Life and work
Vasarely was born in Pécs and grew up in Piešt’any (then called Pöstyén) and Budapest. In 1925 he is studying medicine at the University of Budapest. In 1927 he abandons medicine to learn traditional academic painting at the Podolini-Volkmann private academy. In 1928-1929 he registers at Sándor Bortnyik’s Mühely (literally, workshop, which existed until 1938), then acknowledged as the center of Bauhaus-influenced studies in Budapest. Due to scarcity of funds, the workshop was not able to offer all the courses provided by the Bauhaus. For this reason, it was focused on applied graphic arts and typographic design.
In 1929, Vasarely paints his Blue Study and Green Study. In 1930 he marries his classmate Claire Spinner (1908-1990). They have two children, André and Jean-Pierre. In Budapest, he works at a ball-bearing company as an accountant and designer of advertisement posters.
Victor Vasarely becomes a graphic designer and poster artist during the 1930s, combining organic patterns and images. He carries out open-air artworks at the church of Palos in Pécs.
He leaves Hungary and moves to Paris in 1930, working as a graphic artist and creative consultant at the Havas, Draeger and Devambez advertising agencies (1930-1935). He has limited interactions with other artists at this time. He plays with the idea of opening an institution modeled on Sándor Bortnyik’s Mühely and develops instructional material for this project.
After living most of his life in cheap hotel rooms, in 1942-1944 he settles down in Saint-Céré, at the Lot department. Once the Second World War is over, he opens an atelier at Arcueil, a suburb located about 10 kilometers away from the center of Paris (in the Val-de-Marne department at the Île-de-France region). In 1961 he finally settles down in Annet-sur-Marne (in the Seine-et-Marne department). During the following three decades, Vasarely develops his abstract-geometric style of art, working with a variety of materials, but using a minimum of forms and colors.
1929-1944: The first graphic works. He experiments with texture, perspective, shadow and light effects. The first result of this graphic period are the pieces known 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 cubist, futurist, expressionist, symbolist and surrealist paintings without developing a unique style. Later, he said he was on the wrong track. He exhibited his works in the galleries of Denise René (1946) and René Breteau (1947). In the introduction to the catalogues, 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 developments are named after their geographical location. Denfert refers to the works influenced by the white-tiled walls of the Paris Denfert – Rochereau metro station. Ellipsoid 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 photographs. From his Gordes series he developed his kinematic images, superimposed acrylic glass panes creating dynamic, moving impressions depending on the viewpoint. In the black-white period he combined the frames into a single pane by transposing photographs in two colors. Tribute to Malevitch, a ceramic wall picture of 100 m² adorning the Ciudad Universitaria of Caracas, Venezuela, which he co-designed in 1954 with 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. Vasarely published his Yellow Manifest. Building on the research of constructivist and Bauhaus pioneers, he postulated that visual kinetics (plastique cinétique) relied on the viewer’s perception who is considered the sole creator, playing with optical illusions.
1955-1965: Folklore planétaire, permutations and serial art. On March 2, 1959, Vasarely patented his method of unités plastiques. Permutations of geometric forms are cut out of a colored square and rearranged. He worked with a strictly defined palette of colors 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, endless permutations of forms and colors worked out by his assistants. (The creative process is produced by standardized tools and impersonal actors in order to question the uniqueness of the 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 with color variations, creating a perpetual mobile of optical illusion. In 1965 Vasarely was included in the The Responsive Eye exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, created under the direction of William C. Seitz. 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 in Burtin’s Vision ’67 conference, held at New York University.
On June 5, 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 Foundation 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. Sadly the museum is now in a state of disrepair, several of the pieces on display have been damaged by water leaking from the ceiling. Also, in 1976 his large kinematic object Georges Pompidou was installed in the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Vasarely Museum located at his birthplace in Pécs, Hungary, was established with a large donation of works by Vasarely. In the same decade, he took a stab at industrial design with a 500-piece run of the upscale Suomi tableware by Timo Sarpaneva that Vasarely decorated for the German Rosenthal porcelain makers Studio Linie. 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.
