Niki and Jean

Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) and Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) were one of the most prominent couples in the 20th century art world. Both are best known for their highly unusual sculptures, but they also created masses of posters, paintings, installations and other artworks of all sorts.

When I was in Oldenburg in 2016, I went to an exhibit on their life and work. The exhibit began with their biographies, his on the left, hers on the right and their “joint biography” in the yellow box in the middle, starting when they first met in Paris in 1955. They began “an intensive love-and-work relationship” in 1960 and married in 1971 (the second marriage for both), which had the effect of giving Niki Swiss citizenship, in addition to the French and American citizenship that she already had. 

Posters by Niki de Saint Phalle

The quotation in this photo reads: “The men in my life, these beasts, were my muses. The suffering and my revenge on them — my art lived off of it for many years.” — Niki de Saint Phalle.

For a long time, I thought “Saint Phalle” was a name she had made up herself, as a provocative pseudonym. But no, it turns out to be a traditional French aristocratic name that can be traced back to the twelfth century. Even earlier, there was an abbot named Phal, later “Saint Phal”, who until his death around 540 or 549 was the abbot at Isle Aumont, in what is now the Aube department in the Grand Est region of France. This Saint Phal is also known as Saint Fidolus or Fidouls, whose Saint’s Day is May 16.

This Phal or Fal or Fidolus or Fidouls was the son of a Roman official who was taken prisoner by the army of King Clovis I and sold into slavery. He was ransomed by Aventinus, the abbot of Aumont Abbey, where he became a monk and later the abbot.

14 km southwest of Isle Aumont there is a village called “Saint Phal”, whose knightly ruler starting in 1197 was André de Saint Phal, supposedly one of Niki’s ancestors.

Niki’s father, who (as she later revealed) had abused her for years during her childhood, was a French banker, Count André-Marie Fal de Saint Phalle (1906–1967), and her mother was American.

Jean Tinguely, Meta Maxi Maxi

The Swiss artist Jean Tinguely is best known for his kinetic (moving) sculptures, which are fantastic machines using pieces left over from old discarded machinery. This poster, also by Tinguely, was announcing an exhibit of one of these sculptures, the Meta Maxi Maxi, which is large enough for people to walk through.

In 1975, before the old municipal theater in Basel was demolished, parts of the old stage machinery were salvaged and given to Jean Tinguely, who spent two years recycling the old machinery and making it into an elaborate and entertaining fountain, the Fasnachtbrunnen or Carnival Fountain, on the site of the old theater and right in front of the new one.
(See my post Cycling and re-cycling in Basel.)  

More posters by Jean Tinguely

The quotation under these four posters reads: “The noise is part of the machine, which I try to include in the design in the same way as the physical form.” — Jean Tinguely.

Café in the Horst-Janssen-Museum

The exhibition “Niki and Jean” was on display in the Horst-Janssen-Museum in Oldenburg in 2016.

The museum was named after the German artist Horst Janssen (1929-1995) and includes a permanent exhibition of his drawings and other artworks (which I unfortunately didn’t have time to look at when I was there).

Horst Janssen Museum from the outside

My photos in this post are from 2016. I wrote the text in 2021.

See more posts on Oldenburg, Germany.
See more posts on museums.

9 thoughts on “Niki and Jean”

    1. Yes, I remember reading that in her later years she moved to San Diego (specifically La Jolla) for health reasons, since she had ruined her health by decades of breathing in noxious chemicals from the materials and glues that she used for making her sculptures.

    1. She was amazingly prolific, and her sculptures turn up in the oddest places. I recall seeing her “nanas” in Hannover and Paris, among other places, but I don’t seem to have taken any photos of them.

  1. I knew the names, but little more, so thank you for adding something to my knowledge. Looks like an interesting museum/gallery and an interesting town, about which I also knew very little.

    1. Thanks for your visit and comment. Niki and Jean had an open marriage, meaning they both had other relationships at times, but remained committed to each other personally and artistically. (Sort of like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.)

  2. Another very interesting post about people that I didn’t know anything about. I had to read all of it – one of the things I wondered about at the beginning was – which one was the man? I thought Niki sounded feminine but I wasn’t sure. Also very interesting about the derivation of Saint Phalle.

    1. Yes, I should have mentioned that Jean is a man’s name in French. The feminine form is Jeanne. But in the US I had an aunt Jean, my mother’s younger sister.

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