Le CYCLOP: Then and Now

HeadMonstreLe Cyclop – these are all names for Swiss kinetic artist Jean Tinguely’s monumental sculpture residing in the woods of Milly-La-Forêt, a commune outside of Paris where he lived. 

In October 2020 Le Cyclop will be closed for approximately one year in order to complete a critical and large-scale restoration program. The focus is on the 325 m² of mirrored surface created by Niki de Saint Phalle, along with the fountain system, and the Hommage aux Déportés,  a wagon created by artist Eva Aeppli.

Described by Swedish museum director Pontus Hulten as Tinguely’s lifelong dream project, Le Cyclop weighs 350 tons and measures 22.3 meters (approximately 74 feet) in height (Le rêve de Jean. Film byLouise Faure and Anne Julien, Quatre A Quatre Films, 2005). The creative process of Le Cyclop began with drawings in 1969 and took more than 20 years to complete. Tinguely built it with many other artists, making it a true collaborative effort of dedication and an inventive work of art.

Le Cyclop, 1976

Jean Tinguely was born in Fribourg, Switzerland and spent his childhood in Basel. He was involved in various political movements from a young age and identified himself as an anarchist (Canal,Virginie. Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop. Paris, CNAP, 2007).

In the 1950’s Tinguely moved to France and met Niki de Saint Phalle who would become his partner both romantically and artistically.

Both Tinguely and Saint Phalle went through phases of destruction as art in their careers; Saint Phalle with her “shooting paintings” and Tinguely with his explosive mechanical machines, as exemplified by Homage to New York (1960). Then came the period of creation. Each of them envisioned monumental sculpture parks; Tinguely with Le Cyclop and Saint Phalle with The Tarot Garden. 

In the 1960’s as Tinguely created bigger, more intricate machines, he learned how to incorporate welding, scrap metal and the use of tension in his art. Tinguely would find scrap metal and other materials in junk yards to make his inventions.

Tinguely and Saint Phalle were also interested in constructing art that allowed spectator interaction. In 1962 both artists participated in an experimental exhibition titled Dylaby. With the help of museum director Willem Sandberg and curator Ad Petersen, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam turned into a labyrinth of art installations that could be experienced by museum visitors. 

After creating another interactive and monumental art piece, HON, with Niki de Saint Phalle in 1966, Tinguely decided it was time to turn his dream of Le Cyclop into reality. Along with many drawings and sketches, Tinguely and fellow Swiss sculptor Bernhard Luginbühl created a maquette titled Gigantoleum (Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007). Tinguely envisioned it as an interactive park. After failing to secure patrons for funding, this maquette developed into Head, with the help of Saint Phalle. Tinguely remarked “It’s a Niki de Saint Phalle idea above all.” (Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007).

Model of Gigantoleum / Kulturstation I, 1968, source: Facebook/Artinside
Maquette pour Le Cyclop – La Tête, 1970, source: Tumblr

Tinguely and Saint Phalle purchased the land for Le Cyclop in the area where they were living at the time, Milly-La-Forêt. It was inexpensive because there was a restriction against building on the land. Tinguely met with the mayor and was given unofficial approval to begin construction. Saint Phalle and Tinguely gave the property to their friend and art patron, Jean de Menil because, as Saint Phalle explained:

Once we'd bought the land, we decided that we didn't want to be the owners of it, because we were going to ask other artists to take part in the project"

From: Jean Tinguely, Le Cyclop, 2007

The first crew of artists and friends that began work on Le Cyclop along with Jean Tinguely, were Rico Weber, Bernhard LuginbühlPaul Wiedmer, Seppi Imhof and, of course, Niki de Saint Phalle. Weber, who assisted Tinguely and Saint Phalle on many of their projects, became an artist in his own right, primarily with his graphite reliefs. Tinguely funded the project entirely on his own which allowed for “no bureaucracy, no external authorization and no financial gain involved in creating it”(Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007).

Pontus Hulten describes Le Cyclop as “the realization of a big anarchistic utopia” (Le rêve de Jean, 2005)Tinguely decided to build Le Cyclop around four large oak trees because he wanted it to be hidden from view and the neighboring villages. He even buried heifer liver and lungs to stimulate forest growth, as recommended to him by a local forester (Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007). The first arduous task was clearing a pathway into the forest for delivery of the tons and tons of scrap metal that was purchased from a local scrap metal merchant named Duperche. Next a layer of concrete was laid as the foundation for Le Cyclop and railway sleepers were erected like pillars to construct the varying platform levels.

Tinguely quickly realized that he needed a skilled welder to create his massive Head. He placed an ad in a Swiss newspaper, asking for a person who “can weld, play Swiss cards, and was not afraid of heights” (Le rêve de Jean, 2005). Seppi Imhof replied via postcard and arrived in Milly-La-Forêt in 1971. Imhof came to be known as Tinguely’s right hand man. The small crew worked day and night building Le Cyclop piece by piece while working their way up into the trees.

Le Cyclop early construction. Photos: Association Le Cyclop

There was a great camaraderie amongst the artists; they worked, ate, and practically lived at the site. As noted in the book Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, many of the artists expressed that Jean Tinguely enjoyed the collaboration immensely. 

Besides the small crew that began on this journey with him, he also invited many other artists to participate. There are artworks within Le Cyclop from artists Eva AeppliArmanPhilippe BouveretCésarPierre Marie LejeuneJean-Pierre Raynaud, Larry RiversJesús Rafael Soto, and Daniel Spoerri (Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007).

