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Inside Niki de Saint Phalle’s psychedelic Tarot Garden


The sun-baked farmland that surrounds the medieval village of Garavicchio is as it always has been: verdant, expansive, populated by unending vineyards. It feels utterly timeless, a slice of Italy’s rural past left to soak up the rays of a low-slung sun. Driving through this rolling landscape, one gets the sense that this section of the Tuscan countryside will always remain unchanged; that is until you spot the monsters.

Rounding the crest of a hill, the first of them comes into view: an enormous black and blue head that tapers down into the technicolour body of a sphinx; its two enormous breasts decorated with elaborate mosaics. Where the nipples would be, there are two windows – irises. This is The Empress, one of the most eye-catching sculptures in the Tarot Garden at Garavicchio. Imagined as a “sort of joyland”, the 14-acre park was the magnum opus of Niki de Saint Phalle, a lapsed aristocrat, model and artist who first conceived of the idea in an asylum for the clinically insane in the 1950s. Niki’s dream was to create a sculpture park featuring every entity from the Tarot deck. She wanted to craft an alternative reality that would help heal others as art had healed her.

When Saint Phalle was sent to the asylum, she was just 22 years old. She’d spent the summer in a small village in Nice with her husband, Harry Mathews. Overpowered by the erotic possibilities implied by the Mediterranean sun, Mathews began an affair with the French wife of an English aristocrat. In retaliation, Saint Phalle began sleeping with the aristocrat himself, who she later remarked talked of nothing but suicide. In 1953, she attempted to take her own life by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills. After being sent off to receive electroshock therapy, her husband discovered a collection of scissors, knives, and razors under her mattress. During her time in the Nice mental clinic, she began to teach herself to paint, a pastime that she would later claim was instrumental to her recovery. It was also here that she dreamt of the Tarot Garden for the first time. However, it wouldn’t be until a trip to Barcelona, where she visited Antonin Gaudi’s Park Güell, that the idea would begin to develop beyond fragmentary images.

Saint Phalle’s incarceration in Nice only enhanced her lust for liberation. She craved freedom not only from her traumatic upbringing and bourgeoise marriage but from the captivity of womanhood. In 1960, Saint Phalle did the “very worst thing a woman can do”; she abandoned her husband and children and pursued a life as a professional artist. “Men’s roles seem to give them a great deal more freedom,” she wrote to a close friend, “And I was resolved that freedom would be mine.” Over the next decade, Saint Phalle established herself as one of the brightest lights in the art world. Her shooting paintings, which involved the artist firing a rifle at an assortment of domestic items embedded in plaster and covered with sacks of paint, were an absolute sensation. Jane Fonda famously attended one of the shootings in Malibu.

But Saint Phalle would have to wait until the 1970s to start work on her Tarot Garden. After all, she needed space, and space has always been hard to come by in Paris. However, in the late ’70s, her friends, the Caracciolo family, offered her 14 acres in Tuscany. With this, everything fell into place. Over the next 20 years, Saint Phalle led a team of specialist craftsmen (and one postman) as they wielded vast steel skeletons. Eventually, these cages were caked with ivory cement and gilded with glass, mirrors, and ceramics. The locals told tales of monsters rising from the soil.

Saint Phalle worked with many teams throughout the construction of the Tarot Garden. The first sculptures visitors are met with upon arrival are The High Priestess and The Magician, both of which (alongside The Sphinx) were constructed by Jean Tinguely, Rico Weber and Seppi Imhof. These towering, psychedelic structures are wonderful examples of how Saint Phalle’s unique gaze shaped her reading of the Tarot Deck. Each sculpture is proudly erotic, basking in its own joyful vibrancy. And yet, the presence of snakes – such as the rainbow patterned serpent that creeps up the leg of The World – is suggestive of the sexual abuse the artist suffered as a child. Still, there is no pain in the Tarot garden, only strength. It is a world that can, and indeed was, lived in. Saint Phalle made her home inside The Empress, living simply and in harmony with her surroundings. “I have chosen to respect the natural habitat of the region,” she once noted. “The dialogue between nature and the sculptures is a very important part of the garden.”

Since it was finished in 1998, Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden has been a source of wonderment and healing for locals and travellers alike. If the artist intended to create an alternative reality, she certainly succeeded. Stepping into the garden is akin it unstitching oneself from the fabric of the everyday. As you walk, you shed your skin. As you lose your way, you find yourself embracing your aimlessness. Here, nothing holds a traditional form. Everything slips in and out of reality, gliding between the subversive and the downright bizarre. It’s utterly liberating.

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