Jean Tinguely

Dafato Team | Sep 17, 2023

Table of Content


Jean Tinguely, born on May 22, 1925 in Fribourg and died on August 30, 1991 in Bern, was a Swiss sculptor, painter and draftsman.

Among his most original inventions are the Meta Matics or animated sculptures, which he began to create in 1954 under the name of Meta-mechanics, which were then electrically animated paintings. The Meta Matics are drawing machines.

With his second wife, Niki de Saint Phalle, he created gigantic sculptures in sculpture parks, notably the Tarot Garden in Tuscany. Throughout their career together their couple has not ceased to attract media interest.

Jean Tinguely had a gift for attracting attention and thus establishing communication with his mechanisms, which were diverted from their meaning and purpose. With Eureka, an enormous machine designed for the 1964 Swiss National Exhibition, this characteristic became an essential feature of his art. Imbued with the works of Marcel Duchamp (Ready-made or everyday objects ironically promoted as works of art), he is in the Dadaist spirit, which manifests itself in provocation and derision, often during public demonstrations. In 1959, his first public triumph took place during the Biennale de Paris, inaugurated by André Malraux, at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, with machines producing paintings in series which he was able to demonstrate to the public.

He questions the academicism of art creating machines built in part with recycled objects, knowingly imperfect, opposing the cult of the new object and practicing the recycling already used before him by the art brut. These recycled materials to which he gives life by animating them with motors are among the most lively innovations of 20th century sculpture.

The beginnings in Switzerland

Jean was born in Fribourg; his father, Charles Tinguely, was a worker. His mother, Jeanne-Louise Ruffieux (1899-1980), was born into a farming family with many children. In 1928, the family moved to Basel. Jean speaks French at home, German at school.

His biography testifies very early on to the tensions between him and his parents. In reaction against the authoritarian family atmosphere, Jean abandons school and becomes an assiduous reader of Lord Byron, Alexander the Great, Napoleon and finds refuge in the woods where he creates his first meta-mechanics:

"So I started to do a very strange thing: several Saturdays and Sundays in a row, I started to build pretty little wooden wheels, cobbled together like this, along a stream. In the forest, I used a stream: it must be said that it was a forest of fir trees that formed a kind of cathedral, with the sound qualities of a cathedral, the sounds were amplified formidably well. I made up to two dozen small wheels, each of which had its own speed, and sometimes this speed was variable according to the speed of the water, which was also variable. Each wheel had a cam. A cam is a thing that provides irregularity to the wheel - see! It struck, it activated on a small hammer that tapped on different cans, rusty or not, different sounds. These sounds, these tones, at different rhythms, were spread out every five to six meters, and these concerts sometimes extended up to a hundred meters into the forest. I then imagined the solitary walker also in the forest, who first hears this concert before hearing the sounds of the forest. Sometimes it worked for up to fifteen days, it was obviously fragile but there were some that worked for months."

In 1939 he tried to go to Albania by train to support the Albanian people in their resistance against the aggression of fascist Italy. He was then fourteen years old. Arrested by the police at the Swiss border, he was sent back home.

On May 2, 1941, he began an apprenticeship as a decorator at the Globus department store under the supervision of E. Theo Wagner. On August 25, 1943, Jean was dismissed from Globus with immediate effect for indiscipline and lack of punctuality. In September, he was hired as an apprentice by Joos Hutter, decorator. He does not regularly attend classes at the Kunstgewerbeschule (school of applied arts), but he particularly follows the classes of Julia Ris, who draws his attention to movement as a means of artistic expression.

After the war, Jean lives in the Burghof, a building near the Museum of Fine Arts, at No. 2 St. Alban Vorstadt. Basel became a meeting place for political refugees: trade unionists, anarchists and ex-communists met at the home of the bookseller Heinrich Koechlin. Tinguely took part in the discussions and thus received a political education. He designed books for Koechlin and was particularly interested in Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Paul Klee and all the works of the Bauhaus. At the same time, he became friends with Daniel Spoerri, a former dancer with the Berner Staatsoper ballet, with whom he shared the same taste for unconventional means of expression. In 1951 he married Eva Aeppli, a student at the Basel School of Applied Arts, and they had a daughter, Myriam, born two years later, in 1953.

In France

Jean leaves for Paris in 1952 with Eva Aeppli. He joins his friend Daniel Spoerri with whom he designs a set for a dance show: Prisme, a ballet by Nico Kaufmann. The ballet is presented at a dance competition organized by Serge Lifar. But just as the first dancer was about to make his entrance, the set collapsed and fell apart. "At the dress rehearsal, when we pulled on the strings, even though the music had already started, our entire set fell on the dancers' heads, it was a catastrophe. The ballet continued without a set, with only the music."

