Victor Vasarely - Biography and Legacy
Hungarian-French Painter and Sculptor
Biography of Victor Vasarely
Victor Vasarely was born in the city of Pécs, Hungary, in 1906. Shortly afterwards, his family moved to Pieštany in Slovakia, where he spent his childhood years, though he also travelled extensively across Eastern Europe. Little is known of Vasarely's early life, except that he did not seem to express any artistic impulses, seeming more interested in science.
Education and Early training
In 1925, after his family had moved to Budapest, Victor began a medical degree at Eötvös Loránd University, but after two years he abandoned his studies to become a painter. His training was initially conservative, but by 1929 he had enrolled at the private academy of Sándor Bortnyik, a respected avant-garde artist and advocate of the Bauhaus. Indeed, the Mühely - literally "workshop" - as Bortnyik's school was known, was sometimes considered the Hungarian equivalent of the German Bauhaus, focusing on principles of geometrical abstraction, and on applied rather than fine arts. Bortnyik held lectures in his apartment on Walter Gropius, Theo Van Doesburg, László Moholy-Nagy, Piet Mondrian, the De Stijl artists, and Constructivism. Though Vasarely was based at the Mühely for only two years, it had a profound influence on his artistic development.
Around this time, Vasarely met and married his fellow student Claire Spinner. They aimed to study together in Germany, but the uncertain political situation in the Weimar Republic put paid to this idea, and instead they left Budapest in 1930 to settle in Paris. Across the following two decades, Vasarely supported himself as a commercial artist, creating posters for advertising and news agencies and logos for pharmaceutical companies. His practical and theoretical training allowed him to experiment with geometrical principles and chromatic patterns, but the distinctive style of his later work had not yet materialized. In 1931, Victor and Claire had their first child, André. A second, Jean-Pierre, was born in 1934.
In contrast to the stereotypical image of the young, impoverished, bohemian artist, Vasarely's graphic design career was relatively successful, generating enough income for him to pursue his own creative projects privately, in relative isolation from the Parisian art world. He experimented with effects of perspective, shadow, and light in three-dimensional works, and studied the scientific principles of color and optics, as well as astrophysics, relativity, and quantum mechanics. Finding in physics the principles which would animate his creativity, Vasarely's compositional method was, as it would remain throughout his career, meticulous, objective, and rigorous. He perceived art, just like science, as a process of ongoing, rational experiment. Some of the pieces which he created during 1933-38, featuring black and white contrasts, and often depicting tigers and zebras - chosen for their naturally occurring abstract patterning - are considered by many the first works of Op Art.
After the Second World War, having spent the period of 1942-44 in Saint Céré in the Lot valley, Vasarely returned to Paris to take over a studio in the district of Arcueil, on the city's southern outskirts. This move marked the beginning of profound shift in his artistic style. During 1947-51, Vasarely came to realize that certain two-dimensional geometrical forms could generate sensory perceptions of space and depth, and even create the optical illusion of movement. He later credited this discovery to studies of light conducted during holidays in the South of France, in the Belle-Isle and Gordes-Crystal regions, stating that "Southern towns and villages devoured by an implacable sun [...] revealed to me a contradictory perspective". During the early 1940s, Vasarely had co-founded a gallery with the art dealer Denise René. The Galerie Denise René, as it was called, would become an important early center for the Op Art movement, with Vasarely himself exhibiting there from 1944 onwards.
By the early 1950s, Vasarely had abandoned the graphic, figurative style of his early work in favor of purely abstract paintings, and throughout the following decade, he focused on depicting movement in static forms, extending the principles of Kinetic Art developed by artists such as Naum Gabo earlier in the century. The theoretical groundwork for the Op Art movement was also laid down, most influentially in Vasarely's Manifeste Jaune (Yellow Manifesto) of 1955, which expressed his belief that "pure form and pure color can signify the world". This statement was published for the Kinetic Art exhibition Mouvement, held at the Galerie Denise René, which featured Vasarely's work alongside that of Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Jesus Rafael Sotó, Jean Tinguely, and others. Around the same time, Vasarely also designed a series of architectural murals, notably for the University of Caracas in Venezuela in 1954. These projects expressed his belief that art and architecture were mutually dependent.
