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Niki de Saint Phalle

Abstract composition

Sold for 200.000 SEK at Uppsala Auktionskammare’s Important Sale 5-9 december 2017.

418. Niki de Saint Phalle (France 1930‑2002). Abstract composition.
Signed, dated and dedicated For Gunella December 1956 Niki Mathews on reverse. Oil on panel with assemblage, 48 x 100 cm.

This painting was given to me in Paris when I left to return to Sweden in 1956 by Niki de Saint Phalle, whom I knew as Niki Mathews, as a token of friendship and thanks for my work with her two small kids during a challenging time of her life. In 1952, I lived with her and her husband Harry Mathews, as nanny to their daughter Laura, during which time Niki, who had been a model, as well as young mother/bohemian, experienced a psycho-emotional crisis (“nervous breakdown”), was hospitalized and began to paint as a form of therapy.

In 1951, I had come from a very small town in Northern Sweden and had moved to Paris, where I had met a Norwegian girl at the Champs de Mars Parc 14th (“a very good neighborhood”), while we were both caring for children of others. I was 19 at that time. She worked for a family that was planning to move south, and she didn’t want to leave her boyfriend. She asked if I wanted her position.

 Niki and Harry were 21 and 22. They invited me to join them at a rented Côte d’Azur villa in Menton, near Italy. My first task was to travel there by train with their first child Laura who was about 1,5 years old, full of energy, enjoyable, and very adventurous. We traveled by sleeping car, and I will never forget arriving – St. Tropez, Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo, Menton. I felt like a movie star.

I loved Niki and Harry because they treated me like an equal. They were just a few years older, but I saw them as so established, with a family, renting a house. We spoke English at home, and French with Laura, who was calling herself “Toc Toc” from a trip to Germany and her mispronunciation of the word for daughter, “tochter”. That summer I took Laura to the beach every day, which took about an hour and a half. We’d walk past all the villas, and then the long promenade, and then get to the beach. And I learned to speak French with her, since that was her only language. All of us would read Dr. Spock together. Something would come up with Laura, and we’d look it up and discuss what he proposed and what we thought about that. They were such an interesting couple. I had never been around people like that. For a proper, little northern, Swedish girl, I was awestruck by what I saw as their fearlessness. They were always traveling around from A to C to D-F and B, and along the way they would always stop to look up and drop in on artists they admired. Always searching to find and learn from any exhibitions and cultural experiences. I told myself, “This is the way I want to live my life.

When Niki and Harry had moved to Deia, Mallorca, Spain, and when their second child, Phillip, was born, they asked me to join them again, around 1955. He was being cared for by a Spanish woman, who was quite heavy and who was mostly just holding him still on her lap. The cozy love was good for his early development, but not very stimulating. They wanted me to provide him with more physical movement and intellectual activities.

 There was an active artist community in Deia, in part because this is where Robert Graves lived and wrote. Then, there was a horrible accident for Phillip. We lived up on the plaza, and Phillip was 2 1/2, still learning to walk. There was a terraced road, and he fell from it. Robert Graves had a sister who was a doctor and we took him to her right away to check for neurological symptoms and whether we should bring him to the hospital in Palma. She said she didn’t feel it was needed. After that, he refused to try to walk again for a while. I feel terrible about it until this day. This happened while Niki, Harry and Laura were traveling. When she came back she had become very excited and inspired by Gaudi’s creations in Barcelona, and Harry was very supportive of her developing her work.

 In 1956, they returned to Paris, and once again it was my job to travel by train with Phillip. In Paris, Niki once again became involved with a community of artists. I remember going with her to visit the Passage Ronçant where she had a friend who was very old and didn’t really want to move, but was told he was quite well known. It was the sculptor Jean Arp, and it wasn’t until I saw one of his exhibitions in Philadelphia, circa 1973 that I realized how famous he was. This was also around the time when Niki met her future companion, Jean Tinguely and his wife at that time. Those times were very experimental in terms of relationships and sexuality.

While living with the Mathews in Deia, I met my future husband and the father of our two daughters, Roy Doremus, a very young American painter, with whom I returned to my family in Björkå Bruk before getting married in Rome and moving to New York City for twenty years. I did not see Niki again until a happy reunion at her exhibition at MOMA, after she had become internationally recognized for her unique, joyful and explosive art, including the “Nanas.” I was actually surprised by how warmly and lovingly she greeted me, and together we made our way to “Adam’s Paradise” for her post show reception. I remember that Larry Rivers was there, as well as Andy Warhol with his instamatic camera. Niki had to leave NYC early to fly back to Paris to be with her son.

8 Augusti 2017
Gunilla Doremus

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