Vive La Fontaine!

Photo: Leonard Bezzola / © Estate Leonard Bezzola

La Prophétie by Robert Desnos

D’une place de Paris jaillira une si claire fontaine

Que le sang des vierges et les ruisseaux des glaciers

Près d’elle paraîtront opaques.

Les étoiles sortiront en essaim de leurs ruches lointaines

Et s’aggloméreront pour se mirer dans ses eaux près de la Tour Saint-Jacques.

D’une place de Paris jaillira une si claire fontaine

Qu’on viendra s’y baigner, en cachette, dès l’aurore.

Sainte Opportune et ses lavandières seront ses marraines

Et ses eaux couleront vers le sud venant du nord.

Un grand marronnier rouge fleurit à la place

Où coulera la fontaine future,

Peut-être dans mon grand âge

Entendrai-je son murmure ;

Or le chant est si doux de la claire fontaine

Qu’il baigne déjà mes yeux et mon cœur.

Ce sera le plus bel affluent de la Seine,

Le gage le plus sûr des printemps à venir, de leurs oiseaux et de leurs fleurs.

The Prophecy by Robert Desnos

From a square in Paris will spring a fountain so clear

That the blood of virgins and the streams of glaciers

Close to it will appear opaque.

Stars will swarm from their distant hives

And gather to mirror themselves in its waters near the Tour Saint-Jacques.

From a square in Paris will spring a fountain so clear

That people will come to bathe in it, secretly, at dawn.

Sainte-Opportune and her washerwomen will be its godmothers

And its waters will flow south from the north.

A large red chestnut blossoms in the square

Where the future fountain will flow,

Perhaps in my old age

I’ll hear its whisper;

Now the song is so sweet from the clear fountain

May it already bathe my eyes and my heart.

It will be the Seine’s most beautiful tributary,

The surest pledge of springs to come, of their birds and their flowers.

This poem, by French Surrealist poet Robert Desnos, was written in 1930. Although this is many years before the construction of the Stravinsky Fountain, it serves as a perfect description, maybe even somewhat of a foresight, of the beauty and significance of this fountain in Paris. 

Before Stravinsky FountainJean Tinguely created Fasnachts Brunnen (Carnival Fountain) at the former City Theatre in Basel. Built from 1975 to 1977, the rectangular fountain, often referred to as the Tinguely Fountain, houses 10 motorized iron sculptures that move and spray water in the air.

Photo by Jim McDougall. 5 July 2013

The Tinguely Fountain was a huge success and the popularity of it drew the attention of the city of Paris. The Centre Georges Pompidou was built on the idea of bringing together art, literature, and music in the form of a multicultural complex. The site of the center (the Beaubourg area) was specifically chosen to bring life to a run-down part of Paris.  

The project, which began in 1969, was officially opened in 1977. It consisted of the National Museum of Modern Art (Musée national d’Art moderne), The Public Information Library  (Bibliothèque publique d’information) and IRCAM – Institute for Acoustic and Musical Research (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique).

The IRCAM is a French institute dedicated to the research of contemporary music and sound. It was founded by French composer Pierre Boulez. Much of the institute was built underground and situated next to Centre Georges Pompidou. The empty space covering the “roof” of the IRCAM was the designated site of Tinguely’s new fountain. The artist was selected in 1981 by Mayor Jacques Chirac, and most of the funding came from the City of Paris. Because of the musical theme of IRCAM, Tinguely designed the fountain by drawing inspiration from Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. In an interview with Daniel Abadie published in Beaux Arts Magazine in 1983, Tinguely said:

“I wanted sculptures like street performers, a little bit like a circus, which was at the heart of Stravinsky's style itself when in 1914 he had his first encounter with jazz, thanks to the recordings which Ernest Answermet brought from the United States, or when he wrote an homage to a circus elephant, all made up in colors, which he saw in a circus in Evian or Lausanne. It was he who set the tone for us...” 
La Fontaine Stravinsky, 1983. Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely

Originally the commission was given solely to Jean Tinguely, but he did not want to make another fountain filled with only his dark, metal sculptures as he did in Basel. Tinguely requested that Niki de Saint Phalle be involved in this project, adding her colorful sculptures. 

