Jean-Michel Folon
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Jean-Michel Folon

Is known for his surrealism that lent itself readily to the covers of magazines like the New Yorker and Le Nouvelle Observateur, and poster campaigns. In 1989 his bold style and imagery featured in the symbol for the 200th anniversary of the French revolution, a striking – and, for a while, ubiquitous – logo of three soaring birds.

 

It was as a graphic artist that Folon was able to express himself most successfully. He proclaimed his humanitarian sympathies with eloquent posters for such organisations as Unicef, Greenpeace and Amnesty International. In 1991 he designed four stamps for the Royal Mail to honour the work of European astronomers at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in the Canary Islands.

His designs often included a conventionally dressed Everyman figure, with a stereotypical brimmed hat and arrows instead of eyes, marooned in an empty landscape or penned in by slablike skyscrapers. As Folon put it, “we live surrounded by boxes.” In 1967 he even represented the Statue of Liberty with prison bars around her mouth.

 

Born in Uccle, near Brussels, the son of a paper wholesaler, Folon initially studied architecture, but by 1955 he had abandoned a country he regarded as a “mental prison” and headed for Paris. He ended up living in a gardener’s pavilion in Bougival, on the outskirts of the capital, where he spent five years as a draughtsman. By the early 1960s, when he visited the United States, he was selling graphic work to Esquire, Horizon, Atlantic Monthly and Time; by 1964, his drawings were on display at the Librairie Le Palimugre in Paris.

The clarity and directness of his images meant he was also receiving commissions for monumental murals: his first was in 1968, when he decorated the French pavilion at the Milan Triennale with a 36 metre polyester strip, adorned with an abstract pattern of more than 500 luminous points. This was followed a few years later by huge figurative works – representations of landscapes and cities – including those made for various railway stations, like the Metro in Brussels in 1974, and Waterloo in 1975. At the end of the 1960s, he had his first solo exhibitions in New York, Milan and Tokyo, and soon after, alongside magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, he began working for the New York Times.

Apart from Everyman, the most common character in Folon’s work is a hybrid creature, with a human body, multicoloured wings and perhaps a monstrous beak. Absurdly liberating, the figure reappears in numerous contexts. In 1972, he even turned it into a knitted nylon kite: after all, “when one flies, one is free. Kites can hold conversations with the wind.”

 

This fanciful, lighthearted tone made Folon an ideal illustrator for the tales of Jean de La Fontaine and Lewis Carroll, although he was able to indulge his darker side in an edition of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in 1973, and he also worked on books by Ray Bradbury and Jacques Prévert. His instinctive sense of drama led him into design for opera, experimental theatre, cinema and television, and, in 1967, he made a short feature, Le Cri, with the director Alain Resnais. In the mid-1970s, his usual cast of characters appeared in animations for the French Antenne 2 channel.

 

In 1992, Folon produced a series of watercolours accompanying the African-American novelist Ralph Waldo Ellison’s Invisible Man, in which the washes of paint suggested an appropriately immaterial quality. In 1990, the Metropolitan Museum in New York had held a exhibition of his engravings and watercolours, and, five years later, there was a retrospective in Japan. Although based mostly in France, and latterly Monaco, Folon was a great Italophile. It was fitting that his final exhibition, which closed in September, included a spectacular display of his sculptures in the Forte del Belvedere, high above Florence.

 

Several museums dedicated exhibitions to him, among them the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1971, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam in 1976, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1977, the Musée Picasso in Antibes in 1984, the Museo Correr in Venice in 1986, the Museo de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires in 1987, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1990, La Pedrera in Barcelona in 1993, the Bunkamura in Tokyo in 1995, the Olympic Museum in Lausanne in 1996 and the Museo Morandi [it] in Bologna in 1996–97. In 1999 an exhibition of large sculptures was presented in the Galerie Guy Pieters, in Saint-Paul de Vence. In 2000 he opened the Fondation Folon, which presents the essentials of his work in the region he grew up in. In 2001 the city of Lisbon held a large retrospective of his sculptures in the Castelo de São Jorge, which dominates the city. In 2003 he created the designs for Puccini’s La Bohème for the Puccini Festival in Italy. The president of the French Republic, Jacques Chirac, awarded him the Legion of Honour in the Palais d’Elysée. In 2004 he became a UNICEF ambassador. In 2005 the city of Florence held a grand retrospective of his work at the Palazzo Vecchio and the Forte di Belvedere.

Folon published his drawings in newspapers, mostly in the USA, where he was recognized earlier than in Europe and illustrated books by Franz Kafka, Ray Bradbury, Jorge Luis Borges, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jacques Prévert, Boris Vian, Guy de Maupassant, Albert Camus, Herbert George Wells and Jean de La Fontaine. He never really changed his style, whose most famous emblem is the “bird-man” but used all kinds of supports; Folon made murals (Magic City for the Brussels subway, 1974; Waterloo Station for the London tube, 1975), posters for theater and opera (Spoleto Festival, 1978; Teatro Olimpicio, 1987) and cinema (The Purple Rose of Cairo, by Woody Allen, 1985), theater and opera scenery (Geneva and Brussels, 1981; Venice and Roma, 1989), short films for TV (opening and closing sections for the French channel Antenne 2, 1975–1984), wooden sculptures, logotypes (Bicentenary of the French Revolution, 1989; Philexfrance, 1989), tapestries (Congress Hall of Monaco, 1989), ships (1990), church windows (1992), sculptures (La mer, ce grand sculpteur, Knokke, 1997), and even a Palio flag (Sienna, 1999). His artistic value was recognized by several exhibitions organized in the most famous galleries and museums in the world (Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 1971; Arts Club of Chicago, 1972; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1976; Transworld Art, Washington, D.C., 1977; Musée d’Art Moderne de Liège, 1978; Musée Picasso, Antibes, 1984; Correr Museum, Venice, 1985; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1990; La Pedrera, Barcelona, 1993; Bunkamura Museum, Tokyo, 1995; Olympic Museum, Lausanne, 1996). He created a famous piece of television that was screened in France for almost 30 years. It was first made for the Italiques TV show, by Marc Gilbert (in French), which aired from 1971 to 1974. The music, originally the soundtrack of Gott mit uns, was composed by Ennio Morricone.

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