Jean Charles Tinguely, known affectionately as Jeannot by those closest to him, was born in Fribourg, Switzerland, on 22 May 1925, the only child of Charles Célestin Tinguely and Jeanne Louise Tinguely-Ruffieux. His father had been working in Basel as a warehouse manager for Cailler since 1918 and when his mother also moved to Basel in May 1924 she found work as a maid at Ch. Schlumberger-Vischer. Although the parents married in Basel on 29 January 1925, their son Jean was born in Fribourg. Both mother and child were registered in Basel on 15 July 1925. The family lived in the Gundeldinger-Quartier behind the Centralbahnhof (now the SBB railway station). Tinguely attended primary and secondary school at the Thiersteinerschulhaus and on Wednesday afternoons, when there was no school, he went to a drawing class taught by a teacher called Garraux at the Gottfried Keller-Schulhaus. The Tinguelys struggled in Basel. They spoke only French at home and raised their son to be a good Catholic; Tinguely’s father, in particular, had great difficulty integrating. Tinguely was baptized by the Catholic priest Robert Mäder in the Heiliggeistkirche, where he was later confirmed, received his first Communion and served as an altar boy for a while. He also belonged to the St. Alban boy scouts. But then he discovered the very antithesis of Catholicism: the Basel Fasnacht, which he was first allowed to attend at age twelve and which was to have a profound and enduring influence on him as a person.

On 2 May 1941 Tinguely began an apprenticeship as a window-dresser at the Globus department store, where his instructor was Theo Wagner, a proven expert in the field. At his employer’s wish he also enrolled at the local school of arts and crafts. Various breaches of house rules, however, including lack of punctuality, led to his being summarily dismissed in the summer of 1943. The Basel decorator Joos Hutter tried to intercede on Tinguely’s behalf, but when his pleas fell on deaf ears decided to take on Tinguely as an apprentice and nurture his artistic talents himself, starting on 1 September 1943. Tinguely attended courses given by Julia Eble-Ris, Paul Artaria, Max Sulzbachner, Theo Eble and Rolf Rappaz and was thrilled with the learning opportunities that were opening up for him. He also met his future wife Eva Aeppli.
After his apprenticeship, ‘as a matter of course and with deep patriotic sentiments’, he trained as an infantryman at a boot camp in Liestal. There, under the command of Corporal Eberhard Kornfeld, who would later become a member of the Basel Fasnacht clique Kuttlebutzer, he became what he himself called a ‘fierce frontline fighter’.
In 1948 Tinguely and Eva Aeppli moved into a condemned house called the Burghof on St. Alban-Vorstadt, near where the Kunstmuseum’s new building now stands. ‘Jean sawed up all the doors and all the wooden fittings in the house just so we would have enough firewood’, Aeppli later recalled. ‘The dustbins in the corner of the room were piled high. We lived from petty theft. Jean made things on the ceiling with objects and motors – a little bit like Calder.’
His creative skills helped Tinguely to take on an important role connected to his growing interest in politics. Hansjörg Hofer, the leader of the Communist Workers’ Party at the time, later confirmed this: ‘He was very valuable to us as he designed all the party stuff that needed designing. He made dolls out of iron wire. He did a big pro-communist exhibition in Paris. He did all the decorations and slogans.
The parallels between his design of the Swiss pavilion of the 1948 Association des Femmes Communistes in Paris and many of his Basel window displays, especially those of 1949 pointed to the development of a distinctive artistic hand. He also helped with the Fiera Campionaria of 1950 in Milan.
Peter Moeschlin, a photographer friend of his, took photos of some of the display windows that Tinguely designed for Basel retailers such as Kostsport, Wohnbedarf, Ramstein, Tanner, Jehle and Modes Emmy between 1949 and 1951. The art historian Heinz Stahlhut noted that the displays were ‘great crowd-pullers and very popular among the people of Basel.
In 1949/1950 Tinguely’s wife Eva introduced him to Dr. Heiner Koechlin, a doctor of history and well-known local anarchist, whom the Basel police had on record as a trouble-maker and whose little bookshop on Spalenberg had become a centre for (political) refugees. Tinguely, who by then had left the Freie Jugend, joined Koechlin’s Arbeitsgemeinschaft freiheitlicher Sozialisten and created the signet for its publishing arm, Don Quichotte.
Koechlin’s unpublished memoirs include a personal comment on his relations with Tinguely: ‘I secretly envied the amorality with which he pursued his goals and to achieve which there was nothing he would not do, as he once told me. To persuade him otherwise would have been just as futile as his own touching efforts to cure me of my naïve sentimentality.

Despite having a large social network in Switzerland, Tinguely and Aeppli decided to move to Paris, which they did in late 1952, leaving their daughter Miriam, born 27 January 1950, with Tinguely’s parents, who in the 1940s had moved to Geneva. It was in Paris that Tinguely took the steps that would make him an artist of international renown with shows all over the world and works in many major collections.

Not until ten years after he had moved away was he able to exhibit his works here in Basel, too. The Basel gallery owner Felix Handschin gave him his first exhibition in 1962 and a second followed in 1964. In 1968 the Basler Verkehrsverein (now Basel Tourism) acquired Tinguely’s machine sculpture Hannibal II, which was thereafter displayed in both Basel and Liestal (and is now on deposit at Museum Tinguely). That same year the Kunstmuseum staged an exhibition of drawings called Zeichnungen von Robert Müller, Jean Tinguely, Bernhard Luginbühl, and in February 1972 the Kunsthalle showed its first major Tinguely retrospective (that would travel on to Hannover, Stockholm and Amsterdam). Motivated by a gift from the artist himself, the Kunstmuseum hosted another exhibition of Tinguely’s sculptures in 1976.

Basel’s famous Fasnacht, which had been so important to Tinguely during his childhood, continued to play a role in his work. In 1974, for example, he was at the centre of a spectacular – and literally explosive – happening by his Fasnacht clique, the Kuttlebutzer. Two years later he kitted them all out with costumes and masks on the theme of ‘urban Indians’, and in 1977 he created the famous Fasnacht Fountain that to this day enjoys pride of place on the site of the old theatre.
When Felix Handschin organized the Hammerausstellung, an art installation in an abandoned factory building in 1978, Tinguely obliged him by contributing a Plateau Agricole. He also took part in Skulptur im 20. Jahrhundert, an exhibition held at the Wenkenpark in Riehen in 1980 and at the Merian Park in 1984, both of which featured his Schwimmwasserplastik. His Mengele-Dance of Death premiered at the Galerie Beyeler in 1987 and in 1990 he and his artist friends designed possible alternatives to the planned Wettstein Bridge, which were subsequently exhibited as the work of the ‘Bildhauer-Union’ at the Galerie Littmann. In 1991 the same gallery presented his Collaborationen mit Eva Aeppli and later that year, Klaus Littmann and Tinguely organized a campaign to save Jonathan Borofsky’s Hammering Man. Littmann also staged the Kulturgüterzug of June 1991, for which not only Tinguely, but also Bernhard Luginbühl, Daniel Spoerri, Ben Vautier, Jim Whiting and Milena Palakarkina each filled a freight car with their art. For an exhibition at Messe Basel Tinguely created a work called Luminator, a gigantic lamp sculpture that now adorns the Euro-Airport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, having for many years greeted travellers arriving in the main hall of Basel’s SBB railway station.