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On 1 March 1934 Jean-Michel Folon was born in Uccle, Belgium. He loved drawing from an early age and studied architecture at the Institute Saint-Luc. When he was 21 years old Folon moved to the outskirts of Paris and for the next five years drew constantly. His early career was as an architectural draftsman and this greatly influenced his later imagery. Many of his drawings were of skyscrapers, with broken lines, leading to a sense that the inhabitants of these buildings were prisoners. Folon also drew arrows that came from human and other forms and described these as … “symbols of confusion of an entire era. What would happen if, one night someone were to remove all the traffic signs from the face of the earth?”
In 1960 Folon moved to Paris and worked on magazines and in advertising. He was successful early in life and held his first solo exhibition of watercolours in 1969 at New York’s Lefebre Gallery. This was followed by exhibitions throughout the world in all media (works on paper, paintings, etchings, silkscreen, illustrations, mosaics, stained glass animation, and sculpture.) He was awarded the Grand Prize in Painting at the XXVth Sao Paulo Biennale and influential museums dedicated exhibitions to his work. These included the Paris Musee des Arts Decoratifs (1971), London’s Institute of Contemporary Art (1977), the Musee Picasso, Antibes (1984) and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (1990). In the 1970’s he also became famous as a book illustrator. Additionally, Folon designed posters that were often for humanitarian causes. In 1988 he created his first wooden sculptures and then moved on to using clay, plaster, bronze and marble.
The latter part of Folon’s career was largely spent creating large sculptures in Italy. One of his favourite themes Everyman is universally well known and much admired. Folon developed a personal iconography around the Everyman figure which was forlorn, endearing and always solitary. It was usually presented in an urban landscape, dressed in blue or grey, with a brimmed hat and raincoat. William Lieberman described this figure in the catalogue for his 1990 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as “Modest, vulnerable and sometimes confused, he is not a comic figure…He is a city dweller…”
Folon’s most widely seen piece was the 1981 logo for the Bicentennial of the French Revolution, Three Soaring Birds. Birds, together with butterfly people and winged men, were amongst his most loved symbols. These were executed with precision yet had a beguilingly ironic naïveté about them. His pen lines were simple, his colours luminous and optimistic, but his narrative tended to be downbeat, bringing to light what he believed was a relentless urban conformity leading to desolation and loneliness.
In 1985 Folon moved to Monaco and worked in a large workshop with other artists. In 2000 he formed the Folon Foundation by putting more than five hundred of his works at the farm of the castle of La Hulpe outside Brussels. This is the region he grew up in and his work is displayed in a beautiful setting that creates an interchange between the art and the poetic place where they are displayed.
Folon was awarded the Legion of Honour in Paris in 2003 and in 2004 became a UNICEF ambassador (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund). In 2001 a large exhibition of his sculptures was held in Lisbon and in 2003 he created the designs for Puccini's La Bohème for the Puccini Festival in Italy. In 2005 a grand retrospective of his work was held in Florence and this led to a permanent Folon exhibition in the Giardino delle Rose in Florence. He died aged 71 in Monaco on 20 October 2005.