Victor Vasarely

Victor Vasarely (born 1908), the Hungarian-French artist, was recognized as the greatest innovator and master of Op Art.

Victor de Vasarely was born in Pécs, Hungary, on April 9, 1908. As a young man he attended the Academy of Painting in Budapest (1925-1927) and then studied under Alexander Bortnyik at the Mühely, also known as the Bauhaus School of Budapest (1929-1930). The Bauhaus schools were noted for approaches to architecture and graphic design that were compatible with machine production of high quality and with well-designed objects and environments. At the Mühely, Vasarely became acquainted with the formal and geometrical styles of Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky and with William Ostwald's theory of color scales.

Early Work

In 1930, Vasarely moved to Paris, and after that remained a resident of France. He married Claire Spinner; they had two sons. In the 1930s Vasarely was a graphic designer and a poster artist who frequently combined geometric pattern and organic representational images. His Study of Matter M.C. (1936) juxtaposed objects of varying scales—a zebra, a piece of hound's-tooth patterned fabric, a black glove —with a richly colored background of rhomboids. The illogic of bringing together diverse objects of widely varying size and scale brings to mind similar explorations of Surrealist art. In The Chessboard 2, a black-and-white checked design of 1936, Vasarely explored the visually vibrating effect of insistent pattern as well as the appearance of depth despite the use of flat shapes and the absence of modeling.

Vasarely wanted to create designs that were universal. A socialist, his goal was to produce an art that could be mass produced and affordable for everyone. He became fascinated with an art of pure visual perception without traditional themes and representational qualities.

In 1944 the Denise René Gallery of Paris exhibited Vasarely's black and white designs of the late 1930s. This was the first public showing of Vasarely's work. That same year he began painting, and in 1945 he had a second show, devoted to his oil paintings. It was well received, and the Surrealist poet and critic Andre Breton declared Vasarely to be a Surrealist artist. Vasarely was influenced by the style of Salvator Dali, whose images were painstakingly rendered for illusionistic effect despite the illogical juxtaposition of recognizable objects.

New Levels of Abstraction

By 1947 Vasarely had changed his style completely and came to regard his first three years of painting as a false start. From then on Vasarely's work was abstract and increasingly based on geometry. He was working to devise a new pictorial language for the masses. He repeatedly studied the landscapes of the Breton island of Belle Isle, radically simplifying scenes to transform nature into geometric shapes. Vasarely increasingly found his subject matter in the sciences—such as physics, biochemistry, and magnetic fields—and described his abstract art as "…poetic creations with palpable qualities capable of triggering emotional and imaginative processes in others." His art gave sensory forms to unperceivable phenomena.

Vasarely came to feel that color and form were linked in that each color and each form should share the same identity. He viewed his abstract art as composed of pure color-form which by its very abstractness signified the world through the limitless associations and responses of the viewer.

Kinetic Explorations

In the mid-1950s Vasarely began integrating architecture into his art and producing kinetic works, films and writings. The Denise René Gallery in 1955 had a pioneering show of kinetic art, "Le Movement." Among those represented were Vasarely, whose works employed the principle of optical movement. Vasarely's concern with optical perception had lead him to explore the effects of motion, not of the art object but of the viewer in relation to it. His works were composed of several overlapped sheets of Plexiglas on which black designs had been painted. The slightest motion of the viewer made the design seem to change and move as well. In conjunction with the show Vasarely issued his Yellow Manifesto, in which he discussed his theories of color and perception.

In Vasarely's black-white period of 1951-1963, he used compositions of stripes, checks, circles, or lines to explore the illusionistic effects he could achieve by modifying his patterns to give the impression of surface movement or of concave or convex forms, as in Andromeda (1955-1958). At the same time he developed the idea of eliminating the premise of the figure-ground relation, the image or central motif set against a ground plane or an environment, by filling the entire surface with uniform optical stimulation. In conjunction with this he often reversed a composition by inverting the black-white or color relationships. Paar 2 (1965-1975), a pair of black-and-white compositions juxtaposed to be seen as one, is composed of circles and squares which are graduated in scale. In one half the shapes are black on a white ground and in the other half white on black. Wherever circles are used in one half, squares appear in the other half. By graduating the scale of these shapes, the effect is of planes of shapes advancing and receding. The optical perception created a sort of visual vibration. As Vasarely asked, "isn't optics, even if illusion, a part of kinetics?"

Designing Mass-Produced Art

Vasarely felt that the uniqueness of a work of art and the artist's personal involvement in its execution were bourgeois notions. He worked in a manner that lent itself to mass production by modern technical processes. Limiting himself to flat lines, simple geometric shapes, and unmodulated color, Vasarely viewed himself as a "creator" of designs which could be inexpensively produced in the same, enlarged, or reduced scales. This was reflected in his method of conception. Working on graph paper, Vasarely made notations of letters (for the shape to appear in a given graphed square) and numbers (one through 16 to indicate the shade or value of a particular hue or color). By using simple geometric shapes and hues that were modified by his established scale of shades, he or others could produce copies of a design. In this way he produced art which he believed could benefit all of society by being available and affordable.

This claim for significance beyond personal aggrandizement found justification in the 1960s as Vasarely influenced groups of younger artists and his designs were widely reproduced in posters, fabrics and other images in mass circulation. While Op Art (Optical Art) had its zenith in the 1960s, Vasarely was recognized as its pioneer and greatest master. He continued to work in the Op Art style with an undiminished reputation into the 1980s and was widely honored. He established the Center for Architectonic Research and the Vasarely Foundation in Aix-en-Provence. In 1976 the Vasarely Museum was opened in the house in which the artist was born in Pécs, Hungary. To permanently house his works, the Vasarely Center was opened in New York City in 1978 and the Centre Vasarely opened in Oslo, Norway, in 1982. Vasarely's work in film and architectural design as well as his more famous art and graphic design earned him a prominent place in the history of modern art.

Further Reading on Victor Vasarely

Vasarely's own writings include Plasticité (1969) and Vasarely (1978). Editions du Griffon of Neuchatel, Switzerland, has published three volumes—Vasarely (1963); Vasarely II (1970), and Vasarely III (1974)—which are invaluable sources for the visual study of the artist's work, though each volume has very little text. For biographies, see Werner Spies, Vasarely (1969) and G. Diehl, Vasarely (1972). F. Popper's Origin and Development of Kinetic Art has a section on Vasarely.