Victor Vasarely

The father of Op art

Victor Vasarely is a very special artist in the history of 20th century art. He became famous during his lifetime and distinguished himself in contemporary art by creating a new trend: optical art. His work is part of a great coherence, from the evolution of his graphic art to his determination to promote a social art, accessible to all. Victor Vasarely was born in Pécs, Hungary in 1906. In 1925, after his baccalaureate, he undertook brief medical studies at the University of Budapest, which he abandoned two years later. From this period, Vasarely kept a will of method, objectivity, a thirst for knowledge… close to the scientific world.

A modern humanist

Pauline Mari


Victor Vasarely was not only the most talented advertising graphic designer of his generation in the 1930s, and an artist who played a key role at the Liberation in 1944, federating the new painters of the École de Paris. He was not only after the war the father of Op Art in France and abroad, a perfect intermediary between the kinetic art of Alexander Calder, Jean Tinguely or Marcel Duchamp, and the pop art of Andy Warhol, promoting the industrial manufacture of paint and assuming its seduction maneuvers. He was not only the most charismatic and coveted immigrant artist on the small screen in the 1970s, but also the star of the little rounds and little squares. He not only celebrated a popular art form that was free of the wealthy bourgeois class. Vasarely did much more: he brought about a completely different revolution than the much-touted democratization of art. He proposed to exfiltrate painting. It was not only to leave the easel, but even to leave the museums, to project itself on the facades of the city, as in the past, when the palaces of the Renaissance shone on the public square, in the sight of all, in the sight of the common people and of God. While the “Trente Glorieuses” brought their series of poisoned gifts, while on December 1, 1955, the 8 o’clock news inaugurated the HLM of Ivry until the visit of the sanitary facilities, Vasarely had celebrated in the spring the opening of the pilot exhibition of his career, “Le Mouvement”, at the Denise René gallery, in the beautiful neighborhoods of Rue La Boétie. From two airs of time that do not cross, from two dazzling thrusts, from two destinies in overdrive, suburban social housing, on the one hand, and the Parisian avant-garde, on the other, now pinned to the new taste of kinetism, Victor Vasarely was going to force one of those encounters that only happen in the fourth dimension. Since the public authorities had launched the great building sites and the major works blindly, irreversibly, the artist would multiply himself thanks to an art of ubiquity, Vasarelian plasticity. A prefabricated art that would survive him as manuscripts survived their authors from the century of Gutenberg, and of which the great printing house of the future would be: a foundation. Immense reservoir of forms and colors, a plastic alphabet at the disposal of the other painters but especially of that of the urbanists, architects, researchers in human sciences, of his time and after. The Foundation, embodied in the Centre architectonique in Aix-en-Provence, is, from 1976 to today, fifty years of future. Fifty years spent proposing the future, through, during the artist’s lifetime, the consolidation of a model to be exported in the world and in time, and fifty years preparing it, a mission that the new building, soon to be brand new, reflects and updates like a legacy in the heart of an episcopal palace.

How did Vasarely go from a sober and reasonable life to such a mythical one? How did he go from the very lucrative livelihood of advertising to the most perilous and risky initiative an artist has ever conceived? The journey of a painter in revolution, from early childhood to the giant steps in Op Art…

1906-1925: the years of youth, serialising the images

Vasarely was born on April 9, 1906 in Pécs, Hungary. The little Gyözö Vásárhelyi, as he was originally called, spent his childhood in the water cities of the west, in what is now Slovakia, places populated by casinos and hotels where his father worked, his father having squandered the family fortune made by his elders who were landowners. The days were happy, but radically disrupted by the arrival of the war and a forced exodus to Budapest in 1919, at the age of 13. At this age, Vasarely already had a spirit of study, a mastery of drawing, a taste for seriality; rows of flowers, insects and shells, preserves and jams from his mother in the kitchen, as well as an interest in Hungarian folklore studded with diaprous flowers on peasant clothes, not to mention the red, white and green of the national flag. On the psychological level, he is equally moved by contrast, capable of going from “the blackest melancholy to the most insane gaiety”. The passion of the progressions, the attachment to the rites and to the ethnic sensibilities, as well as to the exhilarating colors and to the differential states: all is there of his future adult project of “polychrome City of the happiness”, the utopian title of the Foundation.

