Niki and Yoko
From a Shitamachi Okami to a Niki de Saint Phalle Collector
Written by Yuki Kuroiwa
Translated by Nasuka Nakajima
Chapter 7. A Decision at Age 50
I Want to Start a Niki Museum.
After Shizue met Niki in Paris, she introduced Niki to Japan more energetically than before. She had hosted Niki exhibitions in rapid succession at Space Niki; the more she got to know Niki, the deeper she delved the world of Niki de Saint Phalle. She realized once again that Niki’s exhibitions should be held at larger venues to share her work with as many Japanese people as possible.
Shizue reported to Niki on the daily tasks in great detail; the translation of catalogues published by the Pompidou Center and the Sprengel Museum, Germany, and the production notes of Hon (1966), and the Daddy pamphlet with the Japanese-English-French script. When newspapers or local magazines focused on Niki in Japan, she had the articles translated into English and sent to her.
Shizue expressed her passion and plans in letters to Niki. “I would like to invite you to Japan, so I am trying to do my best now,” “The more I know you, the more I feel that women as many as possible should know that such a splendid woman as you is living on this earth,” and “I have been thinking what is the best way to let people here know you and I think it would be best if you could write about you, your life and thoughts for love and art. If you are interested at all, it is possible for me to find some way to publish it here in Japan.” She wrote on and on.
However, none of those proposals were realized right away. Niki was too busy. She was occupied with many simultaneous projects in France, Italy and Switzerland. In addition, Niki was suffering from lung damage caused by the mineral dust she inhaled repeatedly in her younger days when working without a mask. It was true that Niki had sent Shizue an illustrated letter, but she had just met Shizue; she had no time or obligation to quickly cooperate with a new admirer in the Far East.
Nonetheless, Shizue was thinking about what she could do for the future.
“Niki described herself as a ‘Fool’ at that time. That’s the same with me. I’ve been trying to find out who I am for long time. I’m attracted to Niki’s works this much probably because they will give me the answer. Her works are guiding me.”
“Niki is me. The world of Niki’s works is her autobiography and at the same time, my autobiography, as well as any woman’s autobiography.”
“Oh, yes! I’ll start a Niki museum someday and introduce Niki and her works to many people. And I’ll create a place where many women can talk about themselves with each other and empower themselves.”
Shizue made the decision. She was fifty years of age.
From the moment Shizue decided to found a museum for Niki, her mind was solely occupied with how to do it; every day, she focused on the preparation process of the museum. For starters, she had to accept that she was totally a novice in the field of art. I myself have to learn about the art circles. Then, I’ll create an environment where Niki’s museum could be easily welcomed by the Japanese. I also have to acquire many supporters.
Next, Shizue decided that Space Niki should be a venue to exhibit not only Niki’s works but also the works of a number of Japanese artists. One after another, she organized individual and group exhibitions for artists she had selected based on her unique sensibility. The artists included the following: Shuichi Yamada [1948 – ], a Western-style painter who loved Niki ‘s art and was an early visitor to Space Niki; Shizuo Hariu [1936 – ], an oil-painter and Shizue’s fellow student at Kuromon Elementary School; Tamotsu Sato, a Japanese-style painter who opened the “Life Drawing Workshop” for Shizue and Tsuji when they were young; Yoko Kamijo [1937- ], the first female painter recipient of the Yasui Award in 1978; Aimei Ozaki [1933 – ], a designer and painter; Kei Hiraga [1936 – 2000], an internationally renowned visual artist, and Yosuke Inoue [1931 – 2016], a creator of picture books, tableaux and cartoons. Visitors to Space Niki grew steadily.
Visitors to Space Niki included distinguished foreign artists such as John Cage [1912 1992], an U. S. avant-garde artist, and Jean-Pierre Raynaud [1939 – ], a French contemporary artist. The seeds Shizue had sowed began to sprout.
One day a short gentleman came into Space Niki, covering his face with his hand. That was Taro Okamoto [1911 – 1996], a celebrated Japanese artist noted for his abstract and avant-garde paintings and sculptures. “I know who you are, sir,” Shizue said. Okamoto answered with an impish smile, “Oh, you saw me,” putting his hand down. Since he had seen Niki’s works at Expo Montreal 1967, he had been a big admirer of Niki. While looking at slides, their conversation about Niki grew lively. He would support Shizue later on.