The city was hesitant towards the idea of Saint Phalle’s bright works, at first suggesting that Tinguely work with Miro. Tinguely’s response to this was “No, I’m doing it with Niki or not at all” (Source: NCAF Archives, date unknown)

In a letter of November 1990, Saint Phalle wrote to Nicola Caracciolo :

"In 1960, I was one of those young artists who dreamed of an art accessible to all.  La Fontaine Stravinsky is, I believe, a fine example." 

Nicola Caracciolo was a good friend of Saint Phalle’s who in 1978, along with his brother Carlo, offered a parcel of their family’s land in Tuscany upon which Saint Phalle’s monumental sculpture garden Il Giardino dei Tarocchi was built.

The Stravinsky Fountain was constructed as a shallow basin, measuring approximately 6,200 square feet, with a depth of 11 inches. The location has been named the Igor Stravinsky Square and is situated by Centre Georges Pompidou and the 16th-century Gothic-style Catholic Church Eglise Saint-Merri. 16 sculptures were constructed for the fountain; 6 by Saint Phalle, 7 by Tinguely, and 3 collaborations by the two artists:

  • L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird)
  • La Clef de Sol (The Musical Key of G)
  • La Spirale (The Spiral)
  • L’Elephant (The Elephant)
  • Le Renard (The Fox)
  • Le Serpent (The Serpent)
  • La Grenouille (The Frog)
  • La Diagonale (The Diagonal)
  • La Mort (Death)
  • La Sirène (The Mermaid)
  • Le Rossignol (The Nightingale)
  • L’Amour (Love)
  • La Vie (Life)
  • Le Coeur (The Heart)
  • Le Chapeau de Clown (The Clown’s Hat)
  • Ragtime 
View on British Pathé

Building the fountain on top of an underground building did have some structural difficulties that were new to its creators. Firstly, the weight of water had to be reduced as much as possible so as not to damage IRCAM roof, which is why the water depth in the basin doesn’t exceed 11.5 inches. The sculptures also had to be made so that they were as light as possible. Another reason the structural weight had to be minimized was because Tinguely wanted the sculptures to work in all types of weather. To show movement frozen by water in the cold winter months meant the fountain had to be built in such a way to sustain the weight of ice. Tinguely’s creations were made out of aluminum (rather than his usual heavy, scrap metals) and Saint Phalle’s sculptures, although large in size, were made of lightweight fiberglass polyester.  Tinguely wanted the water to be left untreated so that moss would grow, giving way to nature amongst the man-made objects, but his request was not approved by the city.

Photos: NCAF Archives

Once the Stravinsky Fountain was complete, it was inaugurated on March 16, 1983, before a mixed crowd of government officials, artists, and many Parisians. It was attended by Mayor Jacques Chirac, Minister of Culture Jack Lang, the widow of former president Georges Pompidou Madame Claude Pompidou, and Swiss diplomat François de Ziegler. Of course, Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle were also present along with their family members and other known artists such as Cèsar and Jean Edern Hallier

Some news articles noted the friction between Chirac and Lang, and how the two politicians were mostly ignoring each other during the inauguration.

Although there was turmoil between the two men, their speeches discussed the goal of the two political parties coming to an agreement and solving their issues for the betterment of Paris and further development of the artistic and cultural side of the city.

Varenne, Françoise. “Beauborg: inauguration des fontaines Stravinski” Le Figaro, 17 March 1983.             B.K., “Oh! la belle Fontaine!”  Le Matin, 17 March 1983

The Stravinsky Fountain is one of the many artistic collaborations of Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely. Saint Phalle’s bold and playful sculptures set against Tinguely’s dark machinery create an unexpected ballet of colors and metals turning and twisting while the sculptures spout out water; a component of the fountain just as important as the art itself. 