From an early age, Victor Vasarely felt connected to all humanity, he confided in retrospect. In a public park in Budapest, he discovered a rotunda-shaped pavilion, decorated inside with a circular fresco celebrating the conquering entry of the leader of the Magyar people. The boy with the methodical attitudes holds here the pieces of his dream, a trompe-l’oeil of monumental dimensions: the young adult has found what moves him. In 1925, he won his baccalaureate.ècs.png
Sándor Bortnyik (à gauche de dos) avec ses étudiants au Mühely (Budapest), parmi lesquels, Gyözö Vásárhelyi (à gauche) et Claire Spinner (3ème en partant de la droite), 1929.

1928-1930: the Mühely, a Hungarian Bauhaus

Vasarely enrolled in medical school, and, switching courses, invited himself to anatomy drawing lessons; studies of muscles, skeleton, nervous system, blood system. These studies were destroyed during the bombings of 1944. After two years, anxious to become financially independent, he left the university and became an archivist, bookkeeper and designer of advertising inserts in the pharmaceutical laboratory that hired him, before joining a German ball bearing company. The former student began to acquire graphic fundamentals by making giant balls in a stream of light or at axonometric angles. While leafing through a magazine one day, Vasarely stopped at a tempting ad. “The Atelier”, known as the Mühely in Hungarian, promises to give future artists a profession based on the most advanced art education of the time. Its only teacher, Sandor Bortnyik, spreads the doxa of the constructivist avant-garde as it was disseminated at the Bauhaus, the renowned school of applied arts founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919, and which saw the passing of such famous souls as Vassily Kandinsky or Paul Klee. End of figurative art, end of the anecdote, end of romanticism in painting, end of stardom… Priority is given to abstract research, to the geometrization of plans, to the learning of techniques and supports, ruler, compass, square in hand. “Bortnyik knew very well how to get rid of this bourgeois vision of art, the painting enthroned in the living room and “representing” Nature, God or anything in its beautiful golden frame; an arbitrary slice of reality carefully cut out”, he writes in Vasarely Plasticien. It was at the Mühely, in its very modest premises, with only a few students, that the handsome Hungarian met Claire Spinner, whom he married in 1931, and who collaborated on many of his works.


In 1930, Vasarely, like so many artists, emigrated to Paris, where Claire joined him a year later and where they had the welcome surprise of a son, André, a future doctor, followed in 1934 by the birth of Jean-Pierre, who would become the artist Yvaral and the father of Pierre Vasarely. It is a bohemian life that is led by the young immigrant, installed first rue des Écoles, Left Bank, then in Montrouge with a first workshop, in Arcueil then, when more means allow, a stage that will correspond to the opening of an advertising agency employing assistants very early. Vasarely, in fact, was able to pursue his advertising activities as soon as he arrived, by being noticed, and recruited, by three prestigious agencies; Havas, Devambez, and Draeger where he wielded the airbrush, a paint gun that diffused the material like a fine mist, without any invoice or trace of the hand…

This food business, which pays off, expressly opens the way to his research as a visual artist, and to his first observations on human psychology and the way human brains can absorb images and process visual information.

The eighth art inspires him a theory of art for all, to which he returns in 1977: “The extreme variety of its form (posters, billboards, calendars, inserts, magazine covers, leaflets, flyers, advertisements, etc.) leads the advertising designer to mute his personality and, if necessary, to sacrifice the taste, genre, understanding and style of his work. Think of the number of articles, goods of all kinds that are sold by advertising. Think of the vast field of public or political propaganda, of the manifestations of the Arts and Science, of Education, of the Press… Truly there is no human activity nowadays where some form of advertising is not used.” A good advertisement immediately catches the eye of passers-by because of the speed of the message it communicates. The signifying content merges with the appreciation of the signs; Plastically, they are already, in the heart of the figuration, deformed red stripes displaying convex and concave lineaments, the Op Art which slumbers…

In 1938, while travelling back and forth on the Paris metro, at the Denfert-Rochereau station, when he had to walk along endless corridors with white tiled floors and walls, he noticed the thousand cracks in the faience, irregular cracks that would be the source ten years later of fine line drawings with breakage and dislodging effects executed from memory, with a pen.

