From Paris to Hanover, from San Diego to Jerusalem: With her work Niki de Saint Phalle makes art more democratic and public spaces more feminine. We take a look at some of her most beautiful sculptures on the art world map.

Niki de Saint Phalle played a central role in the democratization of art. For her "Shooting Paintings" she left a rifle to the visitors without instructions, with which they shot at canvases that the artist had previously prepared with hidden bags of paint. With the consequence that she deconstructed painting as an individual act and dissolved the hierarchization of the artistic subject. With her sculptures in public space, she also deliberately broke out of the institutional framework. In the case of "Golem", for example, she actively turned her back on the museum space and insisted on installing the monster in a publicly accessible square. We take a look at some of her most beautiful sculptures on the art world map.

A Fountain for Paris

Niki de Saint Phalle was born in 1930 in a suburb of Paris, but it would be quite a few years before she literally inscribed herself in the city’s architecture. It was in 1983 that she finally immortalized herself in the City of Love with her partner, artist Jean Tinguely. Somewhat hidden, not far from the Centre Pompidou, is the “Stravinsky Fountain,” dedicated to the composer of the same name. The couple jointly designed the fountain, which is composed of 16 individual sculptures that move and play with water, distributed across a huge water basin. The contrast between the two approaches could not be starker: colorful mythical creatures versus black machine sculptures made of iron. Opposites attract – which no doubt applies to art as well as to love.

Three “Nanas” and a grotto for Hanover     

“I have a very special feeling for Hanover,” said Niki de Saint Phalle in 2000, when she was named an honorary citizen of the city and in the course of this bequeathed 400 of her works to the Sprengel Museum Hannover. That said, the relationship between the local residents and Niki de Saint Phalle was not always so harmonious. When three polyester “Nanas” were erected in the center of Hanover in 1974, inhabitants were soon up in arms. In a petition signed by about 18,000 people, they insisted the location be changed and promptly moved the “Nanas” to Leibnizufer. Today they are the city’s landmark and a tourist attraction. Their titles – “Sophie,” “Charlotte”, and “Caroline” – come from their namesakes: Electress Sophia, Charlotte Puff, and Caroline Herschel.

Niki de Saint Phalle: „Sophie”, „Char­lotte” und „Caro­line”, 1974, Hannover, Image via

In 1998, Niki de Saint Phalle also began the redesign of the grotto in the Herrenhäuser Gardens in Hanover, but she died in 2002 before its completion. Thanks to her having drawn up detailed plans, her collaborators were nevertheless able to complete the site-specific work of art. It was the artist’s last work, with which she inscribed herself in the history of the city. She adorned the octagonal central space with colorful mosaics, glass, mirrors, pebbles, painted figures, and fiberglass to create an all-encompassing spatial experience that can be admired even from a distance here in a 360-degree video. The entrance room symbolizes spirituality, while the themes of the western room are day and life, and the eastern room represents night and the cosmos.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Great Grotto in the Mansions, Hanover, Image via


Niki de Saint Phalle left her mark in Zurich, too. The city has the artist to thank for its guardian angel, (who is 11 meters high and weighs in at 1.2 tons) and graces the halls of Zurich’s central train station. The huge sculpture was transported from California to the large station hall on the night of November 14, 1997, in an elaborate process that succeeded thanks to a cargo plane and a boat trip right across Europe – to which end the female angel was first disassembled into three parts. Niki de Saint Phalle was present for its arrival and commented on the assembly with the words: “All people want to be protected.” The unveiling of the female angel, colored in pink, yellow, orange, green, and ultramarine blue, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Swiss Rail Corporation divided Zurich society and generated much criticism. Yet she still hangs 15 meters above the ground, captivating travelers on their way into or out of the city. Attached to four steel cables, despite her size she gives the impression that she is about to float away through the hall.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Zurich train station, Image via

All people want to be protected.

Niki de Saint Phalle
A Paradise for Stockholm

When it came to Stockholm, Niki de Saint Phalle’s sculptures arrived in a roundabout way. The artist and Jean Tinguely had only six weeks to create the monumental sculpture series “The Fantastic Paradise” for the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. It took several tons of material, a lot of money, and numerous helpers to create the nine differently sized creatures. At the same time, Jean Tinguely produced six machines that were to form the counter-image to the colorful “Nanas” in the ensemble. After their joint work marathon, however, Niki de Saint Phalle was admitted to an American hospital, since the physically strenuous work and toxic materials had left the artist sick with pneumonia. After the end of the World’s Fair, the 15-piece group of works traveled to New York, only, however, to eventually finding a permanent home in the center of Stockholm at the Moderna Museet.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, The Paradise | Le Paradis fantastique, 1966 Photo: Murat Özsoy ,Image via

A queen for San Diego

Because of the pneumonia, Niki de Saint Phalle relocated to California in 1994 because of the climate there. She herself said of her new home: “California has been a rebirth for my soul and an earthquake for my eyes – sea, desert, mountains, wide open sky, brilliance of light, and the vastness of space.” In Escondido, California, the artist built the only site-specific sculpture garden in all of America. The garden, like the state, was named after the black Amazon queen Califia. The mosaic sculpture “Califia”, which stands at the center of the garden, is an archetype of female power and strength. She wears golden armor, holds a bird in the air, rides a monumental eagle, and is surrounded by eight totems. The garden is enclosed by an undulating wall, around which wind colorful mosaic snakes.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Califia, Image via

A Golem for Jerusalem

A work of particular pride for Niki de Saint Phalle, however, stands in Jerusalem: “The Golem”, Hebrew for monster, is a public sculpture in a playground in West Jerusalem, built between 1971 and 1972. Initially the sculpture, which was created in collaboration with the Israel Museum, was to be placed on the museum grounds, but de Saint Phalle insisted that the artwork be positioned in the public realm and be available to the entire population. The sculpture depicts a monster with three tongues coming out of its mouth down which children can slide, and this project, too, initially met with many a dissenting voice. Many parents feared that a scary monster would frighten their children, and the application to the city to build the sculpture was provisionally rejected. However, the mayor organized a second vote, which then proved successful. The artist actually intended the monster as a way to encourage children to overcome their fears and turn anxieties into something fun and playful. Niki de Saint Phalle herself said: “The Golem in Jerusalem is the sculpture I’m most proud of… Day after day, hundreds of children play on her and dream. They have conquered the monster…”

Niki de Saint Phalle, Golem, Image via


3 FEBRUARY – 21 MAY 2023