Reporters from TV stations, newspapers and magazines came to interview Shizue. She wrote to Niki, “I took action, which is arousing reactions in the various cultural fields in Japan. It’s really exciting.” She didn’t care for profit. She was simply crazy about Niki’s work. That extraordinary zeal and devoted passion helped inspire and engage people around her.
Then a letter came from Niki.
Shizue had sent her presents, two dresses made of kimono fabric and tanmono (roll of fabric) for a white yukata (light summer kimono) printed with many dancing Nanas prints in black. “Niki must have liked those presents,” Shizue opened the letter, smiling.
For a moment, her face froze. Niki’s letter was far from what Shizue’d expected. Niki was filled with anger because Shizue had printed her works on tanmono without consulting her.
“I may have to have a lawyer take legal action if you do a thing like this. Besides, you should know that my works are known for their bright colors. The reason I am very upset is that I have seen that you have changed my work and done them in black and white without asking me.”
There was a fierce anger in those words.
I took the extra trouble and it ended up making Niki mad at me. Shizue was utterly shocked and overwhelmed with grief. She became painfully aware that she had been totally ignorant of copyright. Apparently, Niki interpreted that Shizue would commercialize Niki’s works.
To make things worse, since air mail took time, their replying letters were missing one another; Niki’s angry letters kept arriving in succession. The content of Niki’s letters grew increasingly serious. It’s true that Shizue was ignorant and naive. But the heart-breaking part was the reality that Niki did not trust Shizue.
“All I want to do is to praise Niki’s work …”
To every angry mail, Shizue wrote back politely and patiently. She explained that tanmono was a personal gift for Niki and she had never intended to sell it. She wrote those letters with all sincerity. She explained that she used monochrome because the Japanese always valued black-and-white drawings such as suiboku-ga (sumi-e ink paintings) and emphasized that the last thing Shizue wanted to do was to degrade Niki’s works.
Above all, Shizue earnestly asked for Niki’s forgiveness.
Shizue Feels Depressed.
Since Shizue had received Niki’s angry letters, she confined herself to her room and kept crying. Thinking about Niki’s fierce rage, she could neither sleep nor eat; she suffered from a nervous breakdown. The path she believed she should take was suddenly blocked. That was a great shock to her.
Kazumi Miyamoto, a friend through the theater group Bluebird (Aoi Tori), later said that she was asked by Shizue to stay with her even when she was asleep. Yoko Nakano, who would later work as Shizue’s interpreter, recited poems of Sachiko Yoshihara and Sylvia Plath over the phone to cheer her up. Some brought meals to her. Others took her out. Many friends tried to lift her spirits.
One month into such a period, Man-yo-shu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) and other poems recurred constantly in Shizue’s mind; she used to recite them in her school days. “Shiratama wa, hito ni shiraezu, shirazu tomo yoshi, shirazu tomo, ware shi shireraba, shirazu tomo yoshi.” (My true worth that is comparable to a pearl, resting at the bottom of the sea, is not known to others. But, it doesn’t matter if others don’t know it. Even if they don’t, if I myself know my true worth, it doesn’t matter if the world doesn’t recognize it.) (Man-yo-shu) composed by a monk of the Gango-ji Temple. “Shiratori wa, kanashi karazuya, sora no ao, umi no ao nimo, somazu tadayou.” (Would a swan not ever grieve that she should remain adrift, untainted by the sky blue or the sea blue alone?) composed by Bokusui Wakayama [1885 – 1928]. Shizue recited in whispers and thought, “People kept their worries to themselves in a resolute manner during the Man-yo period (the late 7th century – the late 8th century). I should not feel sorry for myself over relatively trivial matters such as this one.” Gradually, she began to muster courage from within.
Yes. I’m going to express my feelings in a poem and send it to Niki.
Then, she spoke aloud, “I’ll forget my behavior this last month and start over.” Quickly, she brought out sheets of paper and a pen.
It is just too hard for me to take the Fact that I, the woman under the tree in a country.
