The Tarot Garden is one of those unique, extravagant places that will move you off your feet and transcend into another dimension of colorful, exuberant mysteries of transgression and creation. This monumental sculpture garden is created to celebrate the primal and erotic feminine mystique by one of the most prominent and charismatic feminist artists, Nikki de Saint Phalle.
She regarded it as her lifework and spent 22 years working on it. Since it was open in 1998, the Tarot Garden is an enchanting paradise for playful art, magic, and healing freedom just as its creator wanted it to be.
Nikki de Saint Phalle was a flamboyant, provocative and daring female of her time; a self-taught artist who more than anything fought for freedom expression. She was born in 1930 in France and had a troubled childhood. As a youth, because of her stunning beauty, she worked as a fashion model. It wasn’t until her nervous breakdown that she decided to devote her life to art fully. She started with painting and gained prominence for her provocative performances of shooting at her own paintings in the 1960s. After that, she turned to creating large, voluptuous female figures with big bodies and small heads called Nanas. But her greatest wish was to carry through an idea that came to her in a dream – a paradisal garden inspired by tarot cards.
In 1979 Nikki de Saint Phalle managed to obtain a 5-acre property in Pescia Fiorentina, Tuscany, to start working on her project. She was inspired by the magical Antonio Gaudi’s Parc Güel which she encountered first in 1955 and fell in love with instantly. But she was also influenced by the Italian Garden of Bomarzo and by Ferdinand Cheval’s Palais Idéal.
The Tarot Garden consists of 22 excessive, dreamlike and grotesque sculptures that represent tarot’s 22 major arcana that are placed among ochre fields and olive trees. Most of them were made of concrete and later covered by colorful mosaic, mirrors or glass, painted over or inscribed with messages, Nikki’s thoughts or quotes.
For this monolithic project that would today cost about $11 million, Nikki hired many local masons and collaborated with many artists. The circle entrance, for example, is designed by the famous Mario Botta. The most present is the work of her longtime partner, collaborator and second husband, Jean Tinguely, who is famous for his kinetic steel sculptures. They are quite a contrast to her work but perfectly fit into the tarot garden. The garden became a sort of an artistic colony that influenced and inspired the lives of many locals.
Upon entering the Tarot Garden, one would first encounter the figure of the Magician rested on the High Priestess. The first one is covered in mirrors, with empty eyes and a hand above its head pointed into the sky. The High Priestess is in blue ceramics with the mouth wide open and a big snake approaching on the stairs. After that is the Empress, a large sphinx-like figure with enormous breasts, interpreted as both nurturing and loving. What is most interesting about this figure is that the interior, completely covered in mirrors, is adapted to be a house in which Nikki lived while she was working. The bedroom is situated in one breast and the kitchen in the other. Besides that, it has a bathroom and a dining room.
Also stunning is the climbing figure of the Emperor that represents patriarchal dominance and male principle, also the Tree of Life with large snakes as branches or the golden Orphic egg entangled in a snake with a dancing Nana on top of it that represent the World.
Nikki de Saint Phalle continued working on the Tarot Garden until her death in 2002. Always driven by an irrational and deeply subjective need to create, she managed to envision the paradoxes and universal archetypes of the feminine. But above else, this garden is a playful place of pure joy. Today it is open to the public, and you will often see a bunch of children running around these surreal and wacky brightly-colored figures, enriching the feeling that you have entered into a magical realm without limitations and rules.