Eva and Jean moved to Montigny-sur-Loing (Seine-et-Marne) in 1953, and in the same year they moved into a hotel at 12 rue Pierre-Leroux in the 7th arrondissement of Paris. Tinguely exhibited his works in the disused room of the hotel's café. Eva, who makes puppets, gives birth to their daughter Myriam. In that year, Jean creates spatial constructions using only wire welded together with small sheets of metal that take the form of wall reliefs. He then had the idea of setting these forms in motion to free them from their inertia. When he creates the first of these wheels, the artist will discover the mechanics of chance.

Beginning in 1954, Jean created his Prayer Wheels, small wire sculptures: Prayer Wheel II, 1954, 75 × 53.5 × 35.5 cm, Museum of fine arts (MFAH), Houston, Texas.

On May 27, 1954, the opening of his first exhibition took place at the Arnaud Gallery in Paris, located at 34 rue du Four. This was one of the two avant-garde galleries in Paris, along with the Denise René Gallery, which opened in 1955. The exhibition included mobile paintings with white geometric shapes: the Méta Mécaniques, and constructions made of wire and sheet metal (Moulins à prière) which were very well received by the critics. At the end of this same year, Jean presents in Milan his Automates, sculptures and mechanical reliefs to the Studio of Architetturab24. He recovered them only ten years later, in perfect condition.

Settled in early 1955 in a studio in Impasse Ronsin, Jean's neighbors included the sculptor Constantin Brâncuși and other artists, and he met Yves Klein.

Sound Machines, Meta Mechanics and Meta Matics

In April 1955, Jean Tinguely exhibited at the Denise René Gallery. The exhibition, which was called Le Mouvement, brought together mobile sculptures by Marcel Duchamp and Alexander Calder, paintings by Victor Vasarely, and works by Pol Bury, Yaacov Agam, Jesús-Rafael Soto and Jean Tinguely, and was very well received. It was the first time since the war that a new form of artistic expression was created. Jean Tinguely exhibited two sound machines that were later developed in 1958 in the exhibition Mes étoiles, Concert pour sept peintures.

These two machines are Méta Mécaniques reliefs, forerunners of Méta Matics, which he will develop for the Salon des réalités nouvelles, where the sounds are produced by pots, bottles, cans, funnels, glasses, regularly struck by small hammers. The reception of the public goes from enthusiasm to indignation: in Stockholm where the works are exposed then, a visitor threatens to call the police.

In September 1955 he found a studio in Stockholm in the premises of the magazine Blandaren where he developed works that he exhibited the following month at the Samlaren Gallery. These are reliefs and sculptures that he will develop upon his return to Paris and which bear the name of Méta-Kandinsky, or Méta-Herbin (Auguste Herbin) or Méta-Malevitch. Most of the works in Stockholm and Paris from this period belong to private collections. A Méta-Kandinsky III was exhibited at the Palazzo Grassi in 1987: 39 × 132 × 35 cm, private collection, Switzerland. These works, as well as the large sculptures of the Balouba series, occupied him for the next two years, which were marked in October 1957 by a serious automobile accident of the artist, who was crazy about speeding cars. But also by the links that he will weave with Yves Klein and with the Venezuelan sculptor-guitarist Soto.

The sound Machines exhibited for the first time at the Denise René gallery during the exhibition L'Art en mouvement, along with Alexander Calder, Soto, Pol Bury, are developed in the following years to culminate in the exhibition Mes étoiles, Concert pour sept peintures at the Iris Clert gallery from July 9 to 15, 1958, then at Dusselforf the following winter.

On November 17, 1958, he presented in the same gallery, in close collaboration with Yves Klein, the installation Vitesse pure et stabilité monochrome (Pure speed and monochrome stability), composed of six monochrome blue disks rotating at different speeds, and two large machines: Escavatrice de l'espace and Perforateur monochrome.

On March 14, 1959, he launched his manifesto Für Statik (For Statics) from a plane over Düsseldorf. In the same year he created two large reliefs for the foyer of the Gelsenkirchen Opera House, while his Meta Matics were exhibited at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris.

For the first Paris Biennale, held at the Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris and inaugurated by André Malraux, Tinguely builds very large "Méta Matics", machine paintings powered by a small gasoline engine, some of which move "with the speed of a paper roll". It is an absolute triumph. Jean Tinguely is invited to give a demonstration in the rooms of the Biennale, which provokes the anger of other artists. Jean is also allowed to exhibit in the courtyard. On November 12, Tinguely organizes the "Cyclo matic" evening at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in London, founded in 1948 to promote modern art in Great Britain. It was a kind of happening, with a mixture of drawing machines and improvised elements. The Meta Matics period ends with a conference entitled Art, Machines and Movements, a lecture by Jean Tinguely.

