Niki de Saint Phalle: Le Cimetière de Montparnasse
Cimetière du Montparnasse, the famous cemetery in Paris, was established in 1824. It is the resting place of many artists, poets, authors, and intellectuals. It is also where two of Niki de Saint Phalle’s friends, Ricardo Menon and Jean-Jacques Goetzman, are buried. Saint Phalle created sculptures to be installed at their graves. Both men were HIV positive and died of AIDS.
Niki de Saint Phalle was very involved in the fight against AIDS. In 1987 she published the book, AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands in English and later in French, German, Japanese, and Italian. In 1990 and 1991 she participated in the creation of a series of animated public service announcements for France Sécurité Sociale. She did so with her son, Philip Mathews, to help raise awareness about the disease. By this time a number of Saint Phalle’s friends had been diagnosed with AIDS and funerals had sadly become all too frequent.
A Cat For Ricardo
Ricardo was Niki de Saint Phalle’s assistant for ten years. He worked with her in the Tarot Garden, eventually living in the Tower of Babel. He introduced her to the ceramicist, Venera Finocchiaro, who later made all the ceramics for the Tarot Garden. When she experienced debilitating arthritis, Ricardo would feed, carry, and bathe her. They shared an incredibly strong bond. Saint Phalle often warned Ricardo about AIDS worrying that he would catch the virus.
Ricardo was very close to her and… you know sometimes you have relationships with people that are even closer than the people that you are with physically.
From interview with Ted Tourtelotte, NCAF Archives
Ricardo introduced a fellow Argentinian, Marcelo Zitelli, to Saint Phalle, who later became her next assistant. Ricardo left the Tarot Garden and returned to France not telling Saint Phalle that he had contracted AIDS. It wasn’t until two years later, once he was hospitalized, that she found out.
Today, when I think of him tears come to my eyes. I wished I had BEEN THERE FOR HIM… Ricardo YOU FOOL. WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME??? I know you wanted to shield me, but we BOTH SUFFERED MORE – You alone with your SECRET and me unable to ease your torments.
Except from Niki de Saint Phalle’s writings
Niki de Saint Phalle found Ricardo to be like a cat—proud, mysterious, and sexy. When he was dying in the hospital she promised him she would make a cat sculpture in his honor and place it on his tomb. He liked the idea and she set about securing an honorable and memorable place for him to be buried.
I realized a few days ago that when RICARDO DIED, it was the beginning of a long DEPRESSION for me. I gave up a lot of things. Not consciously but little by little… I was simply CRUCIFYING myself, IDENTIFYING with my young friends who had died from AIDS.”
Except from Niki de Saint Phalle’s writings, NCAF Archives
The death of Ricardo was traumatic for both Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely. Saint Phalle started on the sculpture that would sit on Ricardo’s grave, slowly working through her depression. On the other hand, Tinguely focused on the issues surrounding the end of life. He began preparing for his own death. He stopped taking his medication and ignored his body’s health, dying two years later in 1991. The stone in front of the Ricardo Cat sculpture reads, “Pour notre grand ami Ricardo mort trop tôt jeune, aimé, et beau” (For our great friend Ricardo died too young, loved, and beautiful). There is a similar sculpture at the Tarot Garden so Saint Phalle could keep Ricardo close.
A Bird For Jean-Jacques
When Niki de Saint Phalle first met Jean-Jacques it was through another friend, Geoffrey Humphrey, who also died of AIDS. Jean-Jacques had already been diagnosed with the virus and was Humphrey’s roommate at an AIDS housing complex. Jean-Jacques also met Niki de Saint Phalle’s son, Philip Matthews, who took care of him before his death. Jean-Jacques had lived a very hard and troubled life. He began writing an auto-biography with Philip’s help. They went to New York where Jean-Jacques witnessed a gay couple openly holding hands. He was brought to tears having never experienced such freedom for gay couples. When Jean-Jacques died in 1992 Niki de Saint Phalle decided to make a sculpture for his grave. She likened Jean-Jacques to a bird. She considered that he met an unhappy ending to an already miserable life and decided to create a mosaic mirror bird in his honor.
“Unfortunately all my birds have unhappy endings… Birds are messengers from our world to the next. My Guardian Angel is a bird.”
Excerpt from The Wounded Animals by Niki de Saint Phalle.
Niki de Saint Phalle had Marcelo create the metal part of the sculpture from Jean Tinguely’s scrap metal stash. The metal of the sculpture resembles the human body and the suffering, transforming to the mirrored bird that flies away in a spiritual state. His grave reads, “À mon Ami Jean-Jacques un oiseau qui s’est envolé trop tôt” (To my friend Jean-Jacques who flew away too early).
Ricardo Menon and Jean-Jacques Goetzman were only two among many of Niki de Saint Phalle’s friends that died of AIDS. Saint Phalle expressed her feelings and emotions through her art and that was no different with Chat de Ricardo and Oiseau pour Jean-Jacques. The smiling, colorful cat covered in hearts and flowers echoes the love Niki de Saint Phalle had for her assistant. The mirrored bird reflects the light and sky, a freedom from the harsh, angular, rusting metal and the suffering of her friend. If you visit Montparnasse, you can see both sculptures dedicated to the two men that died too early and left a hole in an artist’s life.
DEVON WHITEHEAD is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.