Jean Tinguely - Biography and Legacy
Swiss Sculptor and Painter
Biography of Jean Tinguely
Childhood and Education
Tinguely was born on May 22, 1925 in Fribourg, Switzerland but his family moved to Basel shortly thereafter. Being the only child of two working class parents, Tinguely spent a considerable amount of time in solitude, exploring his bucolic surroundings. In 1940, at age fifteen, he began designing storefront window displays as an apprentice. The following year he began his studies at the Kunstgewerbeschule (Arts and Crafts School), where he stayed until 1945.
Tinguely was initially influenced by artists such as Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp. In particular, he was attracted to their use of "found objects" (or objet trouves), a key component of the Dada movement. He was intrigued by the tendency to rebel against societal structures and formalities that had long existed in the art world and society at-large. Tinguely combined found- objects, of the type noted in Dada works, with the new emphasis on installation then developed within the Bauhaus Design School by artists such as Paul Klee, creating his own personal aesthetic.
In 1951, having recently married Swiss painter and sculptor Eva Aeppli and intent on forwarding his career, Tinguely moved to Paris. He enjoyed great success there with his first solo exhibition in 1954 at the Galerie Arnaux. During this period he also participated in a number of exhibitions organized around cutting edge groups. The first was in 1951 when he showed with International Happenings. Soon thereafter he began to exhibit with a group known as ZERO that was founded by Otto Piene in Germany and aesthetically favored the notion of Minimalism. ZERO artists sought to distance themselves from the events of WWII and instead to find a context for their art based on modern society. During this period Tinguely also exhibited with Nouveaux Realisme, a group formed by Pierre Restany and Yves Klein that included works of other modern artists such as Christo, Raymond Haines, Martial Raysse and Niki de Saint Phalle.
Gradually Tinguely began incorporating self-operating and self-destructing elements into his work, making it a type of performance art. One example of this was a machine that mass-produced abstract paintings that debuted at the 1959 Biennale of Paris. Based on their autonomous functionality, these machines were known as "Metamatic." Tinguely's goal was to reflect the tension that existed within industrialized society regarding creativity and human expression. Critics and contemporary abstract expressionists considered these works sardonic.
Influenced by his passion for motorcar racing, Tinguely began to incorporate the idea of high risk, unpredictability into his works. Homage to New York, premiering on March 18, 1960 at the Museum of Modern Art, is the most prominent example of this interest. This set the stage for other self-destructing works like Study for an End of the World (1962) and La Vittoria (1970). Although they were composed of seemingly random found objects, oddly configured mechanisms and cacophonous sound effects, these works exhibited a sense of humor and irony. The artist viewed each piece as a living, breathing entity - speaking and moving of its own accord. Tinguely took pride in knowing that viewers could be amused by the forthright humor and playful elements he used to mask his dark commentary on mass production and the greater industrialization of society.
In keeping with his playful antics and spirit of rebellion, Tinguely participated in the Kuttlebutzer, a collective of artists that acted as the unofficial creative committee for the largest annual "Fasnacht" carnival in Basel, Switzerland. This committee of artists, known for being anti-establishment, took it upon themselves to solidify the creative direction of the festivities. Tinguely's participation, first in 1974, lasted almost twenty years.
The wit and charm of his personality manifested in his artwork helped him foster significant relationships with dignitaries and socialites that led to generous commissions and patronage opportunities. A lasting example of this is his friendship with the Bechtler family, a wealthy Swiss family whose vast art collection is on display at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, North Carolina. Many of the found objects that later appeared in his works, including a set of antlers, were originally seen on display at the Bechtler home.
Tinguely initially met Niki de Saint Phalle through common artistic circles. At the time they were both married to different people. Despite the significant generational gap between them and differences in social background, he was from a working-class background and she a French aristocratic family, their friendship eventually developed and led to marriage. Comparable to other artist couples of the era, they each had a strong sense of individuality, which came through on the occasions they collaborated. This was quite different from the male dominated collaborations among most of the artist couples at the time such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. They are known as the "Bonnie and Clyde" of modern art.
The foundation of their relationship, rooted in their shared interest in creating art, inspired many collaborative works over their decades together. One of the first major collaborations, exhibited at the Moderna Museet, consisted of a massive reclining figure of a woman - one of the several works of the theme known as 'Nanas' that Saint Phalle produced - with legs splayed enough to allow the entry of visitors. Inside the figure was a kinetic sculpture designed by Tinguely which he described as the "orgasm machine." The couple also collaborated on several other monumental sculpture installations such as the Stravinsky Fountain in Paris and Le Paradis Fantastique in Stockholm. When they weren't collaborating, the two artists helped one another with the production and installation of their respective works.
In the 1970s, Tinguely moved back to Switzerland alone while Saint Phalle stayed in France. They would get together at her house in France when working on a collaborative project. During this period, and up until his death in 1991, he continued to produce self-destructing works as well as large public projects. In 1970, Tinguely built a gigantic phallus which he exploded outside of Milan Cathedral. Among these later works are a number of collaborations with Saint Phalle and others. As he and his wife had supported one another throughout their respective careers, it was no surprise that the same held true after his death. Niki de Saint Phalle oversaw the completion of his Le Cyclops, a massive collaborative work whose construction spanned twenty-five years, and was also responsible for donating several of his works to major museums and collections, continuing the legacy of one of the most revolutionary sculpture artists of the modern art movement.
The Legacy of Jean Tinguely
Jean Tinguely's work was part of the movement of New Realism that emerged in the 1960s and sought an alternative expression of the new world order. They tended to take bits and pieces from life and combine them in new ways in order to infuse art with new significance. They stood in opposition of figurative art and abstraction and influenced the Fluxus movement noted for synthesizing a number of media in new, innovative, and consistently energized, ways.
Tinguely's mechanization of found objects greatly influenced the British artist Arthur Ganson. Ganson's oeuvre, primarily machines created from parts put into motion, provoke viewer participation of the type noted in Tinguely's earlier works. British artist Michael Landy has taken Tinguely's self-destructing works one step further. His Break Down (2001), in which he destroyed all of his possessions, was the ultimate reflection of what Tinguely had begun to explore in his self-destructing works. Both of these artists' works embody the interaction of the viewer which Tinguely's works insisted upon, taking performance art of the nature explored by the Swiss artist to another plane.
Museum Tinguely, located in Basel, Switzerland, commemorates his legacy.