The international artist

On March 17, 1960 he organized another event, "Homage to New York", a demonstration involving a self-destructing machine in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His first exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern took place that year. The director of the museum exhibited Franz Meyer as well as Kricke, Luginbühl . On October 27, in Paris, artists founded the New Realists group. Among them were Arman, François Dufrêne, Raymond Hains, Yves Klein, Pierre Restany, Jacques Villeglé, Gérard Deschamps, as well as Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri and Niki de Saint Phalle with whom Jean lived in the impasse Ronsin.

Tinguely then takes part in the exhibitions Bewogen Beweging (Movement in Art) at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and "Rörelse i konsten" at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, whose director is Pontus Hultén. On September 22, one of his works Study for an End of the World No. 1 is presented at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark.

In 1962, after his first private exhibition in Basel, at the Handschin Gallery, he presented on March 21 Study for end of the World No.2, near Las Vegas, in the Nevada desert, USA. In 1963-1964 he created the large sculpture Eureka for the 1964 Swiss National Exhibition in Lausanne. In 1966 he designed the stage curtain and sets for Roland Petit's ballet "In Praise of Madness" in Paris. At the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, that same year, with Per Olof Ultvedt he creates the giant Nana, visitable, habitable, according to the model designed by Niki de Saint Phalle

After his first solo exhibition in Zurich at the Gimpel & Hanover Gallery, Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle worked together on a huge work: Le Paradis fantastique. It was commissioned by the French government for the World Exhibition in Montreal, in which Tinguely's machines confronted Niki de Saint Phalle's Nanas: a group of six large kinetic machines attacked nine large sculptures by Niki. Rasputin, a complicated machine that moves on rails, attacks the sculpture Le Bébé Monstre, and Le Piqueur methodically pokes holes in a large Nana "whose buttocks are the size of a warship."

Jean Tinguely was also commissioned to create Requiem pour une feuille morte (Requiem for a Dead Leaf) for the Swiss Pavilion. This enormous relief, 11.3 meters long and 3 meters high, has a solemn, sometimes even sinister appearance and is entirely covered in black, with the exception of a white dead leaf.

In 1968, together with Bernhard Luginbühl, Tinguely conceived the project for a Gigantoleum, a multifunctional cultural station, and at Christmas of that year he acquired the former "L'Aigle noir" inn in Neyruz, in the canton of Fribourg.

In 1970, together with Niki de Saint Phalle, Daniel Spoerri, Bernhard Luginbühl, Larry Rivers and other artists, he started Cyclop in Milly-la-Forêt, a giant walking sculpture, which was created as a team. The work is executed with the help of Tinguely's assistants Sepp Imhof and Rico Weber. On July 13, 1971, he married Niki de Saint Phalle, whom he had met in 1956 and with whom he had formed a close artistic and sentimental bond.

On November 27, 1970, Jean Tinguely created La Vittoria, an ephemeral, self-destructive work on the square in front of the Duomo in Milan, which was destroyed on November 28 on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the New Realists.

Between 1973 and 1974 the Great Spiral or Double Helix was created in the courtyard of the Institute of Immunology in Basel of the company F Hoffmann-La Roche SA. Several retrospectives of his work were held in Paris (CNAC), Basel (Kunsthalle), Hanover (Kestner Gesellschaft), Humlebaek (Louisiana Museum), Stockholm (Moderna Museet) and Amsterdam (Stedelijk Museum). Tinguely opens Chaos No. 1 at the Civic Center in Columbus

In June 1977, the Fasnachtsbrunnen (Carnival Fountain) in Basel was inaugurated. Construction of the Zig & Puce Crocrodrome at the Centre national d'art et de culture Georges-Pompidou in Paris, an installation by Jean Tinguely, Bernhard Luginbühl and Niki de Saint Phalle. Daniel Spoerri installs his "Musée sentimental". In 1979 Jean created Klamauk, a sound sculpture mounted on a tractor, for the "Tinguely Luginbühl" exhibition at the Städel in Frankfurt.

In 1981, at the group exhibition sponsored by the Régie Renault in the "Art Incitation à la création" space, Tinguely showed skull sculptures for the first time.

Between 1983 and 1991, when he died, Jean Tinguely produced numerous works, including the Jo Siffert Fountain donated to the city of Freiburg in 1984, Fatamorgana in disused premises of the Von Roll AG steelworks in Olten in 1985, Mengele Totentanz (Mengele Dance of Death), a work created from charred beams, agricultural machinery, household utensils and charred animal skulls, after a farm fire in Neyruz in 1986, Grande Méta Maxi Maxi- Utopia, in a workshop of Von Roll SA Klus in 1987. That same year, he donated Cyclop to the French state and the following year, he inaugurated in Château-Chinon the fountain built with Niki de Saint Phalle following a commission from President François Mitterrand.