He died age 90 in Paris on 15 March 1997.
Op Art (Arte óptico)
Vasarely is considered the father of Op Art. During the 1960s and 1970s, his optical images became part of popular culture. His motto was “Art for everybody.” He was, besides, a congruent theorist, who preferred to be called an artisan rather than an artist. Following his own theories, he believed in the disappearance of the unique, singular artwork, and stood for the “democratic” future of “multiple” or industrial, serigraphic repetition of the same model.
His kinetic experiments, which transformed the flat surface into a world of infinite possibilities, long before the advent of computers, defined a new era in art history. For him, motion was related to the illusion of space. From the union of these two elements arises the plastic work.
The eternal rhomb: Vasarely and the design of Renault’s logo
Victor Vasarely was a trendsetting artist in the 20th century. His geometrical proposals and optical games of colors, tones and forms which turn painting into a living entity are deeply related both to Russian constructivism and Gabo’s or Calder’s movable art, as well as Escher’s fascinating and enormously popular creations. His artistic proposal is perhaps one more of the “dead ends” left behind by the 20th century, but its plastic potential has thrived in the world of design, turning it into a massive, widespread aesthetic pattern. His work is a magnificent example of the popularization of abstract art.
In 1972, Renault needed a change in its corporate image. Its logo, which since 1925 incorporated a rhomboid or diamond-shaped form, was considered outdated. Vasarely was a reputed artist at the time, and Renault’s executive board thought of a daring proposal: Leaving the logo’s design in the hands of an abstract artist was in itself a direct way to send a message of innovation and modernity. Vasarely came up with a bold logo, a veritable breakthrough, in which the company’s name disappeared entirely, being replaced by a rhomb which is actually a Moebius strip*. An elegant and modernist way to symbolize infinitude in which Op-Art’s aesthetics and vibration played a leading role. Vasarely left a humble but valuable legacy to the French company: a symbol both of modernity and eternity.
*A Moebius strip or band is a surface with only one side and one boundary or edge or contour component. It is created by taking a paper strip and joining the ends giving a half twist to one of them. It possesses the following properties: 1) it has only one face. If one colors the surface of a Moebius strip, starting with the “apparently”
exterior face, in the end the whole strip ends up colored. Therefore, it has only one face, and it makes no sense to talk about an interior and exterior face. 2) It has only one edge. This can be proved by following the edge with one finger, reaching in the end the point of departure after being across “both edges.” 3) It is a non-oriented surface. If a “lying” person slides across a Moebius strip, looking at her right, when she finishes the whole turn would appear looking at her left. If one starts with a pair of oriented perpendicular axes, and moves in parallel along the strip, one will reach the point of departure with an inverted orientation. Other properties: if one cuts a Moebius strip lengthwise, unlike a normal strip, one will not get two strips, but a longer strip but with two twists. If this strip is cut lengthwise again, one gets other two strips but interlaced and with twists. As one cuts each one lengthwise, more interlaced strips will be obtained.
Vasarely Planetary Folklore Participations No. 1
We are in an age of participation and new developments of the artwork. Inspired by this revolutionary conception, Vasarely, renowned kinetic artist, father of Op-Art and the “Multiple”, gathered in this numerated and signed serial image the dynamic elements of his invention and plastic unity. For the first time, a fusion of sensitive intuition and current scientific techniques can become a reality before our eyes to give birth to a living art.
Vasarely presents his ABC of multicolored units, the result of 35 years of plastic research in the realm of form and color. With the help of these 195 units (i.e., 390 elements), an unlimited number* of compositions can be created according to everybody’s invention, as well as the three original (variable) works proposed by Vasarely. Art as experience: our creative actions reveal art in our life; they are our life. Through this conception, Vasarely becomes our common treasure, part of a planetary folklore.