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Niki de Saint Phalle at the Tinguely

A 1953 painting by Niki de Saint Phalle, "La Fete". Tinguely Museum Website

One of the most important partnerships of 20th century art is being celebrated at the Jean Tinguely museum in Basel with an exhibition devoted to the works of Tinguely's widow, Niki de Saint Phalle.

Tinguely, who died 10 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.

Niki de Saint Phalle’s most familiar creations are also sculptures, for example the trademark “Nanas” which are 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, they each 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: “The works of Jean are those of a man, while the works of Niki are very much those of a woman,” he says.

Shooting pictures

Before she met the Swiss-born artist, Niki 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.

The collages included what are known as her “shooting pictures”, and the Basel exhibition features photographs of her with a rifle, taking aim at “the patriarchs of the world”.

By the early 1960s she was cooperating with Tinguely on his self-destructing machines, and in 1966 he contributed to the creation of her monumental female figure, Hon, in Stockholm. Other collaborations followed, including many with other leading artists of the time.

The exhibition, which ends on February 17, has much that will be familiar to those already acquainted with the colours and shapes of de Saint Phalle’s sculptures.

Perhaps less familiar to the general public are the largely unknown early works, paintings on loan from the Sprengel Museum in Hanover showing that even before she met Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle had already earned her place among the leading “nouveaux réalistes” and exponents of pop art in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

by Richard Dawson

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR