VICTOR VASARELY is a unique artist in the history of twentieth century art. Famous during his lifetime, he distinguished himself from contemporary art with the creation of a new movement: optical art. The evolution of his life of work is inherently coherent, progressing from graphic art to the artist’s determination to promote a social art that is accessible to all.
Victor Vasarely was born in Pécs, Hungary in 1906. In 1925, after graduating from secondary school, he studied medicine briefly at the University of Budapest. Even though he did not pursue these medical studies past two years, Vasarely acquired a commitment to method, objectivity, science and the thirst for knowledge which would follow him all throughout his life.
In 1929, he enrolled in Muhely, known as the Bauhaus of Budapest. This school, founded by Alexander Bortnyik and modeled on the Bauhaus of Dessau, Germany taught the lessons of artists such as Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Josef Albers. The impact of Bauhaus teachings on Vasarely’s lifetime of work would turn out to be considerable. During this period he discovered Abstract art and was introduced to constructivism. This is when he produced his famous “Etude bleue” and “Etude verte” (1929). He also devised and supported theories which promote art that is less individualistic and more collective, art which adapts to the changing modern world and to the world of industry.
Under the pressure of the Hungarian government at the time, numerous avant-garde movements were being associated with the progressive movement that was developing in politics. Like a number of his compatriots, Vasarely left Hungary and settled in Paris in 1930. He began working as a designer/creative artist at the Havas advertising agency and at Draeger’s, a renowned printer of the time. His graphic work in these agencies and later in Dewambez, allowed him to approach the world of design and aesthetics “while playing (his) role as a plastic artist.”
Towards abstraction >
During this graphic period (1929-1946), Vasarely laid the foundations of his aesthetic and plastic art research as well as the “basic repertoire of (his) abstract kinetic period”. He explored all the topics that he would subsequently reclaim : lines, the effects of materials, shadows and light… he has already developed a certain taste for perspective. These constants are observed in his two-dimensional graphic works such as “Zèbres” (1938), “l’Echiquier” (1935), and “Fille-fleur” (1934) in which the shapes are not defined by lines but they emerge from deformed grids or juxtaposed contrasts.
Between 1935 and 1947, Vasarely rediscovered painting. During this period which he would later refer to as one of “false routes”, Vasarely was influenced by the pictorial movements of the time, and especially by cubist and surrealist movements. He focused on still lifes, landscapes and portraits. Although figurative, paintings done during this period such as “Autoportrait” (1941) and “l’Aveugle” (1946) show an evolution towards the simplification and schematization of objects.
Vasarely experienced a true revelation in the idea that “pure form and pure color can define the world”.
Trips made to Belle Isle and Gordes were of paramount importance to the artist’s evolution.
“Belle Isle, summer 1947. Pebbles, sea shells, waves, the hovering fog, the sun, the sky… In the stones and fragments of broken bottles, polished by the rhythmic to and fro of the waves, I am aware of the inner geometry of nature.”
The works of the Belle-Isle period (1947-1958) marked the true beginning of abstraction for Vasarely. One key idea surfaces : the transformation of a raw natural material into an abstract material. It also marks a return to nature by using the geometric form, particularly the oval shape which symbolizes “the ocean feeling.”
Between 1948 and 1951, two new periods emerge to further develop the ideas that emerged in Belle Isle. From the Denfert period (1951-1958) arose the curious designs inspired by the cracked white tiled walls of the Denfert-Rochereau subway station in Paris. The alternation of substance and form, the entangling of sun-splashed walls or walls drowned in shadows and the spaces between these walls constitute the origins of the Cristal period (1948-1958). In studies from these periods, shapes are juxtaposed with ranges of contrasting colors on a flat surface. Vasarely rediscovers the contradictory perspectives of axonometry, the strength of pure composition. The most representative work of this period is “l’Hommage à Malevitch” (1952-1958) which marks a new turn towards kinetics. In this painting, a square pivots on its axis and becomes diamond-shaped, creating a visual principle which is to become the focus of the artist’s kinetic research. In 1954, Vasarely realized his first architectural installations on the University campus of Caracas, Venezuela, jointly with the architect Carlos Villanueva.
Kinetic experience >
With the Black & White period (1954-1960), Vasarely revives his graphic studies, his work on linear grids and deformed waves. He also takes interest in photography techniques and makes “photograph-isms” by superposing two glass plates.
In 1955, the focus at the Galerie Denise René in Paris is on kinetic art. Vasarely and other artists such as Duchamp, Man Ray, Calder, Tinguely and Agam, exhibit their works on the theme of movement. The same year Vasarely publishes his “Manifeste Jaune” which outlines the concept of “kinetic plasticity”. In doing so, he renews not only with the research of constructivist pioneers, but also with Bauhaus teachings. The movement does not adhere to the idea of “compositions” or “subjects”, but more to idea that the viewer is in fact the one unique artist.
Optical illusions are made from the plastic unity of two shapes of contrasting colors. Until 1960, the only colors used are black and white. When motion transforms these plastic shapes, the dimensions of movement and space come to life.
Father of Op art >
Starting in 1960, color bursts out in the “Planetary Folklore” works. The plastic unit used “consists of two geometric elements that fit one into the other, that come together, that switch places“.
Using these bicolor units with solid or contrasting colors, the artist invents the Alphabet Plastique which breathes new life into an idea which dates back to the beginning of the century among abstract artists – the search for a method to create a universal language understandable by all.
This Plastic Alphabet opens the door to the introduction of collective art. Through the matching and transforming of shapes and shades, the artist makes a number of different illusions appear. “The use of combinations of this scale in plastic art provides a universal tool, without limiting the expression of personality such as that of ethnic identities.” In this combinatory art, elements can be coded or programmed. Vasarely uses new techniques and technologies to diversify and compose new works ad infinitum. Elements can be prefabricated using industrial processes, and the works are monumental and integrated into architecture and our urban environment.
“The future takes shape in this new geometric polychromatic and solar city. Here, plastic arts will be kinetic, multi-dimensional and collective… most definitely abstract and inseparable from science.”
From 1964 to 1976, Vasarely’s interest turns to cell structure as expressed in a series of works he calls “Hommage à l’Hexagone” in which relief is seen as an element in a constant state of transformation, sometimes hollow, sometimes prominent. Ambiguity is emphasized with the addition of colored lines which create a “trompe l’oeil perpetuum mobile”, and plunge the art back into the optical art style he had embraced during his black & white period. This period is followed by the architecturally oriented “Gestalt” period, inspired by the Gestalt phenomenon.
In 1965, Vasarely participated in the “Responsive Eye” exhibition dedicated to Optical Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The idea behind this initiative is the “suggestion” of movement without the actual movement. It establishes a new relationship between artwork and its viewer by provoking the latter’s active participation. The viewer is free to interpret the image in as many visual contexts as he may see fit. Following the success of this new trend, the press and enthusiasts baptize Vasarely the inventor of “optical art”.
Continuing his studies on motion and perception, Vasarely goes back to the drawing board during his Vonal period [1964-1970] when linear work on zebras, grids and the origins of his black & white period reappears, this time with color. A kinetic element and a spatial dimension are added with repeating lines which decrease in proportion as the viewer looks into the center of the piece.
In 1968, playing with the distortion of lines, Vasarely defined his “universal structures” and enlisted in the popular “Vega” period in which the swelling caused by the deformation of elements results in forms that appear to bulge out from the piece and create spectacular volumes. Through such works as “Feny” (1963), “Vega Tek” (1968) and “Vega 200” (1968), the artist evokes the elusive universe.