Early life

Jean-Michel Folon was born in Brussels on 1 March 1934. He was the oldest of three children. The family lived in Ixelles and spent their holidays in Knokke. The young Folon showed little interest in studying and preferred to spend all his time drawing. He therefore decided to study architecture (École Saint-Luc) and then, in 1954, enrolled at the industrial design faculty at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Visuels de La Cambre (Brussels). A few months later, in 1955, he hitchhiked to France: I think I was an idiot until I reached 25. Actually no, until I was 21, the day I left Brussels… That was the most grown-up thing I ever did.” He settled in Bougival, on the outskirts of Paris. For a period of 5 years, he drew every day and worked, without any great success, as a press cartoonist for Belgian (PanMoustique) and French magazines. He barely earned enough to eat.

Jean-Michel Folon enfant - Fondation Folon

The 1960s

Jean-Michel Folon, 1960 - Fondation Folon

In 1960, Folon decided to send some drawings, like a kind of message in a bottle, to New York magazines, some of which were quick to show enthusiasm for his work. They were published in Horizon, Esquire and The New Yorker, and then in FortuneAtlantic Monthly and Time. In the early 1960s, Folon travelled to New York and met Saul Steinberg, who had a major influence on his work at that time and urged him to study the work of Paul Klee. Folon’s success in the United States opened the doors to galleries and magazines in Europe.

Along with Roland Topor, Folon made his mark as one of the great graphic artists of his time: “My drawings may look like comics, but they are not designed to make people laugh.” It was during this period that he designed his first posters. A master communicator, he went on to create more than six hundred over the course of his career.

Following frequent visits to Italy, he met the author Giorgio Soavi, who was the artistic director at Olivetti. From 1965 onwards, Folon delivered a large number of design projects for the Italian company: posters, illustrations for texts, cartoons (Le message), calendar, etc. In 1968, he produced a 36 m2 mural for the French pavilion at the Milan Triennale. In 1969, he exhibited his work for the first time in New York, at the Lefebre Gallery.

Until 1965, Folon’s language consisted exclusively of Indian ink on white paper. The French artist Colette Portal, whom Folon had married in 1961, gradually introduced him to colours. He started to experiment with coloured inks and with silkscreen printing with Jacques Marquet.

Colette and Jean-Michel had two children: François, who was born in 1963, and Catherine, who was born in 1967 but died at the age of 4. In 1968, the Folons left their home in Paris and moved to Burcy, in the Beauce region of France, where they set up home in an old farm with ‘stunning views’. This played a defining role in Folon’s work and prompted him to take up watercolours.

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The 1970s

In 1970, Folon met the woman who would become his second wife, Paola Ghiringhelli. He exhibited his work in her famous Il Milione gallery in Milan. He represented Belgium in two contemporary art Biennales – Venice in 1970 and Sao Paulo in 1973, where he won first prize. He gradually abandoned coloured inks in favour of watercolour, a technique in which he went on to excel. Solo exhibitions followed in quick succession in Europe, the United States and Japan, in venues such as the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the Musée d’Art Moderne in Brussels (1971), the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam and the Deutsches Plakat Museum in Essen (1976), and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (1977).

While still working for the press, he received commissions from publishers to illustrate various works of 20th century literature and poetry: in 1973, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and La Mort d’un arbre (A Tree Dies), which Folon wrote and illustrated himself, and which included a lithograph by Max Ernst as a preface. These were followed, in 1974, by The Circular Ruins by Jorge Luis Borges, Alcools and Calligrammes by Guillaume Apollinaire and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in 1978, and the complete works of Jacques Prévert in 1979. He created monumental paintings in public places, such as the 165m2 work (1974) that adorns the Montgomery metro station in Brussels.

Folon was always fascinated by the moving image. In the 1970s, he was drawn to the cinema and counted Federico Fellini, Patrick Dewaere, Miou-Miou, Rufus, Yannick Bellon, Chris Marker, Yves Montand and Alain Resnais among his friends. He tried his hand at acting, and designed posters for a number of films. However, it was really through animation that he touched the imagination of millions of TV viewers, who saw his opening and closing idents on the French TV channel Antenne 2 every day between 1976 and 1983.

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Jean-Michel et Paola Folon, 1970 - Fondation Folon

The 1980s

In the mid-1980s, Folon began assembling and transforming objects, his first steps towards the monumental sculptures that were to follow. He moved to the Côte d’Azur, first to Cap-d’Ail and then to Monaco (1985), but he still kept his ‘laboratory’ in Burcy. The coastal horizon typifies his work during this period, along with his Voyages, a series of boats made from pieces of reclaimed wood, all with the same veil of oil paint.

This series paved the way for paper and cardboard collages using unusual combinations of materials. Folon also continued working as an illustrator, producing artwork for L’Automne à Pékin (Autumn in Peking) by Boris Vian and L’Inutile Beauté (Useless beauty) by Guy de Maupassant (1980), Pluies de New York (The Rains of New York) by Albert Camus (1984), and the portfolios Lointains (Distant) (1986) and A propos de la Création (About the Creation), which revisits the book of Genesis (1989-1990).

