‘The art of tomorrow will be a collective treasure or it will not be art at all‘ – Victor Vasarely, the father of Op Art.
To see examples of Victor Vasarely’s art visit the Victor Vasarely gallery.
Early Life – 1906-27
Victor Vasarely was born in the city of Pécs, Hungary in 1906. He spent his childhood and teenage years in Pieštany (then Pöstyén) and later in Budapest.
Throughout his early life, Vasarely found himself drawn more towards the sciences than the arts, and in 1925 he applied for and was accepted at the University of Budapest’s School of Medicine where he spent two years studying.
In 1927 Vasarely made a radical and life changing decision – he decided to suspend his studies in medicine and change direction completely, making the decision to pursue a career in art. These years studying medicine were far from wasted though as the formal scientific training provided him with a strong sense of scientific method and objectivity – something that stood him in good stead throughout his artistic career.
The Podolini-Volkmann Academy – 1927-29
For the following two years, Vasarely studied traditional academic painting at the private Podolini-Volkmann Academy. Throughout this time he further occupied himself with reading widely – particularly scientific literature – absorbing the works of Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and Wiener.
Gradually Vasarely began to develop an idea that the sciences had reached the limits of what could be explained and that it was through art that these scientific models could be made visually comprehensible.
Vasarely is quoted as saying of this idea about the meeting point between art and science – that ‘the two creative expressions of man, art and science, meet again to form an imaginary construct that is in accord with our sensibility and contemporary knowledge’.
The Coffee Houses of the Danube – 1927-29
Vasarely’s idea at this stage was just that – an idea – and something else was needed to give it a proper function and form. Vasarely was looking for direction.
He found what he was looking for in the bohemian coffee houses situated alongside the Danube river. Vasarely frequented these exciting places where the intellectuals of the city met to discuss politics, economics, social theories, scientific developments, technology, music and avant-garde art.
It was here amongst these educated and lively minds that Vasarely first heard of the German Bauhaus school of crafts and fine arts founded by the architect Walter Gropius in 1919.
More interestingly for Vasarely, he heard about a school in Budapest – the Muhely Academy – which was widely regarded as the centre of Bauhaus studies in Hungary.
The Bauhaus Muhely Academy – 1929-30
Victor Vasarely enrolled in the Muhely – at that time run by Sándor Bortnyik – in 1929. The school worked very much to the goals of the original Bauhaus. The basic concepts of the teaching were that all the arts and crafts and architecture should achieve a unity of purpose based on the cube, the rectangle and the circle.
The teaching of the Bauhaus was widely influential in Western art, architecture and design for decades after its demise and remains so even to this day.
At the Muhely Vasarely explored a diverse number of visual forms, including abstraction, something he would return to later in his career. Vasarely’s talent was obvious to all those he encountered during this period and he was singled out as being a outstanding student. It is fair to say that the teachings he absorbed here became the basis of his mature style.
A Wedding and a New Life in Paris – 1930-
At this point, Vasarely was working in a dual role at a ball-bearings factory in Budapest, spending most of his time in the accounts department and the rest creating advertising posters for the company.
In 1930, looking for something more, Vasarely moved to Paris – the ‘City of Light’ – which at that time was the centre of the art world.
In 1931, Victor Vasarely married a fellow student from the Muhely, Claire Spinner (1908-1990). They were to have two sons, Andre (born 1931) and Jean-Pierre (born 1934).
Vasarely found work at various advertising agencies, but not in any challenging role, and spent more and more of his evenings working on his own art. His ambition was to make the night job the day job.
The Graphic Image – 1930 – 1944
Vasarely’s work during this period was largely figurative and concerned with the graphic image, but within it lay the kinetic and optical seeds of his later mature work.
The work shown to the right – ‘L’Echiquier’ (‘The Chess Board’) – was painted in 1935 and within it one can see many of the themes Vasarely was to develop over the coming decades. By the age of thirty, whether he was aware of it or not, Vasarely had already laid the foundations for what was ahead.
Other important works from this period include Arlequin, where Vasarely uses a systematically coloured and distorted grid to give life to the emerging figure; Tigres showing two tigers built of alternating and contrasting colours, and the first works in the Zebres series. The Zebres are made of swirling stripes without formal outlines and clearly show how the simple device of the line could be used to create a feeling of dynamism.
