Heavily influenced by Marcel Duchamp's Dadaist and Surrealist ideology, Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely allowed autonomous movements and the randomness of chance to dictate his artistic creations. Like his idol Duchamp, Tinguely mended found objects, junk he gathered from refuse sites, and iron, the metal to which he was always faithful, to create kinetic sculptures in which machines perform busy but functionless tasks. Tinguely caricatured the utilitarian and mechanical world when the haphazard and simultaneous movement of his machines led to the self destruction of his art works. His ironic, tongue-in-cheek critiques belie the immense creative powers he possessed. The wit, charm, and sincerity with which Tinguely executed his sculptures made him an ever popular art-world figure till his death in 1991.
By the 1980s, Tinguely had become a world-renowned representative of modern art. Whereas twenty years earlier he nearly starved earning a meagre hundred dollars a month from his dealer, Tinguely was now commissioned by major institutions like New York's Museum of Modern Art and Paris' Centre Georges Pompidou to execute monumental works for urban settings. Yet, despite such a tremendous upturn in fortunes, Tinguely remained loyal to the ideals that defined his art. He continued to create humorous and satirical works using iron and found objects.
In 1981 Tinguely began a series of winged altar-pieces influenced by both his wife, Niki de Saint Phalle, who had made a series of altarpieces in the early 60's, and by the early Renaissance painter Mathias Grünewald. Grünewald's extraordinarily beautiful and powerful shrines combining both painting and sculpture, reflect the artist's profound Christian beliefs. Tinguely's modern interpretation of the altarpiece combines animal skulls, objets trouvés, and welded iron in a witty reflection on life and death. The present work, Tropen Altar (Le retable des tropiques) from 1987-88 is one of the later works in this series. Although a three dimensional sculpture to be viewed in the round, Tropen Altar pays homage to its medieval predecessors by retaining the traditional frontal, rectangular, and winged elements. The three adored animal skulls, however, subvert Christianity and the act of worship by replacing Jesus Christ in a shrine to death. Pontus Hulten, Jean Tinguely's friend and fellow artist, said of these works "Anyone looking at them gets a shock rarely experienced in the theatre. The figures are no costumed actors trying to move us, but dead things. Death is making a face at us" (P. Hulten, 'The man and his work' in Museum Jean Tinguely Collection, Basel 1996, p. 70).