Conservation of Big Bird by Niki de Saint Phalle

‘Birds have been a constant theme in my work. Birds are messengers from our world to the next. My Guardian Angel is a Bird.’ Niki de Sainte Phalle

Big Bird created by Niki de Sainte Phalle in 1982 was treated by intern Federica Traversa in 2019.

In her early years, Saint Phalle began to work with polyester resin (glass-fibre reinforced polyester, also known as GPR), a material that could be easily moulded, but also transformed into a hard, smooth, weather-resistant surface. This new technology enabled her to construct large, fantastic figures for outdoor display in public spaces and parks. However, the materials she used damaged her health and in the late 60s she developed emphysema. She underwent a long period of convalescence, which led to a change of direction in her art.

The deterioration of GRP sculptures manifests itself in a number of ways. Sunlight causes discolouration, producing a dull and chalky surface after a decade or so. The polyester wears away – major cracks in the material can lead to corrosion of the metal inner construction.

New research and techniques from the field of contemporary art conservation were applied to determine the best way to restore this artwork. The technical investigation revealed that before painting Big Bird, Sainte Phalle made a preparatory drawing in pencil. This image reveals, for the first time in infrared light, the artist’s sketch around the bird’s eye.

The primary objectives of the conservation treatment were to evenly remove the layer of dirt and reduce the disturbing marks, while maintaining the overall tonal balance of the work and minimising the risks associated with the use of cleaning systems. The treatment continued with the filling of gaps and retouching.

  • Profile

    The work of the French sculptor and painter Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) is regarded as Nouveau Realism and is associated with Pop Art. The self-taught Saint Phalle played an important role in female empowerment in the art world in the 1960s and 1970s, and she is renowned for the monumental scale of her works, such as the Nana statues – opulent, brightly coloured female figures.


  • Details

    Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 – 2002)

    Big Bird, 1982

    Polyester Resin and coiled lead iron. Spray painted polyester with vibrant matt acrylic colours

    140 x 86 x 77 (LHD cm)

    Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin

    Object number: 1677

Detail of eye, photographed in infrared, showing underdrawing.


Detail showing cleaning test

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