On the ‘Wrong Track’ – Early Abstraction – 1944-7
A major change in Vasarely’s style came about after his first important exhibition – of graphics and drawings – at the Denise Rene Gallery in 1944. The exhibition was a critical success, and Vasarely made the decision to devote himself to painting.
During this time, Vasarely had become aware of the work of the abstract painters Auguste Herbin, Piet Mondrian and the architect and painter le Corbusier. The ideas of these artists had a significant impact on Vasarely and by 1945 he was fully committed to abstract painting.
Victor Vasarely’s work was included in three important exhibitions in Paris – ‘Salon de Surindependants’ (1945 & 46), ‘Salon de Realites Nouvelles’ (1947) and again at the Denise Rene Gallery (1948) in an exhibition called ‘Tendances de l’Art Abstrait’. He was on his way to becoming an accepted painter but did not yet feel that he had found his own individual style.
Belle -Isle and the Abstract Beginnings of Op Art – 1947-51
In 1947 Vasarely started to take his holidays in Brittany’s Belle-Isle and found inspiration in his walks along the beaches of this beautiful island:
“The pebbles, the sea shells on the beach, the whirlpools, the hovering mist, the sunshine, the sky… in the rocks, in the pieces of broken bottles, polished by the rhythmic coming and going of the waves, I am certain to recognize the internal geometry of nature.”
In this period, Vasarely began to move from paintings that were abstract but evolved from representational images, to abstract works composed entirely of geometric shapes.
Although the work of this period was strongly influenced by Kazimir Malevich (particularly his ‘Black Square’), Moholy-Nagy and Walter Gropius, Vasarely had found his own style.
Victor Vasarely in Black and White – 1951-65
Between 1951 and 1959 Victor Vasarely continued working with geometric shapes and also began to paint predominantly in black and white. In the works of this period we can see the development of what we have come to know as Op Art.
In Vega (1957 – shown right) – named after the brightest star in the constellation Lyra – Vasarely paints a huge checkerboard, its regularity disturbed by the bending of the lines that make the squares.
The painting presents our eyes with contradictory data as we read part of the field in terms of diagonals and other parts in terms of horizontals and verticals. The painting practically forces us to move backwards and forwards and as we do so, the field appears to move – expanding, contracting and undulating. The foundations for the Op Art movement had been laid.
The ‘Yellow Manifesto’ – 1955
In 1955 The Denise René Gallery was given over to a pioneering show of kinetic art, “Le Movement”, at which Vasarely exhibited. At the same time, he published his ‘Yellow Manifesto’ in which he returned to the teachings of his Bauhaus training to outline his concept of “plastic kinetics”.
For the artist “painting and sculpture become anachronistic terms: it’s more exact to speak of bi-, tri- and multidimensional plastic art. We no longer have distinct manifestations of a creative sensibility, but the development of a single plastic sensibility in different spaces.”
“Movement does not rely on composition nor a specific subject, but on the apprehension of the act of looking, which by itself is considered as the only creator.”
Vasarely received the critics award in Brussels and the Gold Medal at the Milan Triennial as a result of his manifesto.
Colour and the Plastic Alphabet – 1960-65
During this period, Vasarely evolved his ‘Alphabet Plastique’ – a grid based system which established modular relationships between forms and colours. This period marked the reintroduction of colour to Vasarely’s works in the two major series of this time – Alphabet Plastique and Folklore Planetaire.
In the Alphabet Plastique series, each painting was based on 15 root forms derived from the circle, square and triangle. Variations on these root forms were then developed and painted using colours from different colour scales, each with 20 hues. Each unit within the grid – a ‘unite plastique’ – has a foreground and a background.
What Vasarely in effect created was an art programming language that allowed for endless permutations of forms and colours to create individual and unique works. With the Folklore Planetaire series Vasarely wanted to reach out through his universal language to transmit basic human values to the general public outside of the art establishment.
International Acclaim and ‘The Responsive Eye’ – 1965
Although Vasarely had become increasingly well known and had received several prestigious awards, he was not yet internationally known by the public.
This changed in 1965 when Vasarely exhibited at an exhibition called “The Responsive Eye” at New York’s Museum of Modern art, alongside other important Op Artists like Bridget Riley.
Vasarely was immediately dubbed the ‘father of Op Art’. The reaction of the public to the exhibition was euphoric and for the next few years Op Art spread to advertising, packaging, fashion and design.
The Responsive Eye gave Vasarely the status of an international art celebrity and in the wake of this he was invited to show at numerous major galleries and museums around the world.
