Jean Tinguely

Switzerland 1925 - 1991

Kinetic Art, Dada

Jean Tinguely
Jean Tinguely
May 25, 2016
Bojan is an author for Widewalls. He is particularly interested in English linguistics and culture. Bojan is also interested in Photography and Digital Art.

One of the most important artist in the development of Kinetic art as well as Nouveau réalisme, Jean Tinguely was a Swiss sculptor widely recognized for his thought-provoking and playful pieces that he liked to call metamechanics. Using ordinary everyday objects, rusty iron, and waste material, he created a wide range of intriguing artworks that make barbed satirical points both about the technological development and modern society. The leitmotif of his works is a movement that can be actively experienced both acoustically or visually.

Jean Tinguely - Hippopotamus, 1991, photo credits - Museum Tinguely
Jean Tinguely – Hippopotamus, 1991, photo credits – Museum Tinguely

Jean Tinguely and Dadaism

Born in 1925, in Fribourg, a city in Switzerland, Jean Tinguely grew up in Basel where he carried out an apprenticeship as a shop-window decorator in a department store during his teens. Aged fifteen, he enrolled in evening classes at the Art School (Kunstschule) where he studied under the tutelage of Julia Ris, who introduced Tinguely to the Dadaist collages of Kurt Schwitters, a German artist most commonly associated with the Dada movement. Schwitters’ Dadaist collages made of discarded ticket stubs, pieces of old newspapers and magazines, buttons, gears, and other objects assembled into compositions made a deep impression on Tinguely’s constructions. After World War II, he began painting in a Surrealist manner, but he soon abandoned painting to concentrate on sculpture made of junk.

Dada movement made a deep impression on Tinguely’s work

Jean Tinguely Museum international group exhibition
Jean Tinguely – Heureka, 1964, photo via Wikimedia

Sculpture by Jean Tinguely

Tinguely and his first wife, Swiss painter and sculptor Eva Aeppli, relocated to France in the early 1950s, where he became involved with the Parisian avant-garde movement, meeting artists such as Yves Klein, Arman, and Daniel Spoerri. They were part of the Nouveaux Réalisme (New Realism) which can be seen as a European counterpart to pop art. Subsequently, Tinguely began creating his most famous works – sculptural machines, known as metamechanics, which incorporated a vast array of materials, including wood, metal, fabric, gears, musical instruments, and found objects into moving or static constructions. Highly skeptical about the potential of technology to improve human life, he used his pieces made of industrial machinery to express an anarchic, satirical attitude to machines and industrial development. Some of his pieces were designed to self-destruct and others were made in a way that predetermined a malfunction, culminating in an unpredictable finale.

Tinguely created his sculptures from a vast array of materials

Jean Tinguely - sculpture group arts exhibition
Jean Tinguely – Mengele-Totentanz, 1986, photo credits – Museum Tinguely

Meta-Matics – Tinguely’s Painting Machines

Tinguely was one of the pioneers in the field of art that engenders social engagement. In the late 1950s, he designed a series of automatic drawing machines, the Meta-Matics, which use chalk or markers to make abstract drawings through a mechanized process. These were portable machines with drawing arms that allowed the spectator to produce abstract works only by pushing the button. The “painting machines” were exhibited at the Biennale de Paris in 1959, resulting in almost 40,000 paintings produced by visitors in two weeks. However, not all of the Meta-matics functioned properly, and Tinguely destroyed some of them. He then began to incorporate electric motors into his works, taking as his models Marcel Duchamp’s Roto Reliefs.

Many of his Meta-Matics were destroyed after they were exhibited at the Biennale de Paris in 1959

Jean Tinguely - Drawing Machine harmonie arts exhibitions
Jean Tinguely – Drawing Machine, photo via Tages Woche

Homage to New York

Jean Tinguely is perhaps best known for his 23-foot high and 27-foot long conceptual piece Homage to New York that was supposed to destroy itself in the garden of The Museum of Modern Art. On March 17th, 1960, several hundred of invited people attended the event which was unsuccessful as the complex assemblage of motors and wheels failed to operate properly and only partially completed its task—its flames were put out by the fire department. The machine paid homage to NYC’s ability to constantly renew itself. Tinguely’s next two self-destroying pieces entitled Study for an End of the World detonated more successfully.

Homage to New York was exhibited for the first and only time in the garden of MoMA in 1960

Jean Tinguely sculpture exhibition contact fribourg
Jean Tinguely – Homage to New York (detail), 1960, photo via Study Blue

Stravinsky Fountain

In 1955, Tinguely met French sculptor, painter, and filmmaker Niki de Saint Phalle whom he befriended before they decide to live together in the early 1960s. During the 1970s, he had embarked on a series of fountain projects, and, in collaboration with Niki, who became his wife in the meantime, created the notorious Stravinsky Fountain (La Fontaine Stravinsky, 1983) – a whimsical public fountain ornamented with sixteen works of sculpture, moving and spraying water, representing the works of the famous Russian composer, pianist, and conductor Igor Stravinsky. Located between the Centre Pompidou and the Church of Saint-Merri, it is one of the most photographed Parisian fountains.

