Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Niki de Saint Phalle spent her first three years in France, then lived in New York with her parents.
A visual artist, painter, sculptor and film director, she began her career as a model and actress. At the age of 11, she was raped by her father; she made this secret public in 1994, in her book Mon Secret, followed by Traces (1999), which proposed a beginning of pacification. She became a rebellious teenager and took refuge in writing. In 1950 she married Harry Mathews, a future writer, with whom she had a daughter and a son. They moved to Paris in 1951, where she studied theatre, an activity she interrupted in 1953 following a serious nervous breakdown. She then chose painting as a therapy. In 1959, her discovery of the new American painting - Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns - was a dazzling revelation. The following year, she separated from Mathews, who obtained custody of the children, and moved in with Jean Tinguely.
In 1961, Niki joined the Nouveaux Réalistes group, among whom she was the only woman. Through her participation in an intervention with J. Johns, R. Rauschenberg and J. Tinguely, she gained acceptance in the still very male artistic avant-garde of the time. Gradually, she began to tackle the representation of women and the eternal clichés: the witch, the devourer, the young bride, which would gradually invade her creation.
Four years later, the Nanas came on the scene: they were initially made of wool, paper mache and metal sculpture, but were already brightly coloured. In 1967, Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely created Paradis fantastique, a group of 15 moving figures for the roof of the French pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal.
The Nanas are the power in the sculptor's work. As a film director, she wrote the screenplay for two versions of the film Daddy (1973), in which she plays and questions her relationship with her father. Her next projects included the Stravinsky Fountain in Paris and her AIDS information book Aids: You Can't Catch It Holding Hand, which was widely distributed and adapted into an animated film, which she made with her son in 1989.
The Nana entitled "La Grande Tempérance" was made in 1992. The sculpture, made of polychrome laminated polyester resin and hand-painted by the artist, was acquired by Luxembourg as part of the European Year of Culture in 1995. The work even caused a scandal during the Octave procession in 1995. It was preventively hidden under a tarpaulin so as not to irritate the pilgrims.
Since this unusual episode, Nana has not ceased to gain in popularity with the Luxembourg population. Completely renovated, the sculpture has found its place in the park of the Villa Vauban.
Niki de Saint Phalle died of a lung disease in San Diego, caused by inhaling the materials used in her famous Nanas.