Vonal – 1964-
Over the coming years Vasarely created several distinct series of works which were to cement his status.
One of these was his ‘Vonal’ series, where he revisited his earlier line studies (such as the Zebres series) and graphic work but this time making full use of colour. The series is a continuation of these earlier linear series’ explorations of movement and perception.
In Vonal-Stri (1975 – shown right), the feeling of movement and depth are created by Vasarely’s use of lines of decreasing scale advancing towards the centre of the canvas – the further in we look to the centre, the further away the field appears to be from us. The use of changing colours across the field also serves to provide the viewer with the feeling of kinetic energy, depth and space.
Vega – 1968-
In 1968, Victor Vasarely started another series of paintings which became hugely popular and widely known – the ‘Vega’ series. Although there was an earlier work entitled Vega (see above) created in 1957 which used the same kind of surface distortion techniques, the series really got going as a series in 1968 when Vasarely introduced colour to the works.
In the Vega series we see some of the most advanced applications of Vasarely’s systematic approach to form and colour. The paintings are based on spherical distortions to a polychromatic grid. The surface appears to have been warped, giving the feeling of something trying either to break out or to recede back into the depths of the surface.
Vega-Nor (1969 – shown right) is one of the best known of these works.
Gestalt – 1969-
A third major series that Vasarely worked on was the Gestalt series, which crosses over into Vasarely’s fascination with the hexagon. Vasarely created a series of paintings – ‘Homage to the Hexagon’ in parallel with the Gestalt series. The Museum of Modern Art has some good examples.
The paintings in this series are characterised by solid, yet ethereal and seemingly impossible three-dimensional shapes composed of cubes and cellular like structures that confuse the viewer visually. Vasarely makes full use of variations in colour to further the illusion of space, light, movement and structure.
Although they invite some comparison with the spatial paradoxes of M.C. Escher this does not do the series justice due to the scale and intensity of experience these works produce in the viewer. One of this Gestalt series – Keple-Gestalt (1968) – is shown to the right.
Work outside of the Studio
Throughout his life Victor Vasarely was fascinated and drawn to the use of other materials and worked on several architectural projects.
In 1954 Vasarely worked on ‘Tribute to Malevitch’, a ceramic wall picture of 100 m² at the University of Caracas, Venezuela which he co-designed with the architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva. A section of this installation is shown to the right.
in 1967 Vasarely was selected to design the French pavilion at the Montreal World Fair Expo.
The 1976 Vasarely Foundations buildings in Aix-en-Provence were planned (and paid for) by Vasarely.
Vasarely also produced a number of books, including Plasticité (1969) and Vasarely (1978) and films.
Victor Vasarely – How he worked
As early as the 1950s, Vasarely was using preliminary scale drawings for his works. Vasarely called these programmations – programs (one of which is shown to the right).
Vasarely had developed a colour system and would create new linear forms and shapes to which to apply his colour system. This was his artistic ‘alphabet’. He would then try out this alphabet on a ‘program’ before embarking on a new series. Initially Vasarely created the actual works from his programs himself but from 1965 onwards he made use of assistants.
From the outset Vasarely was fascinated by technology and saw the early promise of computers – he insisted for example that computers be installed at the Vasarely Foundation. Vasarely’s system of working, his plastic alphabet and programs draw parallels with computer programming and the computer art of today and show beyond doubt how far ahead Vasarely was of his time.
Late Period & Recognition
Vasarely continued to explore depth and movement in his highly structured paintings well into his seventies. These paintings are as exciting and innovative (and were always on the same huge scale) as the works of his earlier years. Victor Vasarely was a man of huge energy and inventiveness.
In his old age he was heaped with honours. He was made an honorary citizen of New York and in 1990 was promoted (in France) to the rank of Grand Officer de l’Ordre national du Mérite. (Vasarely had become a naturalized French citizen in 1959).
In 1970 Vasarely opened his first dedicated museum in Gordes, France (this closed in 1996). The Vasarely Foundation museum opened in 1976 in Aix-en-Provence, France, as did the Vasarely museum in Pecs, Hungary – Vasarely’s place of birth. In 1987 a further Vasarely museum opened in Zichy Palace in Budapest, Hungary.
Vasarely died in Paris on March 15th 1997 aged 91. Sadly there remains to this day a lot of controversy surrounding the Vasarely estate.