoric fertility idols with their stylised voluptuous shapes and colours.

But despite long years of working and living together from the 1960s onwards, a period which included many joint projects, both de Saint Phalle and Tinguely retained a distinctive and very different style.

That difference is perhaps best summed up in the words of Guido Magnaguagno, director of the Tinguely museum in Basel: "The works of Jean are those of a man, while the works of Niki are very much those of a woman."

Exhibition in Basel

Magnaguana was speaking in an interview with swissinfo last November, at the opening of an exhibition devoted to the works of Tinguely's widow - who had made important donations of her husband's works to the museum's permanent collection.

Paying tribute to de Saint Phalle on Wednesday, France's president Jacques Chirac described her as an "exceptional woman" who had swum against the tide to create art of "a rare, colourful and playful originality, which lit up the end of the 20th century".

Before she met Tinguely, de Saint Phalle had already begun establishing herself as an artist with drawings, oil paintings and collages based on the "assemblage" technique which went on to shape the form of her later work.

By the early 1960s she was cooperating with him on his sculptures, and in 1966 he contributed to the creation of her monumental female figure, "Hon", in Stockholm. Other collaborations followed, notably in the creation of the Stravinsky fountain next to the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Angel in Zurich

Another example of her lasting and towering presence as a sculptor is the "Guardian Angel" which - hanging from the ceiling of the main building of Zurich's railway station - has been watching over travellers since 1997.

It was through such achievements that the works of de Saint Phalle have become familiar to millions of people who might not otherwise have taken an interest in contemporary art - and she put this to good use. For example the marketing success of Niki de Saint Phalle perfume enabled her to fulfil a dream to create a park in northern Italy full of giant sculptures based on Tarot cards.

Born near Paris, she settled in San Diego in the early 1990s, and her death in the Californian city followed a lengthy illness.

by Richard Dawson

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