De Saint Phalle was born in 1930 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris. After schooling in the States, she pursued a career as a fashion model. During the 1950s, she married her first husband, the writer Harry Matthews, and lived a bohemian, wandering existence throughout France and Spain. In 1956, she met the kinetic artist Jean Tinguely, who encouraged her to sculpt. He would ultimately introduce her to Nouveau réalisme and become her second husband.
By the beginning of the 1960s, De Saint Phalle was producing assemblages and working with gloss paint. She created her notable series of shot works, where household objects embedded in plaster were blasted with firearms. ‘I was shooting at myself, society with its injustices,’ she explained. ‘I was shooting at my own violence and the violence of the times.’ She also began collaborating with Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and the composer John Cage. In 1962, she held her first solo show at Alexander Iolas’ influential New York gallery.
By the end of the decade, De Saint Phalle had commenced her best-known series, the Nanas. These whimsical, monumental sculptures of animals, monsters and female forms made from wool, wire, polyester and fibreglass investigated the role of womanhood in modern society. In 1967, they were the subject of a retrospective at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.
In the 1970s, De Saint Phalle started work on a sculpture park called Tarot Garden. Featuring 22 works and covering two acres of Tuscan countryside, it took around 30 years to complete.
Later in life, De Saint Phalle also focused more on writing, publishing a memoir about her abusive childhood and the groundbreaking book AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands, which encouraged compassion for those suffering from the illness. She died in 2002.
Ensemble de deux sculptures: (i) Mini nana boule et (ii) Mini nana acrobate