Niki and Yoko
From a Shitamachi Okami to a Niki de Saint Phalle Collector
Written by Yuki Kuroiwa
Translated by Nasuka Nakajima
Chapter 6. Niki Is Me!
The Fateful Encounter with the Print
It happened in August of 1980, shortly before the completion of Central 21 Building.
Shizue had been collecting tarot cards in those days. She did tarot readings for herself and others partly because she wanted to let off stream. Quite often she found the reading to be true and wondered why. Above all, she was attracted to the unique designs of tarot cards.
“It may be fun to decorate the walls of my coffee shop with tarot cards,” Shizue thought. She went to a foreign bookstore to buy some tarot cards. She noticed an art gallery next door, and casually dropped in.
Inside, she saw a silkscreen print. The background was painted over in solid black. A woman was looking at her with big eyes. The whole picture was interspersed with bright-colored elements such as a distorted woman’s body, a snake, lips, a heart, a hand, and the sun.
Shizue was immediately drawn to the print. The noise stopped around her. She felt as if she was captivated in the beam sent out from a UFO. “It was a vivid and intense experience. I felt as if my soul had been sucked into the print. Something in me was freed all at once and then it began to fill me up,” she recalled later.
For how long did she stand before the print? She was almost petrified because of the strong impact of the print.
Finally coming to her senses, she read the title, Love Letter to My Lover.
“Who made this print?”
She asked a female gallery clerk in a shaky voice.
“It was made by an artist named Niki de Saint Phalle.”
Shizue wasted no time to say the next words.
“I want to take all her works.”
The clerk, surprised to feel something serious in Shizue’s attitude, answered, “We have her sculptures, too. Let us make a list of her works and we’ll contact you when the list is completed.”
Shizue had no memory of how she went home that day.
Until then, Shizue had seldom shared with her family what she had experienced outside the home. This time, however, she repeatedly talked to her family members, “Niki, Niki, Niki” as if she was in delirium. For a span of three days and three nights, Shizue’s mind was occupied by the thoughts of that print. When she was awake, she was daydreaming about it; at night, the shape and colors of that print came at her in dream. The dream was the same for three nights. She once jumped out of bed, soaked with sweat.
For Heaven’s sake, what has become of me? What is happening to me? She had never had this kind of feeling.
Although the gallery clerk promised she would contact me later, I wonder if she’ll really do that.
Shizue was almost paranoid. She had to have Niki’s works as soon as possible. All she could think about was Niki. Observing her, Tsuji thought, “This is bloody serious.” Once Shizue decided on something, she characteristically had to go all the way. Tsuji often found that behavior too risky, too uncertain.
He said softly to Shizue, “I’m going with you to see those artworks.”
I’ll Buy All Her Works.
“I have decided to buy all of Niki’s works at that gallery,” Shizue announced. In those days, Tsuji, as an executive of PARCO, had ties to art circles and was quite knowledgeable about the industry. He said to her, a little worried, “You’ve never showed interest in art before, and bought no artwork. I’ll go with you. I don’t want to see you cheated.”
In a Drawing class in elementary school, the teacher said to the pupils, “Draw a picture freely. You can pick any subject you like.” Shizue thought it over, drew a goldfish peddler carrying metal basins on a pole and added a dialogue balloon over the peddler’s head. Then the teacher hit her in the head with a fist, saying, “Who told you to draw a manga?” After this experience, she was absolutely frightened with “Drawing.”
In her youth, she met Tsuji, the son of a Japanese-style painter, and went out with him many times in art museums on Ueno Hill. When Pablo Picasso’s works were exhibited, the couple hurried to see them. When Henri Matisse’s works came, they made time to go to see them. Despite all that, she always felt that “art” belonged to a distant world, having nothing to do with her.
That print was totally different from the artwork she had seen in the past. The instant she put her eyes on it, the art naturally seeped into her veins. Although she couldn’t understand the language written there, something inside her, something visceral, captivated her and it never let her go. She was crazy about the print; she felt as if she had fallen love with the print.
Other than the silkscreen print, the gallery exhibited several other prints, and small sculptures. She asked the clerk to let her see all the Niki’s works there. Most of the motifs were women, celebrating or glorifying their gender. They looked like goddesses of liberty who could break the world men had built.
That encounter with the works of Niki de Saint Phalle, whose nationality Shizue didn’t even know, evoked passion and freedom unbound by preconceived ideas inside her.
“I like them, too,” Tsuji agreed with her after viewing those works.
