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Jean Tinguely: "In Basel I lived with the Dance of Death"

15 November 2000 – 22 April 2001


The new presentation of Jean Tinguely's MENGELE-Totentanz (Dance of Death) on the upper floor of the Museum Jean Tinguely Basel from November 15, 2000 to April 22, 2001 builds on the artist's Faustian visions of banishing death in demonic play. Here he brought some visions and experiences of transience, death and decay together with traditional images from the late Middle Ages, which he encountered during his youth in Basel. The sculptures in movement, sound, light and darkness form a grand installation, the grotesque effect of which the observer in its midst can hardly ignore.

The 14 sculptures consist of objets trouvés collected in 1986 by the manic collector from the remains of a farm which had burnt down near his studio. In the works of the sixties, to which a concurring exhibition in the large hall of the Museum is dedicated, the dirty and rusty surfaces of Tinguely's objects reveal an interest in everyday life and anti-art. The black works show his recent development towards classic and abstract sculptures. However, the objets trouvés used for the MENGELE-Totentanz (Dance of Death) consist of materials that unmistakably bear the mark of their history: all the wood and metal is marked by the immense anger of the fire that Tinguely himself had experienced – severely shocked and yet fascinated. Together with the numerously employed skulls, the jerky movements and the dramatic lighting chosen by Tinguely, a group of sculptures was formed that is both burlesque and frightening.

Like hardly another work, it is closely intertwined with Tinguely's own biography:
From youth on, the artist was preoccupied by the knowledge of the constant endangering of one's own life and human existence in general: Tinguely as a young man at the end of the Second World War had been confronted by the gruesome fact of mass destruction of human life (be it by the Nazi killing machine or by the atomic bomb). Additionally, the MENGELE-Totentanz included the threat to his own life experienced in heart surgery a short time previously.

From childhood, Tinguely was strongly familiar with the Dance of Death imagery of the late Middle Ages. It is represented in Basel art by the excellent and famous Dance of Death in Basel's Prediger Church and Holbein's Imagines mortis. For this reason, it was an important concern of Tinguely to know that the MENGELE-Totentanz (Dance of Death) was in good hands in the town of his childhood and youth. Here he also found the necessary patron to support him in the realisation of his plan to set up the entire MENGELE-Totentanz in a room created specifically for this purpose. The carrying out of this project by the artist himself was rendered impossible by his death in 1991. The task of realising his vision, however, was finally what provided the incentive for founding the Museum Jean Tinguely.

In the second half of the year 1987 during his great retrospective at Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Tinguely had already presented the group of sculptures in the small church of San Samuele. It was here that clear analogies to late-mediaeval and baroque precursors became apparent. Subsequently, the idea of setting up the MENGELE-Totentanz (Dacne of Death) in a specially created and church-like room never let go of Tinguely.

The new presentation of the group of works is based on this conception of the artist. It provides the opportunity of illustrating the anchoring of Tinguely's group in the centuries of tradition of the Dance of Death and related representations: the first room of the exhibition is dedicated to the artistic analysis of the Dance of Death since its origin in late Middle Ages. The fact that this is not attempted through an encyclopaedic overview is a matter of course in view of the vast amount of material – the vast number of representations of the Dance of Death, the exploring of which in the meantime constitutes an entire branch of science, impressively documents the continuing attractiveness of the subject through to modern days. The exhibition is therefore largely limited to the Basel tradition that Tinguely himself is proven to have been familiar with – in keeping with Tinguely's statement: "In Basel I lived with the Dance of Death."

At the beginning, there are preceding and concurring forms of the Dance of Death for example representations of the legend about the meeting of the Three Living and the Three Dead or the debate between man and death from Johannes von Tepl's Ackermann aus Böhmen.

Prominent exhibits include copies of Ars moriendi, a medieval rule book on pious dying and Michael Wolgemut's representation of dancing skeletons from Hartmann Schedel's historical work Liber chronicarum from the year 1493.

The famous Dance of Death in Basel's Prediger Church and Holbein's Imagines mortis, which Tinguely had been most interested in, are present through numerous images and documents. From there on, the exhibition extends to significant representations of the Dance of Death from the European 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Exhibits include Johann Rudolf Schellenberg's Freund Heins Erscheinungen in Holbeins Manier of 1785, Alfred Rethel's intensive analysis of the Dance of Death from the middle of the 19th century and Max Klinger's disturbing graphic series Vom Tode I from the year 1889. Highlights from the 20th century are HAP Grieshaber's two cycles of gouache and woodcut from the years 1965/66 on the Dance of Death of Basel's Prediger Church. A contemporary example of the Dance of Death – the video work The Dancing by the young Polish artist Pawel Althamer from 1997 – makes the connection to Tinguely's almost obsessive preoccupation with death and transience in his later work: numerous drawings in the neighbouring room substantiate this and illustrate his plans for a presentation of the MENGELE-Totentanz (Dance of Death). Although Tinguely's later work is rich in vanitas motives and features a manifold array of references to the Dance of Death, they are particularly clustered in this installation.

With this exhibition, the Museum Jean Tinguely puts the emphasis on a new side of this artist who enjoyed an artistically prolific life and who said of himself: "... I was always on good terms with transience ..."

A special accompanying programme to the exhibition deals with the Dance of Death-subject in music of the 20th century. At 15 hours on January 27th, 2001, Dr. Ulrich Mosch of the Paul Sacher Foundation will lecture on musical representations of the Dance of Death-motif in the 20th century. And at 17.30 hours on March 2, 2001, members of the Swiss Chamber Soloists will play Paul Hindemith's "Des Todes Tod" in the exhibition halls.