In the Italian village of Capalbio, in the late nineteen-seventies, two peculiar things happened: the mail started arriving late, and people began whispering about the “monsters” rising up in the hills nearby. At first, the monsters looked like massive, misshapen iron cages emerging from the Tuscan countryside. Then they went white. Plaster was spread over the metal, and the monsters became looming, creamy ghosts. Finally, they started turning colors: blue, orange, shocking pink.
Although no one suspected it, there was a connection between these two occurrences. The postman, Ugo Celletti, had been helping to create the monsters—tremendous sculptures growing on the grounds of a local estate. He’d discovered a passion for mosaic work, and as he applied slivers of mirrored glass to the monsters he sometimes forgot about his postal route. Like many other people in the area, Celletti had his life altered by the mother of the monsters, who came to Italy to build a sculpture garden that she had envisioned in a dream, decades earlier, when she was locked in an asylum: the artist Niki de Saint Phalle.
When Saint Phalle entered the asylum, in the early nineteen-fifties, she was a twenty-two-year-old wife, mother, erstwhile fashion model, and lapsed French aristocrat. Art, she believed, returned her to sanity, and she wanted to make a monumental sculpture garden that would, in turn, heal others. It would be in the fanciful style of Antoni Gaudí’s Park Güell, in Barcelona, but each structure would represent a mystical figure from the tarot deck. She would create an alternate reality—“a sort of joyland,” she once said, “where you could have a new kind of life that would just be free.”
In the decades after her recovery, Saint Phalle became a star. In the sixties, she caused a sensation with her “shooting paintings.” She would fire a rifle at assemblages of knives, scissors, eggbeaters, and baby-doll arms—the detritus of domesticity—which she had embedded in plaster, along with bags of paint and the occasional tomato. When the bullets hit, the art started “bleeding.” Jane Fonda attended a shooting in Malibu; Robert Rauschenberg bought one of the paintings.
In certain respects, Saint Phalle’s career was as much like Fonda’s as it was like Rauschenberg’s, built at the juncture of art, personal charisma, and political gesture. Her signature creation was the Nanas—big, bright female dancers with small heads and huge hips and breasts. In the later decades of her life, she devoted herself to public works, installing pieces in California, Germany, and Israel. Outside the Centre Georges Pompidou, in Paris, her work is on permanent display in the giddy “Stravinsky Fountain”: a group of her sculptures—red lips, rainbow-colored birds, mermaids—facing off with the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely’s kinetic iron machines, all spewing water at one other.
But she considered the Tarot Garden, in Tuscany, to be her life’s work. “I’m following a course that was chosen for me, following a pressing need to show that a woman can work on a monumental scale,” she wrote, in one of the scores of letters preserved in her archive, in San Diego. Before there was a women’s movement, before she was on the cover of Life or had love affairs with royalty, before she poured a glass of beer on Saul Steinberg’s head when they were out with Giacometti, even before she did the “very worst thing a woman can do” and abandoned her children to pursue an artist’s life, Niki de Saint Phalle was captivated by liberation. “Men’s roles seem to give them a great deal more freedom,” she wrote to a friend, “and I WAS RESOLVED THAT FREEDOM WOULD BE MINE.”