On the way home, Shizue said, appealingly, to Tsuji.
“I need to know what exactly Niki has painted and what she wants to say through her artwork. I’m going to display all the works from that gallery in the vacant space on the sixth floor of Central 21 Building so that I can have a close look at them. It’s not that I’ll found an art gallery. I just want to use the space that way.”
Tsuji offered his two cents. “Ueno is not a town of art galleries. It’s not an easy venue for contemporary art. Niki’s art may be fascinating and it may be fun if you just display and enjoy her works, but the management of a gallery is one of the toughest businesses. One more thing, the sixth floor is not a preferable location for the art business. You’d be under too much pressure, I’m afraid.”
Shizue rebutted. “There have been art museums in Ueno. It’s rather strange that there are no art galleries here. As an Ueno native, I want to perceive the town in positive terms. After all, I just love Ueno. I don’t intend to manage a gallery as a business. I just want to know Niki more. But if I have one, I definitely want as many people as possible to see her works. The gallery should be a site to provide information on Niki de Saint Phalle.”
In December of 1980, four months after her encounter with Niki’s works, an art gallery named “Space Niki” opened on the sixth floor of Central 21 Building in Ueno.
Shizue at Space Niki
Space Niki was 15 tsubo (approx. 530 sq. ft) in area. The predominant color of the interior was black; in order to set off the bright colors of Niki’s works, black was the only choice. Shizue planned to make it a multipurpose venue for musical performances, dancing, reading poems and screening films, centering around Niki’s art. Once I make it an enjoyable space, it will generate something new, something refreshing. Furthermore, women can make their expressive activities known to the public as well as have discussions here. That was the place she had been dreaming of, albeit vaguely.
Right after the opening of Space Niki, Shizue held an exhibition under the title of “The World of the Witch Who Terrified Paris: Niki de Saint Phalle Exhibition.” She displayed several prints and sculptures that she had purchased from the gallery.
The opening reception was packed with her friends and acquaintances. But after that, Space Niki, a quaint little place founded by an amateur art collector, was quite deserted. Nonetheless, Shizue was satisfied; she could take a long, close look at her favorite artwork, enjoying the feeling of having treasures to herself. At first, the prints looked so bright that she felt woozy; gradually, though, she was able to understand Niki’s humorous messages by viewing them one by one on a daily basis.
Shizue researched Niki’s activities. She ordered exhibition catalogues published abroad and translated them herself, using a French-Japanese dictionary. Whenever she had a visitor, she explained Niki’s work to him or her in her own unique way by using slides.
She could not yet imagine she would sell Niki’s works at her gallery. For starters, she wanted to have a place that she had visualized. Then she wanted to understand for herself why she named the space “Niki,” and most important, who in the world Niki was. She did everything through trial and error. She was not sure if others would understand what she was doing since even she knew almost nothing about the artist Niki de Saint Phalle yet.
Who On Earth Is Niki?
While Shizue studied Niki’s works and catalogues day by day, various questions surfaced.
Love Letter to My Lover, an openhearted work brimming with love and freedom, was created in 1968. However, works in her early days, from the 1950s through the early 1960s, were rather grotesque with a dark feeling. Those works totally contrasted Niki’s extraordinary beauty. This beautiful woman shot her own works with a shotgun in her hand. Attached to the canvass board were various objects with the motifs that included the church, the heart, monsters, men, and whores. They were placed on the board along with bags of paint, and when Niki shot at them, the paints would explode, splashing all over the objects. By shooting her own works, it signified her criticisms against the Algerian War, the Vietnam War and conservative values represented by patriarchy and the Catholic Church. Shizue shuddered in awe, learning about Niki’s violent relationship with her works, and at the gruesome nature of the shooting paintings.
“Niki is an artist with energy fraught with a touch of madness. I need to stay cool and not to be easily shocked by her.”
Shizue murmured, while reading a thick catalogue that she had ordered from France. Shizue had an excruciatingly hard time going through the pages of a series of demonic shooting paintings of 1962, The Red Witch and Monster’s Heart. Although those were mere reproductions of the works, it took her four to five years to be able to look straight at them.
Japan’s art circles began to take up the work of Niki de Saint Phalle around 1967. But in Shizue’s eyes, they introduced Niki in a perfunctory manner. The common statements included, “She was a typical pop artist of the 1960s,” “She could create such whimsical works because she was raised with a silver spoon,” and “Hers is an expression of sexual liberation as a free spirit.”