By the start of the 1960s, Vasarely had developed his so-called "Alphabet Plastique", a potentially endless series of interchangeable compositional units which became the basic building blocks of much of his subsequent art. In the 1960s, the alphabet was used to create perhaps Vasarely's most influential series of works, the "Planetary Folklore" series, which aimed to generate visual effects so simple that any given viewer would engage with them in the same way. During 1966-70, Vasarely also worked on various architectural projects, including for the French Pavilion at the 1967 World Expo in Montreal. He had become a French citizen in 1959, and in 1961, Victor and Claire moved to Annet-sur-Marne, where Vasarely would remain until the end of his life.
Although the 1960s was a period of critical and popular success for Vasarely, as the Op Art movement took off, he was frequently disappointed that his artistic systems - particularly his "Alphabet Plastique" - had not been more widely taken up. As a humanist whose scientific rigor was complemented by spiritual beliefs, Vasarely genuinely believed that the universal artistic vocabularies he had devised could make the world a better place.
In 1969, Vasarely wrote that "man has become a self-conscious creature, thirsting for knowledge, materialist and social thought", a statement summing up his rational and humane outlook on art, science, and life. During the 1960s and after, he composed various texts explaining these principles at length. In 1970, Vasarely opened the Vasarely Foundation in Gordes, France, along with a large museum devoted to his work. Across the following years, his network of museums and foundations grew, with a Vasarely Museum opening in his childhood home of Pécs in 1976, and American, German, and Norwegian Vasarely Foundations launched during the 1980s. Vasarely used the headquarters of the foundation at Gordes to explore various architectural concepts - based on the idea that his Alphabet Plastique could also be used in urban planning - and created a range of educational and research programs. Still full of energy and invention, Vasarely became more convinced than ever that the concept underpinning an artwork was more significant than the realization of it. As such, he increasingly relied on assistants to complete his projects.
Art critic Roberta Smith writes that "[a]lthough Mr. Vasarely's visibility in the art world declined precipitously after 1970, he remained the center of his own small art empire". During the 1980s, the popularity of Op Art waned considerably, and he devoted more and more of his time to managing his network of museums and foundations. In 1990, Vasarely's wife died, and his creative output and health declined from this point onwards. In 1992, Jean-Pierre, his second child, also died, and in 1996, a few years later, Vasarely closed his first museum. Later that year, he became a professor emeritus at the Budapest Faculty of Visual Arts. In the mid-1990s, Vasarely was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and he spent the next two years undergoing various treatment. Victor Vasarely died in Paris on March 15, 1997, aged 90.
The Legacy of Victor Vasarely
Although Vasarely was experimenting with the principles of Op Art as far back as the 1930s, widespread recognition of his work in this area only came in 1965, with his inclusion in the hugely influential Op Art exhibition The Responsive Eye (1965), at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Indeed, the term "Op Art" had only been coined the previous year, in a Time magazine article. As well as influencing this newly defined genre, Vasarely's work filtered through into mainstream popular culture through its reproduction on prints, posters, and fabrics. As a believer in the democratization of art, Vasarely actively supported this mass circulation of his designs, and their hallucinatory effects became synonymous with the spirit of the sixties.
At the peak of his fame, Vasarely declared: "[t]he generation coming after me experiments with spatial-kinetic forms. New dimensions, light, energy and sound enter the competition". He had a strong sense of the influence that the Op Art movement would have on subsequent experiments with light, color, and motion in art, and various movements and collectives took up and developed his ideas from the 1960s onwards. In Paris, during that decade, the Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel created interactive, immersive artistic environments based on Vasarely's principles; in California around the same time, the Light and Space Movement, including artists such as Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, and Craig Kauffman, began exploring the perceptual effects of materials such as glass, and neon and fluorescent lights. The wider movement of Light Art, associated with Robert Irwin and James Turrell amongst others, has focused intensively on light as a compositional material. On this evidence, it seems that Victor Vasarely's artistic legacy remains very much alive.