Thousands of miles away who is Dreaming to be Surrounded by The Joyous World of You, Niki,
With Nanas, serpents, dragons, trees…
Who, so dearly and sincerely wish to share Your World
Every day, everywhere, watching TV
Walking on the crowded street of Tokyo,
Even during her sleep,
Made such a careless deed which made you,
The most important person in my life,
I am The Monster
Who loved his Princess too much
And, in result, unknowingly,
Caused her such a pain inside
Now the Monster
Is crying、Crying like a hell
Crying to the wall of castle
Where his dearest Princess is
TEARS OF MONSTER…
Guess who I am
I am the Devouring Mother who, at first, had
Tried to Protect herself, only Herself, so fragile
From the harsh reality outside, from
The Cruel World and People around her
And — I did not realize that
I grew to be the Devouring Mother
Who made you unexpectedly sad and hurt.
Oh sad Devouring Mother who could forgive her?
She just needs forgiveness from
Only One Person
That is You, you, you, she says.
Have you ever read a Story of a Serpent
Who is not so clever
(But, I assure you, no one can Beat His Honesty,
His Faith towards the treasures)
Who is closed up, clogged in a Small Cave,
But trying to let the outside World Know that
There are stored treasures and
That he is surely Alive,
Crawling, desperately Searching
For a Guiding Light?
I know where he can find this Light
It is in You, Niki de Saint Phalle.
I cannot help wishing
He will find his way out—
The Serpent is
Shizue sent this poem to Niki. After a while, she received a reply from Niki.
Thank you for your letters. All is forgiven and forgotten.
This is a short note before I leave for Switzerland.
Have a wonderful winter.
I will write you from there.
The Birth of “Yoko Shizue Masuda”
One day, while looking at Niki’s works, Shizue was overwhelmed by this mysterious feeling, “I want to draw pictures, too.” Since she had been harshly reprimanded by the teacher in the first drawing class in elementary school, she had avoided drawing. What is the matter with me? Now I feel like drawing pictures! Puzzled and unsure by this feeling, she began to commute to a drawing workshop organized by Tsuji at PARCO.
After finishing a picture, she was told to sign her pseudonym.
“What’s the suitable pseudonym for me?”
When she visited Niki, she was asked, “What does Shizue mean?” and answered, “It means a tranquil inlet.” Niki said, “That sounds calm and quiet.” Shizue had been feeling the same. Shizue had also noticed that Niki had trouble pronouncing “zu” of “Shizue.” “I’d like to make my pseudonym easy for Niki to say,” she thought.
“I have an idea! I’ll borrow Niki’s name. NIKI means two trees in Japanese. And YOKO: a great, wild ocean child which is more grand than a tranquil inlet.”
Soon she wrote to Niki.
“This is my personal news. I’ve started drawing. My pseudonym is YOKO NIKI. Please call me Yoko from now on.”
Shizue not only made her pseudonym Yoko but also called herself Yoko in her daily life, and declared to her friends and acquaintances, “I’m going to call myself Yoko from now on. Therefore, please call me Yoko-san, everyone. Otherwise, I’ll fine you 100 yen.”
She strictly demanded this new rule to her sons and their wives and her grandchildren. If any of them called her “Mom” or “Grandma,” she would collect 100 yen as a penalty.
Thus, Yoko Shizue Masuda was born.
Visiting the Long-Awaited Tarot Garden
An uchiwa (round fan) on which Yoko drew a picture and signed “Yoko Niki.”
In May of 1983, Yoko and her second son, Masashi, landed at the Fiumicino Airport in Rome under a clear blue sky. It was an unseasonably warm day for May. The Tarot Garden was Shizue’s long-desired destination. As for Masashi, after graduating from the Department of Photography, Nihon University College of Art, he had become a photographer. He accompanied her to photograph the Tarot Garden under construction. In 2008, his photographs were featured in the book The Tarot Garden, which was supervised and published by Shizue Masuda.
At the airport, they were welcomed by Niki’s female assistant, Venera. After a one-hour drive on the highway, and then traveling on a country road surrounded with olive groves, a gently sloping hill came into sight. Sticking out here and there on the hill were large, monumental white objects. Those round-shaped objects looked like animals. They looked the same as the mysterious maquettes that Shizue had seen in Niki’s studio.
“That is the Tarot Garden,” Venera said, pointing at it.
Yoko got out of the car and said to Masashi.