Shizue had a feeling that Niki had grown up suppressed in her home; she thought her shooting paintings was an outburst reaction to that suppression.
Niki looked at her father as a presence of absolute authority, yet, they had a love-hate relationship. Toward her mother, she seemed to harbor indelible complex feelings of anger, and a strong sense of rejection. These emotions were reflected in her works featuring the motifs of father and mother, and her autobiographic film Daddy (1972), which she directed and produced. She often named her works “devouring mothers.” There must be something deep about her family under Niki’s emotions. She has to be more than a free-spirited and uninhibited daughter of a rich family; there must have been something more profound like a hidden fear or anger. And perhaps, the magnitude of its quantity and quality helped shape her works.
Shizue’s curiosity was more and more galvanized.
According to Niki’s biographies, Niki was born in 1930 and was just one year older than Shizue. Niki’s father was a blue-blooded French banker but lost his fortune during the Great Depression that had started in 1929. The family moved to the United States. When her mother was pregnant with Niki, she found her husband having an affair. Thus, in the mind of her mother, Niki was an unwelcome daughter who “brought the bankruptcy and came with my husband’s affair.” (According to Niki’s 1994 autobiography, Niki was sexually abused by her father at age 11.) She eloped at 19, had two children and then divorced. After giving birth, she was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. Niki received no formal art education, yet, she decided to be an artist after starting to paint as a therapy. She had a quite a unique career. Niki once said, “I was doomed to keep fighting from when I was born.”
Shizue could not but find common threads between their lives. She always felt that when she was little, she had been shunned by her mother. That emotion for her mother prevented her from affirming herself with confidence. Because of her childhood war experience, she kept pent-up anger toward Japan’s prewar militarism and society in general. She also eloped young and suffered from depression. Being a reckless Shitamachi native, she made many mistakes, agonized over how she should live her life, and felt constrained in the gap between ideal and reality. Although she was blessed with two children, she could not fully become a family-oriented person; instead, she went into business. But, she had always fought against a male-dominated society.
“Niki is me!” Shizue thought.
After the period of shooting paintings, Niki worked on the motifs of women assigned or burdened with various roles in society: brides, whores, women in childbirth and witches. Niki created them before the women’s liberation movement gained momentum in the late 1960s. “A true artist foresaw the coming of a new era!” Shizue appreciated her.
In 1965, Niki made her signature sculptures, Nana series. In Nanas¸ some parts of female body were omitted or extremely exaggerated. Nanas were humorous and charming female figures; their full bodies were round and colorful; their eyes, noses, fingers and toes were omitted. Their breasts and hips were large in contrast to their small heads. In celebration of the female form, those Nanas, a free and lively bundle of energy, looked quite at ease with their own robust legs, dancing, jumping and standing on their heads. It looked as if they were saying, “It’s no use to think too deeply!”
In 1966, Niki produced Hon (“She” in Swedish) with her fellow artists including her life-long partner and artist Jean Tinguely [1925 – 1991]. Hon was a gigantic Nana, 82 feet long, 30 feet wide, 20 feet tall, and weighed 6 tons, sprawled on her back with her legs spread. Visitors entered the sculpture through the crotch called the “Gate of Life” into the womb and went around inside the body. The interior was equipped with a movie theater, a planetarium and a milk bar. It was erotic and humorous, and known as an ancient Earth Goddess, the Mother of All Whores, a Cathedral, a Noah’s Ark and a female Gulliver. In addition to its size, the eccentricity of the idea and the abundant capacity astounded the visitors.
After that, the Niki world was evolving all the time. Her colorful works with humor and profundity reached a magnificent level, transcending the dimension of directly expressing her anger and the gender issues.
Little by little, Shizue appreciated Niki and her art. The more she appreciated Niki, the more she loved Niki, and became further absorbed into the Niki world.
“One exhibition is not enough to know Niki,” Shizue thought.
After hosting the first Niki exhibition in February, 1981, Shizue introduced Niki de Saint Phalle in one exhibit after another for one whole year: “Part 2: Film Daddy and fifteen posters created by Niki” in March, “Part 3: Film Daddy and New Arrival Prints” in April, “Part 4: New Arrival Prints Exhibition” in August, “Part 5: Niki and Her World ~ Photo Exhibition” in October and “Part 6: the World of Niki’s Sculptures” in November. Shizue provided a commentary on every work of Niki’s, using slides, answered the visitors’ questions, and conducted questionnaire surveys.