It is a highly visited tourist attraction in Paris, but much more than a landmark. It is a place for locals and tourists alike to sit around the fountain, socialize, or quietly enjoy the tranquility of the water. Many art teachers bring their students to the fountain as an introduction to contemporary art. Street performers display their talents and entertainment in front of the fountain, and children from the suburbs come into the city to dance, sing, and express their own artistic talents at the Stravinsky Fountain. This landmark is an all-inclusive and welcoming space for art lovers and everyone else.

Unfortunately, over the years the Stravinsky Fountain has had issues, such as electrical damage that caused the sculptures not to move as well as problems with the pumping system that stopped the water from spouting out of the sculptures. There have been ongoing complaints from Parisians and tourists alike, regarding the lack of general upkeep of this beautiful fountain; the sculptures are stained with bird droppings and there is waste and debris floating in the water. 

Photos: NCAF Archives

Due to various city regulations, the fountain spent many winters empty of water, giving the impression to the public that it was possible to walk inside the basin and climb onto sculptures, causing further damage to the artworks. 

After years of correspondence, in 2018 the city realized that the fountain was not yet listed as part of the French National Institute of Cultural Heritage (Institut National du Patrimoine). Finally, 30-plus years after its inauguration, Paris officially named the Stravinsky Fountain a piece of art, which resulted in moving the responsibility of maintenance and preservation from the city’s fountain department to its art department. This also means the fountain has officially been acknowledged and classified as a historically important part of the city of Paris.

The citizens of Paris have always honored the importance of the fountain and voted for its restoration officially to be scheduled and budgeted for by the city.
The provisional budget amounted to 1.6 million euros, including 900,000 euros financed by the participatory budget of 2018 as well as Paris’ water service company Eau de Paris.

A third and large-scale restoration finally began in April 2022 with the sculptures’ removal and relocation to Le Bourget Airport. The plan included renovation of both technical and artistic aspects, with the restoration of the resin and metal sculptures, as well as the repair of the hydraulic networks, waterproofing, electricity, and pumps.

Photos: NCAF Archives

The basin of the fountain has been drained and repaired, Saint Phalle’s sculptures have been fully restored, as well as Tinguely’s machines. All of the sculptures have been re-installed into their original places inside the basin. 

The restoration was made possible with the help of a proposal presented to the city by Sophie Pons-Dublanc, an experienced bioengineer and deputy head of the global equities department at French company Covéa Finance. She is also a local resident of Paris.

Bloum Cardenas, the granddaughter of Niki de Saint Phalle, is very passionate about bringing the Stravinsky Fountain back to life, fully working year-round, as was the vision of its artists Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle. She has the support of the Niki Charitable Art Foundation, along with many artists, close friends, and the Tinguely family. 

Equally as important as the full restoration of the Stravinsky Fountain is keeping the basin filled with water year-round, including in the wintertime. This helps with conservation efforts of the fountain as well as ensuring that it will be fully active, as conceived and intended by the artists. 

Jean Tinguely revered movement; it was a vital component that made his sculptures come alive, hence his infamous declaration in the 1958 programmatic text “For Statics”:

"Es bewegt sich alles, Stillstand gibt es nicht!
(Everything moves continuously. Immobility does not exist.)"
Photos: NCAF Archives

2023 marks the 40th year anniversary of the inauguration of the Stravinsky Fountain and the City of Paris is honoring the restored monument on Tuesday, November 7th.

This can be a time of celebration for children, lovers, Parisians, artists, dancers, and all others who feel as if the fountain belongs to them and to their community.

It is the hope of the Niki Charitable Art Foundation that Paris keeps Jean Tinguely’s vision, his beliefs in movement, and the fantastical Stravinsky Fountain alive through continuous upkeep, maintenance, and any necessary restorations to come.

Photo: Leonard Bezzola / © Estate Leonard Bezzola