Jean Tinguely: A Swiss Sculptor Famous For His Kinetic Works

Jean Tinguely

Jean Tinguely was a prominent Swiss artist born in Fribourg, Switzerland in 1925. He created art that satirized automation and technology in the overproduction of goods. As a young lad in the late 1930s, he was already creating unique hanging cultures that were propelled into motion by using motors. Later, he dubbed his art form of mechanized sculptures “Méta-mécaniques” (meta-mechanical devices.)

In his youth, Tinguely worked as an apprentice for a window display designer. His natural artistic ability led him to attend the Kunstgewerbeschule in 1945. Kunstgewerbeschule was a vocational arts school in German-speaking countries during the mid-19th century. By the late 1950s, he had created a sequence of automatic drawing machines called Meta-Matics by using markers such as chalk to create abstract art through a mechanized procedure.

Tinguely was a pioneer in an art form that induces social engagement in which spectators pull a lever or push a button to engage the artworks into motion. His constructions combined sculptures made of junk with kinetics. The sculptures were often ironic, witty, or humorous.

Tinguely dabbled in Surrealist painting after World War II but abandoned the art form in favor of his sculpturing. In 1960, he was also one of a number of artists who signed the manifesto of Nouveaux Réalistes.

Heureka by Jean Tinguely - Zürichhorn, Zurich
Heureka by Jean Tinguely – Zürichhorn, Zurich

Who Inspired Jean Tinguely?

Several artists and creatives inspired the works of Jean Tinguely beginning with decorator Joos Hunter whom he apprenticed for. Hunter helped him gain entrance to Basel’s School of Arts and Crafts. Here he discovered Dada and was influenced by the works of Kurt Schwitters.

The art movement known as Dada was an art movement that began during Zurich’s first world war. The art form was a negative reaction to the revulsion of war. The work of Dada artists through art, poetry, and performances was often satirical in nature. The goal of Dada artists was to question a society that could start a war and prolong it. They were anti-war, anti-bourgeois, and had political views that aligned with the radical left.

Writer Hugo Ball was the founder of Dada. He opened a satirical nightclub in Zurich in 1916. The movement became international and later formed the basis for surrealism in Paris.

Dada artists who influenced Tinguely were Otto Piene and his ZERO group, Martial Raysse, Yves Klein, and Niki de Saint Phalle who he later married and collaborated for the rest of his career.

Adding to the inspiration of these creatives was Tinguely’s innate interest in self-propelled motion and other artists who were developing art using kinetics and robotics,

What Materials Does Jean Tinguely Use?

Tinguely created most of his madcap motorized art from recycled materials he found. This included tin cans, wheels, and other scrap metal. The robotics he created could move on their own, make music, encourage spectator participation, or self-destruct. He attached wire wheels to pieces of flat cardboard painted black on one side and white on the other. He intertwined them with stick-straight objects to form an interlocking system. He balanced the assemblage above an iron tripod with legs that were linear to the straight objects.

Tinguely became obsessed with death after suffering health related to chronic smoking. He began incorporating animal materials such as bones and skulls into his art.

Famous Artworks of Jean Tinguely

Stravinsky Fountain in Paris – Jean Tinguely & Niki de Saint Phalle

Tinguely first presented his kinetics and robotics art forms in exhibitions often along with other artists. His first solo show was at Galerie Arnaud in Paris in which he presented his self-propelled, clanging machines to the world of art. In 1953, he held a live event along with Romanian dancer and artist Daniel Spoerri called the Autothéâtre (Automatic theater.)

Tinguely married artist Niki de Saint-Phalle in 1971. The two began a series of fountain projects and collaborated on the now-famous Stravinsky Fountain placed outside Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. It features 16 mechanical birds that spout water. Other fountains include the Lifesaver Fountain on Königstrasse in Duisburg, Germany, Jo Siffert Fountain in Fribourg, Switzerland, and the Tinguely and Carnival fountains in Basel, Switzerland.

Today, Tinguely’s works are included in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Reina Sofia National Museum in Madrid, the Tate Gallery in London, the Kunstmuseum Basel, and others.

Tingeuly Fountain in Basel, Switzerland
Tinguely Fountain in Basel, Switzerland

Homage to New York

Tinguely was a true showman as he traveled the world staging performances and events in art galleries. One of the most famous was his Homage to New York at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1960. Designed to self-destruct in front of a live audience, the robotic machine only partially performed the task before catching on fire. The NYFD was summoned to put out the flames.

During the 1970s, Tinguely incorporated elements of music into his works. In his Meta-Harmonie series, the constructions played their own musical instruments. In 1987, he held a large retrospective in Venice’s Palazzo Grassi. He brought 94 machine sculptures together into one large group.

One of his most famous works is the Luminator (1991) which was on loan to the EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse until 2014. His sculpture Narva (1961) constructed of metal parts sold at Christie’s, London in 2006 for £198,400.

Tinguely Fountain

Tinguely Fountain
Tinguely Fountain – Image courtesy of Marius Watz

In 1977, Tinguely created a fountain in Basel that became a landmark in the Swiss city. The shallow fountain features low-voltage powered mechanical figures that spout water and dance around as if in conversation with each other. Created on the stage where the old city theater once stood, the 10 iron figures represent the actors, mimes, and dancers that use to perform there.

Tinguely Museum

Jean Tinguely died in the Swiss city of Bern in 1991. His greatest collection of works is housed at the Tinguely Museum in Basel opened in 1996. It’s situated on the River Rhine and was designed by Ticinese architect Mario Botta. The permanent collection spans four decades of Tinguely’s works. A range of artists including influencers Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp and companion artists Arman, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Yves Klein are presented in special exhibitions.

Written by Ashley Faulkes
As a twenty-year resident of Switzerland, I am passionate about exploring every nook and cranny of this beautiful country, I spend my days deep in the great Swiss outdoors, and love to share these experiences and insights with fellow travel enthusiasts.

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