Hit Me Right in the Heart.
Upon hearing of the opening of Space Niki, one newspaper reporter thought, “A new gallery named after an artist’s name was launched. It’s a newsworthy event.” The reporter, Haruki Shigekawa of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, rushed to Space Niki. He had recognized Niki as a forerunner of the women’s liberation movement, closely following her activities. Shigekawa and Shizue hit it off well.
“Art took root in a corner in Ueno-Hirokoji. My hunch is that with female artist Niki de Saint Phalle as a starting point, culture and art will spread, making rapid progress. It will involve Japanese society as a whole and change everyone’s perception of art,” said Shigekawa to Shizue. He also introduced Space Niki in his newspaper.
On the other hand, spiteful art critics remained skeptical. “The artist Niki has nothing to do with Japan. What is worse, she is out of date, belonging in the 1960s. Why in the world are you chasing after such an artist, Mrs. Masuda?” Every time Shizue was asked questions, she would answer like this:
“Niki shot a bullet into her shooting paintings in the 1960s, and that bullet flew around the earth and hit me right in the heart twenty years later. Niki is an artist who transcends the difference of ethnicity, zeitgeist, and regionality.”
For Shizue, Niki was always about “the present.” She was convinced, “Niki’s works don’t lose their importance no matter how the trends change.” She concluded as follows:
What is “the past” for an artist who continues to live the present and be creative? I believe that creation is life itself and soul, in other words, it is nothing but the embodiment of a pure self or soul. The artist’s soul continues to soar freely, transcending time and space, and ultimately reaches both Heaven and Hell. When it happens, what significance does “time” have?
Going to See Niki
Yoko’s first Paris visit
A reporter from an art magazine came to interview Shizue. After the interview, he was surprised about one thing.
“Do you mean you’ve never met Niki?”
“What? Do I have to meet her?”
Shizue was totally taken aback by the question. Although she had been captivated by Niki’s charm, she had never imagined actually meeting the artist. That was an unrealistic dream to her. However, people around her increasingly talked that Shizue “should meet Niki.” As a result, Shizue began to feel like meeting Niki in person.
Still, Shizue did not see Niki until she understood her well. Being a woman of action, she immediately hired Atsuko Ubukata, a French literature graduate student and later a scholar of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy, as her French tutor, and re-learned French from the basics. She gathered further information on Niki.
Yet, the more she was informed of Niki, the more reluctant she felt to meet her. Niki came from an aristocratic family, beautiful enough to pose for the Vogue magazine cover. Magazine articles described her, “Capricious and difficult. She doesn’t accept interview requests easily.” Shizue thought, “I don’t want to see such a woman under any circumstances even if she were a Japanese.”
Shizue’s dilemma was that she couldn’t afford to take that attitude since she also strongly wished that more people in Japan could appreciate Niki’s art. To achieve this goal, Shizue would have to host a large-scale Niki de Saint Phalle exhibition in Japan. Then, she could not avoid negotiating with the artist in person.
Starting at the Pompidou Center, the National Contemporary Art Museum in Paris in 1980, a large-scale Niki de Saint Phalle exhibition had been touring Europe. Shizue wrote to Pontus Hultén [1924 – 2006], the first director of the Pompidou Center, that she wished to contact Niki. Hultén had planned Niki’s monumental Hon project as the director of Stockholm Modern Art Museum.
Shizue’s letter was translated into English, and delivered to Hultén, thanks to the help of her supporters. Finally, the meeting with Niki was possible. There had been a rumor in Niki’s circles in Paris, “There is a fanatic woman in Tokyo who worships Niki’s artworks day in and day out.” Because of this rumor, Niki had expressed interest in Shizue.
Thus, in June, 1981, Shizue flew to France to meet Niki. Shizue had dreaded traveling by airplane and it was her first foreign trip. However, she did it out of sheer determination to see Niki.
“I hear that France has a high crime rate,” Oyamada said, concerned. He had been the manager of Space Niki. On the day of departure, when he picked her up at home, his eyes widened. Shizue was standing in front of her house, her cap pulled over her eyes, and wearing overalls.
“Look, everybody will think I’m a man. Nobody will attack me,” Shizue deadpanned.
Maiden in Love
Niki is walking toward me!
It was a coincidence. She was a tall, slender, exquisite beauty with a Cleopatra-like ornament in her hair. Following her was a tall, young man carrying a life-size figure, an artwork created by the former wife of Jean Tinguely, Eva Aeppli [1925 – 2015]. The couple stood out everywhere they went in this upscale residential area of Paris.