1939-1948: the war, pacifism and reconstruction

On September 3, 1939, France and England declared war on Germany. Victor and Claire do not forget that they are foreigners, as they say, nationals of a country that remained neutral in the conflict. Throughout the hostilities, the artist will try to protect his family and continue to practice his profession to feed them. He had her settled in Saint-Céré, in the Lot, and decided to stay in Paris, where he frequented the Café de Flore and the Deux Magots, where Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone Signoret, and a young, voluble and passionate brunette woman who was to be decisive: Denise René. While visiting his aunt’s fashion house on Rue La Boétie, Vasarely learned about the “ballotine” technique, a flexible paint that is applied with a horn and dried with glass powder,

with a luminous rendering and a phosphorescent shine. Times are hard in Arcueil, Vasarely doesn’t have much to keep him warm. With Denise, they remade the world, and thought, on an idea of Victor, to open an art gallery in the family building on rue La Boétie. Because of the Occupation, Vasarely was forced to flee and move in with a farmer in the Nièvre region until 1943. The return to Paris took place in early 1944, the war was not over and Vasarely was already framing his Graphic Studies, a body of work that was to constitute the inaugural exhibition of the Denise René Gallery. Psychologically, the climb back up the ladder is trying: “The horrors of the bombings, of the concentration camps, have upset me, revolted me… Feverishly, I was looking for a new free expression, rid of my scholastic discipline that I felt was getting old. To express my ideas-sensations, to manifest my ideological option, to release me […] it was necessary that I create”, he confides in 1977. Vasarely creates and supports his peers as well, by bringing together, in the Denise René Gallery, the painters who will be among the masters of the Paris School tomorrow, Jean Dewasne, Hans Hartung, Jean Deyrolle, Gérard Schneider, Marie Raymond, among others, with the “Abstract Paintings” exhibition. The immediate post-war period is the surrealism and the highlighting of unknown masters, Malevitch, Kandinsky, Albers, Klee, Mondrian. Vasarely, very disturbed, took, according to his words, “false roads”, such as a naturalist or symbolist geometry, a sort of compromise that was very far from figurative and that did not yet fully deploy abstraction. Some of them, however, are essential breakthroughs, such as the “Belle-Isle” period, in 1947, which came from observing the ellipsoidal pebbles and pieces of glass broken and polished by the waves on the beach. Or the “Cristal-Gordes” period, which followed a visual shock received in a house in Gordes, a village in the Monts de Vaucluse where he spent the summer of 1948 at the invitation of his friend Deyrolle: “a small square window, open in a large wall, diffuses so much light,” he was moved; it was the awareness, under the sun of the Midi, of the potential for contrasts in daylight and backlight. It is through abstraction that only the laws of physics can be found, according to Vasarely, because, in response to Renoir who urged working from nature, “whatever imagination one has, how can one invent even the diversity of the foliage of a tree?

1948-1955: kineticism on the march

For several years, Vasarely has been manipulating transparent layers printed with graphic tracings that he superimposes in order to obtain moving reliefs known as moiré. This research is the basis of his Tableaux Profonds Cinétiques. 1951 saw the experimentation of the Photographisms, sets of photographic prints printed in positive and negative. The passage from painting to drawing, to photography, and to any other medium is part of the strategies of a research indifferent to genre conventions. At the beginning of the 1950s, the first group of the School of Paris coordinated by Vasarely, namely Hartung, Schneider, Poliakoff, Dewasne and Deyrolle, dispersed. This was an opportunity to concentrate on more and more kinetic works, starting with a kick-off work in 1952: Hommage à Malévitch, which takes its cue from the Russian painter’s 1913 Carré noir sur fond blanc, which preceded the Carré blanc sur fond blanc of 1918,

the ultimate stage of Euclidean geometry in art that Vasarely understands as a degree zero, the declaration of death of a thousand year old tradition: “One could not manifest in a more limpid way the urgency to do something else. His “homage” is a kinetic situation: the square moves. “By slightly rotating the square, I obtain a rhombus, creating a new illusionist space. Vasarely’s kineticism was born, and it will still be formidably summarized by the artist himself in his book Vasarely Plasticien in 1977: “For me, the kinetism is what happens in the mind of the spectator when his eye is obliged to organize a perceptive field such as it is necessarily unstable”, as in the vase of Rubin, of the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin in 1915, schematic drawing black and white or bicolor whose experience makes see in competition two faces of profile and a chalice, in a reversibility fond-form. In other words: a background-form: the work is kinetic or rather optical (for kineticism also designates mechanical movement in art) when it thwarts the principles of Gestalt Theory, whose science, born in the nineteenth century, had established that perception spontaneously processes visual phenomena in large structured sets, and it is on this physiological truth that the art historian Clement Greenberg celebrated the abstract painting of his country, the American painting of the years 1950-1960, such as it organized the canvas in fields of pure colors and in orthogonal plans. From his advances, Vasarely entered a phase of creative euphoria and rigor where several families of research jostled and complemented each other; inversion games, mirror-image, photograms purged of intermediate grays, that is to say the “Black-White” period until 1963; the development of the “Naissances” which enriched his attraction for the networks of linear lines… From April 6 to 30, 1955, at the Denise René gallery, Vasarely orchestrated with the Swedish curator Pontus Hultén “Le Mouvement” which was above all the exhibition of “a” movement: that of a trend, kinetism, a meeting of artists from two generations whose common and central concern was space-time. These are Calder’s mobiles, Marcel Duchamp’s spinning targets, Jean Tinguely’s motorized reliefs, or the film Form Phases IV by American experimental filmmaker Robert Breer. The opening is a success and “The Yellow Manifesto”, a yellow A4 sheet that unfolds, divulges the precepts of this avant-garde: “The era of plastic projections on flat and deep screens, in the day or the darkness, begins. At the same time, in complementary writings, Vasarely was convinced that the future lay in ektachromes that would allow paintings to be sent by post, and that one day it would be possible to project Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings onto large walls, and in a way, the 1960s fashion for “Sound and Light” shows would prove him right in the medium term, not to mention the 20th century and the digitization of works and virtual museum visits…

