From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Victor Vasarely (Vásárhelyi Győző) (9 April, 1906, Pécs - 15 March, 1997, Paris) was a Hungarian French artist often acclaimed as the father of Op-art. Working as a graphic artist in the 1930s he created what is considered the first Op-art piece — Zebra, consisting of curving black and white stripes, indicating the direction his work would take. Over the next two decades, Vasarely developed his style of geometric abstract art. His work won his international renown and he received 4 prestigious prizes. He died in Paris in 1997.
Life and work
Vasarely grew up in Piešťany (then Pöstyén) and Budapest where in 1925 he took up medical studies at Budapest University. In 1927 he abandoned medicine to learn traditional academic painting at the private Podolini-Volkmann Academy. In 1928/1929, he enrolled at Sándor Bortnyik's Műhely (lit. "workshop", in existence until 1938), then widely recognized as the center of Bauhaus studies in Budapest. Cash-strapped, the műhely could not offer the whole range of its illustrious Bauhaus model, and concentrated on applied graphic art and typographic design.
Vasarely’s excellence in drawing was quickly noticed. In 1929 he painted his Blue Study and Green Study. In 1930 he married his fellow student Claire Spinner (1908-1990). Together they had two sons, Andre and Jean-Pierre. In Budapest, he worked for a ball-bearings company in accounting and designing advertising posters. Victor Vasarely became a graphics designer and a poster artist during the 1930’s who combined patterns and organic images with each other.
Vasarely left Hungary and settled in Paris in 1930 working as a graphic artist and as a creative consultant at the advertising agencies Havas, Draeger and Devambez (1930-1935). His interactions with other artists during this time were limited. He played with the idea of opening up an institution modeled after Sándor Bortnyik Műhely’s and developed some teaching material for it. Having lived mostly in cheap hotels, he settled in 1942/1944 in Saint-Céré in the Lot département. After the Second World War, he opened an atelier in Arcueil, a suburb some 10 kilometers from the center of Paris (in the Val-de-Marne département of the Île-de-France). In 1961 he finally settled in Annet-sur-Marne (in the Seine-et-Marne département).
Over the next three decades, Vasarely developed his style of geometric abstract art, working in various materials but using a minimal number of forms and colours:
- 1929-1944: Early graphics: Vasarely experimented with textural effects, perspective, shadow and light. His early graphic period results in works such as Zebras (1937), Chess Board (1935), and Girl-power (1934).
- 1944-1947: Les Fausses Routes - On the wrong track: During this period, Vasarely experimented with cubistic, futuristic, expressionistic, symbolistic and surrealistic paintings without developing a unique style. Afterwards, he said he was on the wrong track. He exhibited his works in the gallery of Denise René (1946) and the gallery René Breteau (1947). Writing the introduction to the catalogue, Jacques Prévert placed Vasarely among the surrealists. Prévert creates the term imaginoires (images + noir, black) to describe the paintings. Self Portrait (1941) and The Blind Man (1946) are associated with this period.
- 1947-1951: Developing geometric abstract art (optical art): Finally, Vasarely found his own style. The overlapping development are named after their geographical heritage. Denfert refers to the works influenced by the white tiled walls of the Paris Denfert-Rochereau metro station. Ellopsoid pebbles and shells found during a vacation in 1947 at the Breton coast at Belle Île inspired him to the Belles-Isles works. Since 1948, Vasarely usually spent his summer months in Gordes in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. There, the cubic houses led him to the composition of the group of works labelled Gordes/Cristal. He worked on the problem of empty and filled spaces on a flat surface as well as the stereoscopic view.
- 1951-1955: Kinetic images, black-white photographies: From his Gordes works he developed his kinematic images, superimposed acrylic glass panes create dynamic, moving impressions depending on the viewpoint. In the black-white period he combined the frames into a single pane by transposing photographies in two colours. Tribute to Malevitch, a ceramic wall picture of 100 m² adorns the University of Caracas, Venezuela which he co-designed in 1954 with the architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva, is a major work of this period. Kinetic art flourished and works by Vasarely, Calder, Duchamp, Man Ray, Soto, Tinguely were exhibited at the Denise René gallery under the title Le Mouvement (the motion). Vasarely published his Yellow Manifest. Building on the research of constructivist and Bauhaus pioneers, he postulated that visual kinetics (plastique cinétique) relied on the perception of the viewer who is considered the sole creator, playing with optical illusions.
- 1955-1965: Folklore planétaire, permutations and serial art: On 2 March, 1959, Vasarely patented his method of unités plastiques. Permutations of geometric forms are cut out of a coloured square and rearranged. He worked with a strictly defined palette of colours and forms (three reds, three greens, three blues, two violets, two yellows, black, white, gray; three circles, two squares, two rhomboids, two long rectangles, one triangle, two dissected circles, six ellipses) which he later enlarged and numbered. Out of this plastic alphabet, he started serial art, an endless permutation of forms and colours worked out by his assistants. (The creative process is produced by standardized tools and impersonal actors which questions the uniqueness of a work of art.) In 1963, Vasarely presented his palette to the public under the name of Folklore planetaire.
- 1965-: Hommage à l'hexagone, Vega: The Tribute to the hexagon series consists of endless transformations of indentations and relief adding color variations, creating a perpetual mobile of optical illusion. In 1965, during the MOMA exhibition Responsive Eye dedicated to Optical Art, the press hailed Vasarely as the inventor and creator of Op-art. His Vega series plays with spherical swelling grids creating an optical illusion of volume. In October 1967, designer Will Burtin invited Vasarely to make a presentation to Burtin's Vision ’67 conference, held at New York University.
On 5 June, 1970, Vasarely opened his first dedicated museum with over 500 works in a renaissance palace in Gordes (closed in 1996). A second major undertaking was the Fondation Vasarely in Aix-en-Provence, a museum housed in a distinct structure specially designed by Vasarely. It was inaugurated in 1976 by French president Georges Pompidou. In that year, his large kinematic object Georges Pompidou was installed in the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Vasarely Museum located at his birth place in Pécs, Hungary, was established with a large donation of works by Vasarely. In 1982 154 specially created serigraphs were taken into space by the cosmonaut Jean-Loup Chrétien on board the French-Soviet spacecraft Salyut 7 and later sold for the benefit of UNESCO. In 1987, the second Hungarian Vasarely museum was established in Zichy Palace in Budapest with more than 400 works.
- 1964: Guggenheim Prize
- 1970: French Chevalier de L'Ordre de la Légion d'honneur
- Art Critics Prize, Brussels
- Gold Medal at the Milan Triennale.
- 1970-1996: Vasarely Museum in Gordes Palace, Vaucluse, France (closed)
- 1976: Fondation Vasarely, Aix-en-Provence, France
- 1976: Vasarely Museum, Pécs, Hungary
- 1987: Vasarely Museum, Zichy Palace, Óbuda, Budapest, Hungary
- Outdoor Vasarely artwork at the church of Pálos in Pécs (2005) is the informal title give to a photo by Váradi Zsolt of a Vasarely artwork in the artist's hometown Pécs.