“Amazing. Keep taking photographs. Black and white, color, positives, negatives, everything!”
Niki was standing alone in the middle of the mild slope at the entrance of the Tarot Garden; she was wearing a loose white embroidered Mexican-style dress and a broad-brimmed hat. The dress looked lovely on the tall Niki. By contrast, Yoko wore a lustrous silver and black stripe shirt and black trousers. Once Niki described Yoko, “Yoko is really elegant. I like the clothes Yoko chooses. I like Yoko’s sense of style. We are two fashion-loving feminists.”
Niki and Yoko rejoiced in their reunion, holding each other’s hands. When introduced to Masashi by Yoko, Niki hugged him with a kiss on the cheek. When a Japanese is kissed by a Westerner for the first time, he or she often feels embarrassed or does not know what to do. Masashi reacted by wiping it with the back of his hand, which made Yoko feel uneasy.
“Let’s go, Yoko.”
Niki held Yoko’s hand happily and started climbing up the slope in the garden.
A Door Leading to the Tarot Garden
Niki was influenced by Ferdinand Cheval’s palace. (photo taken by Yoko)
In her mid-twenties, Niki experienced three fateful encounters.
The first was with the Park Güell in Barcelona, Spain, created by Antonio Gaudi [1878 – 1912]. The Park was Niki’s happy sanctuary; there, she could escape from her anxiety, forget about time, and attain a spiritual state of selflessness. Just before her first visit to it, Niki had decided to live as an artist. She spoke about the experience, “I was overwhelmed by a feeling just like St. Paul when he saw God in the light of His glory. I foresaw that someday I would be able to create a space where people could stay happy.”
The second encounter was with Jean Tinguely, a Swiss sculptor known for sculptural machines or kinetic art made of scrap parts. Niki received no formal education in art. Because she couldn’t find peace at home from her youth, she wanted to make a place for herself. When she met Tinguely, already an established artist, she said to him, “I want to make my own utopia,” he encouraged her, saying, “Technique is nothing. Dream is everything.” The two shared a studio and got married when Niki was 40. Even after they divorced, they stayed artistic partners for life.
The third encounter was with the mysterious Ideal Palace built by Ferdinand Cheval [1836 – 1924] in Hauterives in the southern France. Cheval, a postman, collected stones on the roadsides and built a massive peculiar-shaped castle of grottoes, spending more than 30 years beginning in 1879. Although he was treated as an eccentric during its creation, the palace would be designated as cultural property in France 40 years after his death. According to Niki, “Cheval showed me that if you persevere in your efforts, your dream will come true. His palace was not designed according to a plan in his head; it was a visualization and embodiment of the unconscious world. That’s why it appeals to many people.”
These three fateful encounters opened a door leading to the creation of Niki’s own “Ideal Palace.”
At the age of 48, in 1978, Niki began working on the concrete concept of the Tarot Garden. Niki had built monumental sculptures, including Hon (1966), in venues all over the world and learned the technique of making them. With the help of her friends, she acquired the site to realize her dream in Tuscany, “the best picturesque scenery” in Italy. There building-sized sculptures, representing the Major Arcana, would be interspersed.
Niki discovered tarot cards in the 1960s when she was suffering from depression. She found the readings to be true so often, and was surprised, wondering if she was controlled by tarot cards. She said, “Tarot cards are roads for me. I’m the traveler on those roads.”
What was unique about the Tarot Garden was the fact that Niki sponsored the project herself. Nobody would interfere with her and there would be no deadline. That was “complete freedom” for Niki, but she continued to have difficulty funding the project.
Yoko learned much about the Tarot Garden and it gave her a glimpse of Niki’s indomitable spirit and ever-inquiring mind; Niki would never give up and continue to strive for her goals. Later, Yoko wrote the following:
Niki describes herself as “born under the star sign of double scorpion (her birth sign is Scorpio with Scorpio in the ascendant).” In astrology, people of Scorpio are said to be rather obsessed. If you look at the positive side of such character, it means that they have staying power. Constant staying power that enables the achievement of an objective with a very clear idea. The intensity of such power goes without saying when it is doubled.
Yoko Bursts into Tears.