The artist is the subject of several retrospectives: in Munich, Zurich (Kunsthaus), London (Tate Gallery), Brussels (Palais des Beaux-Arts) and Geneva (Musée d'Art et d'Histoire). He received several prizes, including the University of Bologna Prize and the State of Bern Prize, as well as honorary titles: honorary doctorate from the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1989, and his Moscow exhibition, in an enlarged version, was presented at the Musée d'art et d'histoire in Fribourg.

Jean Tinguely died on August 30, 1991 at the Island Hospital in Bern. He was laid to rest in Neyruz, in the canton of Fribourg. In 1992, Milena Palakarkina gave birth to her son Jean-Sébastien.

From 1988 until his death, Jean Tinguely created the Torpedo Institute in a former factory that he bought in La Verrerie, between Bulle and Vevey, in the canton of Fribourg, where he lived in Switzerland . The Torpedo Institut - which Tinguely declared to be an anti-museum as soon as he moved in - is the largest work ever conceived by the artist. The industrial spaces in which it is housed cover more than 3,000 m2. They are obscured by imposing steel plates, with Tinguely closing all the openings overlooking the Fribourg countryside. In the various rooms that make up the Torpedo Institute, the artist orchestrates 120 of his machines, which turn and creak and scream in the half-light. They represent the artist's entire career: there are early Meta Malevich and Meta Kandinsky, the Klamauk of 1979, the Grande Méta Maxi Utopia presented in Venice in 1987, the Last Collaboration with Yves Klein (1988), The Altarpiece of Western Abundance and Totalitarian Mercantilism (1990), and four-handed pieces created with Milena Palakarkina. Tinguely also presents his artist friends in the Torpedo Institute: more than twenty figures by Eva Aeppli standing on a pedestal, an eight-meter-high Bird of Love by Niki de Saint Phalle rolling on rails, a gigantic Atlas by Bernhard Luginbühl - all commissioned for the venue by the sculptor. There are also works by Robert Rauschenberg, Yves Klein, Keith Haring, Ben Vautier, Daniel Spoerri, Alfred Hofkunst and other artists from Fribourg, which are hung on large sliding grills like those in museum storerooms. In the Torpedo Institute, Tinguely also brings together objects that are dear to him: Ferraris, a World War II airplane hanging upside down, and a time clock that he wants visitors to stamp on when they enter the building.

Far from the big centers, far from the record attendance of the consumerist exhibitions that marked the end of the 1980s, Tinguely intended to open his anti-museum to a limited public. Visitors are invited to book well in advance, and are summoned at a specific day and time. They are greeted casually by an indifferent secretary, whose job description, drawn up by the artist, states that her main occupation is to paint her nails. They are provided with a headset whose commentary is incomprehensible. Each one must thus manage alone with the works, in the maze, the obscurity and the traps that the artist reserves to him, and venture to begin under a monumental guillotine placed at the entry of the first room.

When Jean Tinguely died suddenly in August 1991, the Torpedo Institute was almost complete. After his death, it became the subject of much discussion and controversy. In painful circumstances, it was finally dismantled - against the wishes of the artist, who had declared in his will that the work should survive him.

On September 30, 1996, the Museum Tinguely in Basel, created on the initiative of Niki de Saint Phalle who donated fifty-five sculptures of Jean as well as a Nana. The building was designed by the Ticino architect Mario Botta, and the opening was directed by Pontus Hultén.

In 1998, the Espace Jean-Tinguely-Niki-de-Saint-Phalle was opened in Fribourg in a former tramway warehouse near the Fribourg Museum of Art and History.

In addition to his personal works, he created with his wife, Niki de Saint Phalle, monumental constructions: Hon


  1. Jean Tinguely
  2. Jean Tinguely
  3. Biografie Jean Tinguely | Museum Tinguely Basel. Abgerufen am 2. Oktober 2022.
  4. ^ Ian Chilvers and John Glaves-Smith (eds), A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art, Oxford University Press, p.709
  5. ^ "Jean Tinguely". Retrieved 7 August 2022.
  6. ^ Leu, Aia. The Art of the Leu Family, SeedPress, 2012, ISBN 978-0-9551109-2-4. (p. 13).
  7. ^ Ian Chilvers and John Glaves-Smith (eds), A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art, Oxford University Press, p.709
  8. ^ [a b c d] Bra Böckers lexikon, 1980.
  9. ^ ”Museum Tinguely”. Lola T. 180 - Mémorial pour Joakim B.. Museum Tinguely. Arkiverad från originalet den 7 april 2014. Läst 30 maj 2011.

Please Disable Ddblocker

We are sorry, but it looks like you have an dblocker enabled.

Our only way to maintain this website is by serving a minimum ammount of ads

Please disable your adblocker in order to continue.

Dafato needs your help!

Dafato is a non-profit website that aims to record and present historical events without bias.

The continuous and uninterrupted operation of the site relies on donations from generous readers like you.

Your donation, no matter the size will help to continue providing articles to readers like you.

Will you consider making a donation today?