Stravinsky Fountain is one of the most photographed Parisian fountains

Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle - Stravinsky Fountain, 1983, Paris, photo via Wikipedia
Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle – Stravinsky Fountain, 1983, Paris, photo via Wikipedia

Master of Art in Movement

The artist, who died on August 30, 1991, in Bern, was one of the icons of kinetic art widely recognized for his witty, humorous, and ironic moving sculptures of waste material that work as machines but don’t have any useful purpose. Since his first one-man show in Switzerland in 1962, his work has been included in numerous important exhibition throughout Europe, the United States and beyond. In 1996, the Museum Tinguely opened in Basel. His unpredictable mechanized sculpture-machines that often included music recordings and performances left an indelible trace on the 20th-century art.

Featured image: Jean Tinguely – portrait, 1988, photo by Vera Isler

Year Exhibition TitleMuseum/GallerySolo/Group
2016RetrospectiveStedelijk Museum, AmsterdamSolo
2016Sculpture on the MoveKunstmuseum Basel, Basel Group
2016Jean Tinguely, Super Meta MaxiMuseum Kunstpalast, DusseldorfSolo
2015Jean TinguelyGladstone Gallery, New York, NYSolo
2012Tinguely@TinguelyMuseum Tinguely, Basel, SwitzerlandSolo
2007RetrospectiveKunsthal RotterdamSolo
2003Le Cafe Tinguely de KyotoMuseum Tinguely, BaselSolo
2003De Jeannot a Franz, Lettres et dessins de Jean Tinguely a Franz MeyerMuseum Tinguely, BaselSolo
2003Jean Tinguely, Ce qui bouge fonctionne mieuxKlagenfurt, AustricheSolo
2002Jean le Jeune, Jean Tinguely - oeuvres de jeunesse jusqu en 1959Museum Tinguely, BaselSolo
2002Jean Tinguely, Le Silence n existe pasKunsthalle Mannheim, AllemagneSolo
2000A Bale, je vivais avec la danse des mortsMuseum Tinguely, BaselSolo
2000L Esprit 60 de TinguelyMuseum Tinguely, BaselSolo
2000L Esprit de TinguelyKunstmuseum Wolfsburg, AllemagneSolo
1999Rotozaza I et IIMuseum Tinguely, BaselSolo
1988RetrospectiveCentre Georges Pompidou, ParisSolo
1987RetrospectivePalais Grassi, VeniceSolo
1984Presente InfernoGalerie Kornfeld, BernSolo
1983Author of the Fontaine StravinskyMusee d Art Moderne, ParisSolo
1983RetrospectiveMuse d Art and of History of GeneveSolo
1982RetrospectiveZurich KunsthausSolo
1978RetrospectiveWilhelm Lehmbruck-Museum, DuisburgSolo
1976Jean Tinguely. Dessins et gravures pour les sculpturesCabinet des estampes, Musee d art et d historie, GeneveSolo
1971RetrospectiveCNAC - Centre National d Art Contemporain, ParisSolo
1969Comparaisons: Peinture-SculptureMusee d Art Moderne, ParisSolo
1967Art et MouvementMontrealSolo
1967Rotozaza n1 (machine that plays with ballons)Galerie Iolas, ParisSolo
1967Rotozaza n 2 (machine that destroys the beer bottles transported on the moving sidewalk)Congres des futurologues Vision 67, New YorkSolo
1960New York= machine - happening - autodestructriceMuseume of Modern Art, New YorkSolo
1959Meta-Matics de TinguelyGalerie Iris Clest, ParisSolo
1958Exhibition with Yves KleinGalerie Iris Clert, ParisSolo
1954DivergencesGalerie Arnaud, ParisSolo
19541st solo exhibitionGalerie Arnaud, ParisSolo
The Story of 1950s Art

What is the legacy of 1950s art? Deeply rooted in post war cultural and political context, the 1950s art movements massively influenced contemporary art in general.

Read More
Assemblage Artists Who Taunt the Mood and Perception

How do we define assemblage art? These are the world's most prominent assemblage artists, who took the medium of collage to a three-dimensional level.

Read More
Kinetic Art and the Age of Robotics - What Can We Expect?

Celebrating the dynamism and movement in art, Kinetic Art quickly rose to glory, leaving behind a plethora of amazing artists who push the boundaries of motion

Read More