In the garden, Yoko was greeted by the towering sculptures, the Magician Tarot Card, No. 1 and the High Priestess Tarot Card, No. 2. With the foundations already cemented, all that was left was to put tiles and mirrors on them. The framework of The Emperor Tarot Card, No. 4 was still exposed. The place looked like a building construction site; there were cement bags and building materials here and there, and the workers were silently doing their tasks, including welding, on the dusty premises. Niki guided Yoko around explaining each task.
The workers were local carpenters, electricians and plasterers. Among those male Italian workmen, Niki played the role of their “Mother.” She served tea and cooked meals for them, and gave them orders. Although they initially did not know much about modern art, they began to take pride in participating in this project. It took Niki a while to establish real contact with so many workmen; under much emotional stress, she had to learn to direct them.
Since the start of the Tarot Garden construction, Niki had developed rheumatoid arthritis. For a time, she could not move her hands or walk due to the severe pain; she lost 20 pounds.
“I’m thinking about putting blue tiles there, Yoko.”
Niki was pointing at the High Priestess. Seeing her bony arm, Yoko was deeply moved, and thought, “Niki may be poised to die in a battle here.”
The mealtime came. About twenty people, including Niki, Yoko and Niki’s assistants, went to a neighborhood restaurant. Niki talked to Yoko, “Come sit next to me.”
During the meal, Yoko burst into tears. It was because Niki had told her, “A Japanese client hasn’t paid me yet for my artwork.” Yoko said, “I’m so ashamed as a fellow Japanese. It’s unforgivable to deceive Niki who creates so many beautiful works,” while weeping like a child. It astounded people around her, let alone Niki and Masashi.
Yoko had never cried in public; she had been living without showing weakness to others. To those who knew her, it was impossible to see her wail in the presence of other people. However, after witnessing in person Niki’s extraordinary passion toward her works here at the Tarot Garden, Yoko couldn’t bear to see Niki, who was pouring her heart and soul into a historical project, being hindered by mundane problems. In a swirl of uncontrollable emotions, Yoko swore to herself that she would never hamper Niki’s creative activity.
Stroking the back of the still sobbing Yoko, Niki gently consoled her, “It’s not your fault, Yoko. Please don’t cry.”
The Two Share Their Own Dreams.
“Come here, Yoko.” Niki beckoned Yoko. Niki had interpreted a sphinx according to her original viewpoint and embodied it into the Empress Tarot Card, No. 3, a cheerful, powerful Goddess of Love. Its foundation had already been cemented. Niki led Yoko into the inner space.
“I’ve moved into this Empress,” said Niki. There was almost nothing inside; a hole had been dug and used as a simple pantry-like space for daily necessities.
“The first floor will be an art studio, and I will attach kitchenette to it. On the second floor, one of the sphinx’s breasts will be a bedroom. I’m going to sleep there.”
There was a round space inside the Empress. Yoko, surprised to see it, moved her gaze to Niki. They looked at each other and burst into laughter.
Niki started her artistic career to overcome her mental illness; her early works were full of the venomous qualities of curses. Now she had won the showdown with her inner monster. She was living in the Goddess of Love and was going to sleep inside its breast. Yoko could not help but feel profound emotion.
“We can climb up further,” Niki said and started to go up a pretty, mildly inclined staircase molded on the outside, which led to a roof terrace; the views of the Mediterranean from the terrace were panoramic. The olive groves surrounding the Garden could be seen. If I come here at night, I can see stars clearly. Yoko imagined how beautiful they would be.
“I’m going to put tiles here, too, featuring the motif of the universe,” Niki said. They sat on a curved bench on the terrace. A fresh breeze blew through them.
“You know, Yoko. I find it significant that I, as a woman, have been able to carry out such grand-scale projects. I don’t know why I was chosen to do it though,” Niki confided.
“That’s wonderful! If there’s anything I can do for you, just tell me,” Yoko replied.
After a moment of silence, Yoko added,
“I’ve been thinking about . . . founding an art museum for you in Japan.”
Niki’s eyes widened in surprise.
“What? … Yoko … How wonderful! I really appreciate it. It’s so great you made that decision. In fact, Jean and I once said that somebody would surely create our museum someday.”
Niki and Yoko talked about their futures, holding each other’s hands, as if they were young girls. A penetrating blue Tuscan sky was above them.