1959-1965: an Op-timal system

It was 1959 and Victor Vasarely became a French citizen, just as he was about to create a production system worthy of industrial chain production, supposed to spread his great graphic themes everywhere, in a Bauhaus and Mühely spirit, on household objects as well as on city walls. That same year, he patented the “Plastic Unit”, which formed the basis of the principle of his small circles and squares that were to become so popular.

It is a question of laying the groundwork for his Plastic Alphabet. It is a question of working from units of two types which fit together: a “bottom” always square accommodates a “form” which can be a circle, an ellipse, a rectangle, a triangle, a rhombus, a square (smaller than the square of the background). These small pieces can be compared to hydrogen atoms composed of a positive nucleus and a negative electron, which generate tension and a magnetic field; science is never out of sight, with Vasarely… This alphabet thus gives rise to compositions in checkerboard where each bottom acts as square and each form of figure, according to a systematic alphabet. In 1959, the possible backgrounds are two reds, two yellows, two purples, three blues, three greens, white, black, grey; and the figures, very precisely, two squares, two circles, two diamonds, two half-discs, two double sticks, six ellipses as well as a triangle. The combinatorial potential is therefore infinite. One year later, in 1960, the alphabet takes on its true meaning by designating its object: the “Planetary Folklore”, an art to be applied universally and whose content could be inflected according to local preferences and ethnic particularities: a polychrome geometry bringing joy and festivity to all domestic interiors and all cities of the world. The artist evokes an “immense reservoir of harmonizing or exhilarating stimuli” bringing health to urban agglomerations. In 1961, Vasarely and his family moved to Annet-sur-Marne. The factory-like studio employed several assistants who manually executed “prototype-departures”, i.e. programs of works, which were encoded via a system of numbering grids on the drawing of the works, like a color code on a pattern, with numbers at the location of the square backgrounds. In 1964, the Op Art for “optical art”, named so across the Atlantic by a journalist of the Times, invades little by little in Europe as in New York stores of clothes, television sets, big signs, windows, newsstands, magazines… Soon enough, in Paris or on the fifth avenue, the Prisunic, the Galeries Lafayette, the stores of Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne, Courrèges, the program “Dim Dam Dom.” and other televisual facetiousness of Jean-Christophe Averty,

but also the cinema, that of Henri-Georges Clouzot with L’Enfer (unfinished, 1964), or spy films, science fiction and parodies of the genre (Casino Royale, 1967) appropriate, recover, reinterpret, plagiarize the swollen checkerboards, the frantic stripes, the concentric targets, the jumping polka dots, in a word the visual grammar of Vasarely and his disciples, among whom his son Yvaral. These artists produced, on the threshold of May 68, unprecedented aesthetic effects and a political discourse of insubordination. Vasarely became the leader of a vogue that revolutionized the artistic experience: no longer being bored in the museum, and even having fun there thanks to paintings with optical illusions, unstable objects made of Plexiglas, metal, stroboscope, motorized light games, and in the manner of Luna Park in the Art Biennials. In New York, a retrospective exhibition “The Responsive Eye” consecrates Op Art internationally: Vasarely is the supreme master, with Josef Albers. But even though he has been crowned with all the successes, he does not intend to stop there, because in his eyes only half has been covered. In 1966, he is mature: mature to write his foundation project…