Jean-Michel Folon et Milton Glaser, 1980 - Fondation Folon

In his work as a poster artist, Folon championed humanitarian and environmental causes that were dear to him, working with Greenpeace and UNICEF in particular. In 1988, he illustrated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1989, he designed the logo for the Bicentenary of the French Revolution.

In 1981, he was commissioned to design theatre and opera sets, something he had already done in the 1960s with scenery for productions by Félicien Marceau and Guy Foissy: Frank Martin’s Le Vin herbé and Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi at the Grand Théâtre in Geneva; The Soldier’s Tale by Igor Stravinsky at the Théâtre de la Vie in Brussels. He exhibited his works in many places: the Musée de la Poste in Paris, the Musée Ingres in Montauban (1982), the Musée Picasso in Antibes (1984), a retrospective in Tokyo, Osaka and Kamakura (Japan, 1985), the Museo Correr in Venice (1985), the Museo de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires, and the Botanique in Brussels (1987).

The 1990s

During this decade, with encouragement from his friends the sculptor César and the founder Romain Barelier, Folon enthusiastically embraced sculpture. Characterised by their frontality and physicality, his sculptures were inspired by tribal art – from the Cyclades to the Etruscans, from African masks to Native American totem poles. Folon exhibited them at the Place du Petit Sablon in Brussels in 1995 and then at the Château de Seneffe (Belgium) the following year. Largely focusing on the human form, they embodied themes from his earlier illustration work and propelled the artist’s universe into new environments: landscapes, gardens, parks, galleries, museums.

His sculpture work reached its apotheosis on the beach in the Belgian resort of Knokke, where, in 1997, Folon installed a bronze figure of a man which is submerged at every high tide (La mer, ce grand sculpteur – The sea, that great sculptor). Alongside this work, Folon continued to exhibit his creations: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1990), the Marino Marini Museum in Florence (1990), La Pedrera in Barcelona (1993), a retrospective in Shizuoka, the Bunkamura Museum in Tokyo and in Kyoto (1995), the Olympic Museum in Lausanne (1996), the Morandi Museum in Bologna (1996) and the Elzenveld in Antwerp (1999). In 1999, to mark the new millennium, Folon created an installation in Pietrasanta (Italy). The work consisted of 2,000 hands, each symbolising someone who had influenced him. He continued working as an illustrator for the Milanese publisher Nuages: The invisible man by H.G. Wells (1992), La Fontaine’s Fables (1996).

As he was always eager to learn new techniques, Folon worked in collaboration with Loire master-glaziers in Chartres to create cartoons for stained-glass windows for several chapels in France, Italy and Belgium: Mont-Agel (1992), Burcy (1997), Pisa (1998). Keen to ensure that his work survived intact, Folon raised the idea of setting up a non-profit foundation. He was won over by the Wallonia Region’s offer of the old Château de La Hulpe farm. The Solvay Regional Estate had held a special fascination for him since his childhood.

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The 2000s

The Fondation Folon opened in 2000, with scenography designed by Folon himself. During this period, Folon was the recipient of a number of awards. He was appointed an ambassador for UNICEF (2003) and was awarded the Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur (France, 2003).

He exhibited his work in prestigious locations: the Château de Sédières in France (2001), the grounds of the Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon (2001), the Palazzo Ducale in Lucca, Italy (2003), and his last retrospective at the Palazzo Vecchio and the Forte di Belvedere in Florence in 2005. In 2002, still on the lookout for new techniques to learn, he took up ceramics and designed a hot air balloon. He created the sets and costumes for La Bohème at the Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, Italy (2003). He designed the stained glass windows in the Church of Saint-Étienne in Waha (Belgium) and redesigned the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs in Saint-Paul de Vence in France (2005). On 20 October 2005, having just restored a marvellous 1930s boat, Over the Rainbow, which he often sailed twixt sea and sky, Jean-Michel Folon passed away in Monaco aged 71.

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Youngster (-18 years old) 5€
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Temporary exhibition

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Senior (+65 years old) 9€
Student (-26 years with card) 5€
Youngster (-18 years old) 5€
-6 years Free of charge
Family package (2 adults & 3 children) 30€
museumPASSmusées; ICOM; Presse Free of charge
Teacher (with card) 6€
Article 27 (with 1 ticket) 1.25€
Disabled person (+1 accompanying person) Free of charge

Museum and temporary exhibition

Adult 15€
Senior (+65 years old) 12€
Student (-26 years with card) 5€
Youngster (-18 years old) 5€
-6 years Free of charge
Family package (2 adults & 3 children) 35€
museumPASSmusées; ICOM; Presse Free of charge
Teacher (with card) 6€
Article 27 (with 1 ticket) 1.25€
Disabled person (+1 accompanying person) Free of charge

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