At that moment, Shizue was walking with stage director Yasu Ohashi, who had been living in Paris. The person who had introduced Ohashi to Shizue was Kazuko Koike, a well-known copywriter whose work included the advertisement for PARCO. Shizue could not believe that they had run into Niki just two days prior to their appointment, and on a Paris street, no less! Shizue was terribly nervous when she was introduced to Niki; later, she barely remembered if they had shaken hands. It was her first face-to-face encounter with Niki.
Niki said to Shizue, “I’ll be waiting for you in my Soisy studio the day after tomorrow,” and walked breezily away. Seeing Niki off, Shizue kept standing there, dazzled by her radiating aura, which was even brighter than Shizue had expected.
On the day of the appointment, Niki regaled Shizue and Ohashi with Vietnamese cuisine in her Soisy home in the suburbs of Paris. The man they saw the day before turned out to be Niki’s boyfriend and photographer, and he had prepared the Vietnamese dishes for them. Shizue, as nervous as before, clammed up during the meal. She kept eating, with her head down, as if she were a shy maiden in love.
“Do you like the food?” Niki’s boyfriend asked. When Ohashi interpreted, Shizue said, “Hai (yes)” in a small voice. She could do nothing but occasionally answer, “Hai” or “Iie (no).”
After the meal, Niki asked Shizue, “Why do you like my art?” All of a sudden, Shizue began to offer her view and theory on Niki with much excitement. Ohashi interpreted Shizue’s words. Niki listened, laughing and clapping her hands happily.
Later, Niki showed Shizue her warehouse. Laying before her were a number of works she had seen in catalogues. Familiar with all of them, she identified every piece with the correct dates, “This was created in the year of …” Niki was amazed, “You truly know my work.” Thus, Niki nicknamed Shizue “Walking Dictionary.”
Guided by the Tarot Cards
Niki asked Shizue, “How did you come to know my work?” Shizue answered that as a tarot cards collector, she was looking for new cards when she encountered a Niki print. Hearing this, Niki stood in surprise, “Oh! Tarot!” She grabbed Shizue’s hand and took her to her art studio. On a big table was a mysteriously-looking clay maquette (small model). Niki was excited.
“Look at this! This is my life-long theme. I’ve just started this project to realize an earthly paradise in the form of a sculpture park. The Tarot Garden with tarot cards as its motif!” she talked in a breath.
Niki was amazed. “Talk about a coincidence!” Shizue felt the same way. They got into a deep conversation, holding each other’s hands.
Shizue was totally taken aback to hear Niki’s grand idea of the Tarot Garden. What a spectacular dream she has! Niki wanted to create a garden in harmony with the surrounding nature on a vast estate in Tuscany, Italy; enormous sculptures would be interspersed, representing the twenty-two trump cards of the Major Arcana. The shape of the maquette, though extremely odd-looking, was described in minute detail. Niki continued.
“I see myself as ‘the Fool,’ Tarot Card, No. 0. ‘The Fool’ is the one who is searching for the raison d’etre of his or her soul. That’s what I’m going to do with this sculpture garden.”
She added, “By all means, come see my Tarot Garden, Shizue.”
This was the start of a twenty-year-old friendship between Shizue and Niki.
Illustrated Letters from Niki
Several days into Shizue’s return to Tokyo, a large white envelope from Niki arrived by airmail.
“It’s a letter from Niki!”
Shizue opened the envelope, her heart going pit-a-pat, as if this were a love letter from her heartthrob. A colorful drawing by Niki jumped out at her.
Next to the drawing, it said, “Hello! I was really happy to meet you at last!” Niki drew a tree-shaped female body spreading out branches and roots. The tips of them were heads of snakes. The two hands, nearby, were shaking with one another.
“It’s an illustrated letter!” Shizue shouted, flushed in excitement.
“Just because I’m an admirer of Niki, she was kind enough to meet me, and on top of that, she sent me such a wonderful letter.”
She was overjoyed. Right away, she framed the letter and hung it on a wall of her room. Every morning and evening, she looked at it and energized herself. In those days, she was in the middle of a tough trial involving the issue of her late father being a joint guarantor, in which, depending on the outcome, she would had been forced to be evicted from her own building. But Niki’s letter was certainly a huge pick-me-up for Shizue.
After that, Niki and Shizue continued to write to each other. Their correspondence, including faxed letters, numbered over five hundred.