In 1975, Niki de Saint Phalle wrote, directed, filmed, and starred in the movie Un réve plus long que la nuit at Le Cyclop. Many of the artists that were building Le Cyclop can be found in the film. 

Tinguely was able to keep his monster hidden in the forest for several years. Then in the 1980’s, vandals began entering the property, destroying parts of Le Cyclop. In an attempt to deter them, Tinguely created trap doors and dead-end stairways (Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007). These measures were not successful and Tinguely abandoned his project for several years. Saint Phalle recalls this period of time:

The Head slept… Jean had no desire to finish the Head at that particular moment."

In 1985 Tinguely proposed to move Le Cyclop to a new location, a very expensive and very difficult endeavor not favored by government officials. Soon after, he had multiple heart attacks resulting in a three week coma. During this time Saint Phalle was trying to convince the French Ministry of Culture to take ownership of Le Cyclop. In 1987 the French government agreed, which allowed for financial support in the installation of electricity, water, and fences to protect the property (Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007).

CNAP (Centre National des Arts Plastiques), a public institution that is a branch of the Ministry of Culture was given the responsibility for Le Cyclop conservation, security, and public access to the site. The organization also manages moral and property rights issues.

Covering Le Cyclop entirely in mirrors was Saint Phalle’s idea. It took her almost ten years to decide what materials she would use. By this time Saint Phalle was known for her use of bright colors and beautiful mosaics but she stated that use of such bright hues would overpower the beauty of the surrounding nature (Le rêve de Jean, 2005). Thousands of small pieces of mirror were applied to the face of Le Cyclop, glistening in the sun. 

Various parts of Le Cyclop are also specific homages to Tinguely’s friends and artistic inspirations that had died. A flat, square pond was constructed at the top of the sculpture, honoring Tinguely’s friend Yves Klein. A chocolate grinder was placed at the entrance of Le Cyclop-a tribute to another friend and artist Marcel Duchamp. A relief was built as a fake concrete door covered with wooden elements to honor artist Louise Nevelson. And Meta-Merzbau, a metal sculpture, was inspired by artist Kurt Schwitter’s piece titled Merzbau (Jean Tinguely Le Cyclop, 2007).

f.l.t.r. Hommage à Yves Klein by Jean Tinguely, source: AKG images
Méta-Merzbau by Seppi Imhof, ca. 1974
Hommage à Louise Nevelson by Bernhard Luginbühl, 1974
Broyeuse de chocolate by Marcel Duchamp, 1977, source: Association Le Cyclop

Jean Tinguely never saw the completion of his masterpiece in the forest; he died in August 1991. Saint Phalle made certain that Le Cyclop was completed and, in 1994, it was inaugurated by French President Francois Mitterand and Jacques Toubon, the Minister of Culture.

Letter from Niki de Saint Phalle to President François Mitterrand
Journal de Geneve, 25 May 1994. source: NCAF Archives

In 1988 the Association Le Cyclop was created to undertake the daily maintenance of Le Cyclop, develop its cultural and artistic program, and create a website for the public to discover it. The association consists of director François Taillade, head of visitor relations Fleur Colombini, administrator Jean-Baptiste Clerc, as well as Fatima Fonseca and Thierry Ruda, who are in charge of reception and technical support.

In 2012 the Association Le Cyclop began branching out into the contemporary art world. It has helped artists in the conception artistic research combining music and visual arts, collaborative artist creations, and art works relating to nature. These three areas of work are very relevant to Le Cyclop site. Artists’ residences, contemporary art exhibitions, performances, and lectures encourage the merging of creativity and research. Throughout the open season at Le Cyclop, screenings of artists’ videos and documentary films are shown in a converted container close to the sculpture. 

Since its official opening in 1994 Le Cyclop has not undergone any major renovations. Aging, weather conditions and the humidity of the forest have caused the reflective element of the mirrors to disappear and, since 2014, the face of Le Cyclop has been covered by a protective net to prevent its mirrors from falling.

Photo: Association Le Cyclop

The year-long tremendous restoration project includes many organizations that will help with the extensive amount of work. In 2012, the CNAP signed a partnership with the LRMH (Historical Monuments Research Laboratory). This department of the Ministry of Culture is dedicated to research on the preservation of historical monuments, buildings and objects. In order to identify the most suitable materials for the restoration of the Face aux miroirs, the LRMH carried out artificial aging tests in the laboratory on several types of mirrors. The mirror selected for its resistance to climatic conditions after testing, is produced by the Saint-Gobain company. These mirrors were donated to the CNAP in the form of sponsorship in kind. The 3D mirror survey was provided by 3DO Reality Capture. These measures will allow the CNAP to remain faithful to the cutting work carried out under the supervision of Niki de Saint Phalle during the installation of the mirrors between 1987-1991. All of these elements enabled the GFTK architects selected for the restoration to carry out the preliminary studies of the project.

The cost of Le Cyclop restoration project is approximately 1.4 million Euros. Some of this has been collected through crowdfunding, fundraising opportunities, a generous partnership with Saint-Gobain who offers the mirrors, a french bank (Crédit Agricole) and the most substantial amount financed by the Ministry of Culture. Soon with CNAP having the financial ability to restore Le Cyclop, Jean Tinguely’s masterpiece will once again come to life in woods of Milly-La-Forêt, bringing joy and wonderment to all its visitors. 

Photo: Fabienne Villegle, 1997

The Niki Charitable Art Foundation would like to thank the CNAP Director of Collections, Aude Bodet, and the Director of Association Le Cyclop, François Taillade, for their insight and help with this blog.