Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely was a pioneer in kinetic art, producing mad-cap, motorised machines with a life of their own. Much of his art was assembled from found, recycled matter including wheels, tin cans and other scrap metal, which he transformed into robotic creatures that could move, make music, or self-destruct.
Among his most famous sculptures are his ‘Meta-matics’, or drawing machines, that produced reams of their own artworks, thereby removing his hand from the act of creation and questioning the very nature of art production.
Childhood in Fribourg
Born in Fribourg, Switzerland in 1925, Jean Charles Tinguely was only child to Charles Celestin Tiguely and Jeanne Louise Tinguely-Ruffieux. They moved to Basel later the same year and remained there for the rest of Tinguely’s childhood.
As a French speaking, Catholic family they struggled to integrate into their predominantly German speaking Protestant area, leaving Tinguely often feeling like the outsider; he kept himself busy exploring the barren surroundings of Switzerland alone.
Education in Basel
Tinguely’s first job after leaving school was as a decorator for the Globus Department Store in 1941, followed by an apprenticeship with the decorator Joos Hunter, who helped him gain a place at Basel’s School of Arts and Crafts. It was here that he discovered Dada and was particularly influenced by the art of Kurt Schwitters.
At art school Tinguely met the Swiss artist Eva Aeppli and the pair married in 1951. They set up their first home in a shabby house in a run-down area of Basel, and Tinguely began creating his first wire sculptures. To make ends meet he found work as a freelance decorator.
Life in Paris
In 1952, Tinguely and Aeppli left Basel, heading for a new life in Paris, but their early years were marred with poverty. Tinguely eventually found work designing shop window displays, while developing his found object reliefs and sculptures. Influenced by the artists around him who were developing kinetics and robotics, his first solo show at Galerie Arnaud in Paris revealed his noisy, clanging machines to the art world for the first time. When Tinguely’s work was included in the iconic kinetic art show Le Mouvement in 1955, his place as a respected member of a new art movement was set.
In the late 1950s Tinguely developed his Meta-Matics – scrap metal machines that could create their own drawings on paper. Recognised for their powerful critique on creativity and artistic production in the machine age, they soon earned Tinguely an international audience.
A true showman, Tinguely began staging events, performances and happenings in art galleries around the world. He made history in 1960 with his Homage to New York at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a robotic machine which self-destructed in front of a large audience.
In the years that followed, Tinguely’s found object sculptures became larger and more complex, while he forged links with the French Nouveau Realistes, including Yves Klein, who, like him, integrated art with everyday life.
Life with Niki de Saint Phalle
In 1960 Tinguely and his first wife separated and he began a new relationship with the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who he later married. Following this period of personal change Tinguely’s practice shifted as he began painting his constructions, first black, and later introducing elements of colour.
He also began regularly collaborating Saint Phalle and other artists, producing a series of vast, labyrinthine constructions. In the 1970s, Tinguely brought elements of music into his huge constructions, as seen in his Meta-Harmonie series, which played their own musical instruments. He also began living between Switzerland and France, while continuing to develop the self-destructive strand of his practice.
After suffering a series of health issues following his chronic smoking, Tinguely became increasingly preoccupied with death, and brought animal materials including bones and skulls into his constructions.
In 1987, he held a huge retrospective at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, which brought together a staggering 94 machine sculptures into one large group, celebrating the vast depth and breadth of his artistic legacy.
He was so popular, that following his death in 1991, more than 10,000 people lined the streets of Fribourg in Switzerland, where he was buried, to pay their final respects.
Although much of Tinguely’s most famous practice was centred around performance, spectacle and public art, his smaller assemblages, sketches and studies often appear in auctions today, reaching substantially high prices. Here are some examples:
Did you know?
Tinguely made his first kinetic art sculpture when he was 12, by placing 30 water wheels along the side of a stream with projecting metal arms, which made a clanging noise when they turned over into one another.
To advertise one of his action performances in Dusseldorf, titled Fur Statik, Tinguely allegedly dropped 150,000 flyers onto the city from a small aeroplane; photographs of him in the plane holding the flyers exist, although no-one knows whether they really ever got dropped or not.
During an artist talk titled Art, Machines and Motion, at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, Tinguely’s drawing machine spat out so much paper it nearly buried the entire audience.
Tinguely once transformed the transport of his artworks from studio to gallery into a performance event, titled Le Transport.
Tinguely and his second wife Niki de Saint-Phalle were known by their circle of friends as the “Bonnie and Clyde” of modern art.
In reaction to the Cold War, Tinguely and his wife Niki de Saint Phalle staged a filmed performance titled Study for the End of the World No. 2, filmed in the Mojave Desert in Nevada in 1962 for the TV network NBC.
Tinguely was a charismatic character who enjoyed networking and collaborating. He helped curate several major kinetic art exhibitions including Motion in Vision/Vision in Motion, 1959, at the Hessenhuis in Antwerp and Bewogen Beweging, at the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam in 1961.
Another collaborative project Tinguely worked on was titled Dylaby, 1962, for the Stedelijk Museum, an interactive labyrinth of installations including his own work alongside Niki de Saint Phalle, Robert Rauschenberg and Daniel Spoerri.
Tinguely had an obsession with Formula 1 car racing, which often fed into his sculptures through the integration of race car parts, which were set in motion.
In 1996 the Museum Tinguely opened in the Solitudepark by the Rhine in Basel, Switzerland, as a permanent site for the display and archive of Tinguely’s artworks.