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Basel Icons: Jean Tinguely

Although Jean Tinguely was not born in Basel, he will be forever associated with this city and is much revered for his inventive, kinetic art. Many of his amazing works can be viewed at the Museum Tinguely, but there are a few scattered around the city as well.

Jean Tinguely, Photo: Adagp

Early Life

Jean Charles Tinguely was born on the 22nd of May 1925 in Fribourg, Switzerland. His childhood initially started in Fribourg, but his parents later made the move to Basel for work. Tinguely showed a fascination towards his surroundings and this led him to pursue a career in art. One of his first positions was as an apprentice decorator at the Globus department store. After completing his apprenticeship, Tinguely went on to pursue art at the Basel School of Arts and Crafts. At school he was able to cultivate his understanding of contemporary art and develop his practise as an artist. After completing his schooling, he worked as a freelance decorator in Basel and Zurich. Below is an example of one of his windows at Kost-Sport shop on Freie Strasse in May 1949.

Kost-Sport, Freie Strasse, Basel, Photo: Pete Moeschlin

Artistic Development

In Paris the art scene was flourishing and Tinguely wanted to become a part of it. He relocated in 1952 and became inspired by the Dada movement (prominent in the 1920s in Paris). He was very interested in this movement's use of found objects as well as their satirical view of societal issues. With this inspiration he created several kinetic sculptures and had his first solo art gallery show at the Galerie Arnaud in Paris. This began a new series of sculptures, called métaméchaniques. These sculptures were metal with robotic-like movements, which were viewed as a commentary on society's reliance on mechanisation during the industrial revolution. Tinguely also became interested in the concept of destruction and created many self-destructing sculptures. The most famous of these was Homage to New York, which was displayed and then partially destroyed at the Museum of MOMA in New York City in 1960.

Méta-Herbin (part of métaméchaniques) 1955, Museum Tinguely, Photo: Antara Das

Basel Artworks

Tinguely created several works throughout his lifetime, many of which can be found in in Basel. This includes the Tinguely Fountain (otherwise known as the Tinguely-Brunnen or Fasnacht-Brunnen) which was built between 1975 and 1977. This work, built on the site of the old city theatre, has become synonymous with Basel. The fountain imitates a theatre performance and the 10 mechanical figures are said to represent actors on a stage, which interact with each other through the play of metal and water.

One of his most famous works, entitled Mengele Dance of Death (or Mengele-Totentanz) can be seen at the Museum Tinguely. Tinguely was inspired to produce this work by a fire that took place at a farm near his studio in 1986. One of the rubble parts he retrieved from the fire was a maize press machine from the Mengele factory (owned by the family of Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death, in Auschwitz). With theses damaged materials, Tinguely created a series of 18 sculptures in a large installation, making commentary on the transience of life and the equality of all in death with movement and shadow.

Mengele Dance of Death, Tinguely Museum

Another of his most famous works, (also at Museum Tinguely) is called Grosse Méta-Maxi-Utopia. This is one of Tinguely's more playful works, made from materials from Swiss company, Von Roll AG to create a large installation. This installation uses a range of wheels and belts to create a playful and fantastical structure. Like many of Tinguely's works, this piece was designed for audience interaction, but this one is particularly well-suited as a place for children to play.

Grosse Méta-Maxi-Maxi-Utopia, Museum Tinguely, Photo: Christian Baur

Later Years

Throughout his art career Tinguely's health slowly deteriorated and eventually he died of heart failure on 30 August 1991 (aged 66). He is considered to be a major influence in the Swiss art scene and has works in Paris, New York, Basel and Zurich. He maintains a legacy as one of the first Swiss artists to focus on kinetic sculpture and is an integral part of the Basel art scene.


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