Hungarian-French Painter and Sculptor
Summary of Victor Vasarely
Victor Vasarely provided us with some of the most distinctive images and optical effects in 20th-century art. From his days as a commercial graphic designer in 1930s-40s Paris to his final decades developing and marketing what he hoped would become a new universal language for art and architectural design, Vasarely steered a unique course, combining virtuosic technical precision with a scientific awareness of optical and geometrical effects. He is best known for his grid-like paintings and sculptures of the 1960s onwards, which play with the reader's sense of visual form by creating illusory, flickering effects of depth, perspective, and motion. In making the act of looking one of their primary subjects, these works speak to a quintessentially modern concern with the difference between what we can see and what is really there.
- Vasarely was perhaps the first modern artist to realize that Kinetic Art did not have to move. Instead he created an extraordinary series of paintings and sculptures which used geometrical effects to suggest motion within static forms. From illusions of oscillation and vibration to Escher-like tricks whereby apparent indentations in the picture-surface suddenly seem to protrude from it, Vasarely's pioneering techniques not only influenced the Op Art movement of the 1960s, but helped to define the whole psychedelic mood of that decade.
- Like his predecessors in the Constructivist and Concrete Art movements, Vasarely wanted to create a universal visual vocabulary for modern art. By the 1960s, he had developed what he called an "Alphabet Plastique" of endlessly interchangeable compositional elements. These small, square units each consisted of a simple combination of figure and ground, whose color and shape could be changed in any number of ways, to be organized in any conceivable pattern. This aspect of Vasarely's work exemplifies a post-Second World War concern with using art to communicate across national and cultural boundaries, by stripping away all topical reference, and using visual effects so simple that they would mean the same thing to any viewer. In this way, Vasarely sought to create what he called a "Planetary Folklore".
- As a student of Constructivism, Vasarely believed that art should have a functional purpose within society, an aim he pursued partly by exploring the overlaps between art and architecture. As well as designing murals and other visual features specifically for architectural spaces, Vasarely believed that his visual vocabulary of interchangeable compositional elements could be used in urban planning, as a way of combining qualities of regularity and variety within domestic architecture, street design, and so on. While many artists from the 1910s onwards had considered how modern art and architecture might influence each other, few pursued that idea with such a singular and consistent vision as Vasarely.
Biography of Victor Vasarely
In 1947 while walking along a beach on holiday, Victor Vasarely said, “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.” Painting black and white abstractions, constructed of only geometric shapes, he created the optical illusion of movement that informed Op Art.
Important Art by Victor Vasarely
In this early work, created while Vasarely was a graphic designer in Paris, two zebras twine around each other against a black background. Their limbs overlap, creating a subtle chequerboard pattern and suggesting spatial depth as well as generating a sense of intimacy, energy, and sexual play. There are no outlines to the two forms, which are instead defined by undulating black and white stripes, their curves suggesting the volumes of the animals' bodies. In its use of such optical trickery, Zebra is often considered one of the earliest works of Op Art.
This painting is typical of Vasarely's early work in using abstract visual effects in pictorial representation - zebras and tigers were common subject-matter for this reason, because of the abstract patterning on their bodes - and in recreating three-dimensional space in two dimensions without resorting to vanishing-point perspective. Despite his status as a commercial artist, Vasarely had been exposed to the avant-garde ideas of the Bauhaus at the Mühely art-school in Budapest in the late 1920s, and there is an obvious Constructivist influence on this work, with its reduction of representative elements to an absolute, iconic minimum. Indeed, in producing works like Zebra, Vasarely was following in the footpaths of pioneering Hungarian Constructivists and avant-gardists at the same time, we can sense the first stirrings of Vasarely's movement towards purely abstract, optically arresting effects. Vasarely returned to the Zebra as a visual motif throughout his career, notably creating a sculpture based on this early work in 1965.
Sophia consists of a grid-like pattern of black lines set against a white background, creating subtle various illusions of movement and three-dimensionality. This work was produced at the end of a period when Vasarely's art had made several decisive leaps forward, leading him from the figurative style of his first serious attempts at painting in the early 1940s towards a form of geometric, monochrome abstraction that still relied on subtle representational effects. A triptych version of Sophia was installed as a wall-mural at the University of Caracas, Venezuela, in 1954.
Across three vital phases of creative development during 1947-51 - sometimes referred to as the Denfert, Belle-Isle, and Gordes-Crystal periods - Vasarely gradually refined the techniques of abstraction and optical illusion that would define his mature work. He was initially inspired by the finely cracked white tiles at the Denfert-Rocherau station of the Paris Subway, producing various paintings which recreated the curious interplay of broken lines and planes on the concourse walls. Then, during a series of vacations in the south of France, in the Belle Isle and Gordes-Crystal regions, he became fascinated by the geometrical patterns of the French coastline, and by the cubistic structures of rural hill towns. Over the same period, Vasarely became more and more interested in the Concrete artist Josef Albers's studies of the psychological effects of color, and in the abstract visual forms of the Suprematist and Constructivist painter Kasimir Malevich, whose famous Black Square (1915) had reduced the picture plane to the simplest possible expression of figure and ground. These influences are channeled into works such as Sophia, which express both Vasarely's fascination with the black-and-white color-palette - which he took to express contemporary scientific concepts such as binary coding - and his increasing interest in creating optical suggestions of vibration and movement.
Like lots of Vasarely's late-1940s and early-1950s work, this piece can partly be interpreted as a celebration of nature, as the geometrical forms expressed by the lines allude to water droplets. At the same time, they might seem to depict the curves of a female body, perhaps that of the woman referred to in the title. In this sense, though works such as Sophia represent a breakthrough for Vasarely, they also indicate the scope of developments still to come, as they remain loosely reliant on representational suggestion. Indeed, in inviting and exploiting the viewer's tendency to find figurative forms in abstract shapes, Vasarely was partly expressing an interest in Gestalt psychology, which was particularly strong at this point.
Vega III features an early example of one of Vasarely's most iconic visual effects, with the distinctive chequerboard pattern distorted in certain areas to create illusions of concave and convex shapes within the picture surface. The suggestions of depth and movement generated by stretching a linear grid in this way represent a vital moment both in the development of Vasarely's style and in the story of late-20th-century art, establishing one of the key technical effects of Op Art.
In generating impressions of movement within a static, two-dimensional artwork, Vasarely was ingeniously advancing the principles of Kinetic Art as laid down by artists such as Alexander Calder and Naum Gabo. From Calder's rotating mobiles to Gabo's revolving or vibrating sculptures, Kinetic Art had generally involved the literal creation of motion, with the aim of using art to depict the element of time as well as the element of space. Creating a Kinetic work which didn't need to move at all was a clever development of these principles.
Vega III can also be seen as a visual enactment of the ideas outlined in Vasarely's Yellow Manifesto, published in 1955 to coincide with the influential Op Art exhibition Mouvement, held at the Gallery Denise René in Paris. Vasarely's manifesto called for a new "visual kinetics", an art inspired by Constructivism and the Bauhaus which would use optical illusions to focus the viewer's attention on the act of viewing itself. Since the Renaissance, the instinctive, physiological processes of visual perception had been exploited by painters, and the Yellow Manifesto called for a fresh recognition and utilization of the techniques used to achieve this.
Works such as Vega III turn the viewer from a passive spectator into an active agent in the creation of the artwork, contributing to the visual appearance of the painting by their movement around it. As the art historian József Sárkány, the viewer's movements "always give rise to new paintings". In making the act of visual engagement vital to the final realization of the artwork, Vasarely expressed a quintessential mid-20th-century concern with blurring the boundaries between observer and participant.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Victor Vasarely
- Victor Vasarely: A TributeOur Pick
- Planetary FolkloreOur PickOriginally published in 1973
- Le Musée Imaginaire de Vasarely (in French)
- Notes Brutes (in French)By Victor Vasarely (Author), Pierre Vasarely and Claude Desailly (Preface)
- Victor Vasarely's Optical ArtOur PickInterview with Pierre Vasarely, Victor's grandson, at the Vasarely Foundation
- Showcase: Victor Vasarely Retrospective in IstanbulRetrospective Exhibition in Istanbul / February 9, 2017
- Victor Vasarely: ReflexionsOur PickInterview with Victor Vasarely from the late 80's