Victor Vasarely
Biography of Op-Art Painter, Kinetic Artist.
MAIN A-Z INDEX - A-Z of ARTISTS

Pin it



Capella 4B (1965)
Museum of Modern Art, New York.
For other Op-Art works similar to
those produced by Vasarely, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

Victor Vasarely (1906-1997)

Contents

Biography
Early Life in Budapest
Paris: Graphic Design
Abstract Painting
Optical Art
Op-Art Paintings
Awards and Collections
Legacy


BEST ABSTRACT ART
For a guide to geometric and
organic abstraction, see:
Abstract Paintings: Top 100.
For a list of styles/periods, see:
Abstract Art Movements.

WORLDS BEST PAINTERS
For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

DEFINITION OF ART
For a discussion of the main
aesthetic issues involved, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.

Biography

The Hungarian-born, French abstract painter, sculptor and graphic designer Victor Vasarely, was the leading pioneer of the Op-Art movement. After studying at the Poldini-Volkman Academy of Painting and the Muhely School in Budapest and settled in Paris in 1930. For the first 10 years of his artistic career he worked as a commercial artist, focusing primarily on poster art and optical illusion. In 1943 he turned to painting and had his first solo exhibition in 1944. In the late 1940s he developed the hard-edge, geometrical form of abstract art, for which he is famous. His pictures are designed to give quite powerful optical effects and illusions, that may sometimes be activated by moving around the painting. Vasarely also experimented with Kinetic art and tapestry. Influenced by numerous artists including the Hungarian Sandor Bortnyik (1893-1976), the Russian Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and the French painter Auguste Herbin (1921-60), Vasarely's work was innovative but limited, and was excelled in some respects by his younger contemporary Bridget Riley (b.1931). Even so, he remains one of the top modern artists of the Hungarian School.

 

 

Early Life in Budapest

Vasarely was born in Pecs, Hungary in 1906. He was accepted into the Poldini-Volkman Academy of Painting in 1925, which taught traditional academic art. Prior to this, he had spent some years studying medicine, and found throughout his life he would always be attracted to the sciences. Indeed, he went on to apply scientific methodology and objectivity to his drawing and painting. As a student, he spent much of his time in the coffee houses situated along the Danube River, discussing avant-garde art. It was here, that he first heard about the Muhely Academy, which was considered to be the Bauhaus of Budapest. He enrolled in the school in 1929, at which point it was run by Sandor Bortnyik (1893-1976, also known as Alexander Bortnyik) a local printmaker, painter and poster designer. Bortnyik was a leading member of the Hungarian avant-garde, and was interested in the abstract use of colour for symbolism and form. He also experimented with Constructivism and geometrical abstraction. At the Academy, Vasarely was introduced to the colour optic works of Josef Albers (1888-1976) and Johannes Itten (1888-1967), as well as Russian artists Kasimir Malevich and Kandinsky. The Muhely was run along similar lines to the Bauhaus design school in Germany, and Vasarely was singled out as an outstanding pupil. In his oil painting from 1929 there are several thoughtful colour studies with geometric cubic shapes. In 1930, following his first solo exhibition at the Kovacs Akos Gallery in Budapest, Vasarely left the city and moved to Paris - still, at that time, the undisputed centre of world art.

Paris: Graphic Design

For the next decade, Vasarely worked as a commercial artist, specializing in graphic art and typography. (See also: History of Poster Art.) He worked on his own paintings at night, hoping one day to make a full time living as an artist. His interest in graphic and typographical design was possibly a result of the subject matter he studied at Muhely, which concentrated more on graphics than fine art. In any event, the use of linear design and space to create optical effects became one of his life-long fascinations. He worked with 3-D effects, superimposing patterned layers of cellophane on top of each other to give the illusion of depth. Although most of his work during the 1930s was mainly figurative, it contained the seeds of Kinetic art, which would appear in his later works. A good example of his painting from this time is Chess Board (1935). Other important works include Harlequin, where he distorts a grid to give life to the emerging animal figure. He also created tigers and zebras, demonstrating that ordinary lines could create dramatic, dynamic effects.

 

Abstract Painting

In 1944 Vasarely held his first important solo exhibition at the Denise Rene Gallery in Paris. He displayed mainly graphics and drawings, and the show was such a success it convinced him to become a full time artist. At the same time, he came into contact with the works of Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), an important contributor to the De Stijl art & design movement and founder of Neo-Plasticism. Vasarely was also impressed with Auguste Herbin (a co-founder of the Salon des Surindependants and the artist association Abstraction-Creation), whose radical geometric phase, challenged the status of easel painting. Herbin's work had been greeted with such incomprehension by even his favourable critics, that he returned briefly to a representational style in 1922. By 1945, Vasarely was fully committed to abstraction. In 1945 and 1946, he exhibited with the Salon de Surindependants, and again in 1948 at the Denise Rene Gallery. He was gradually becoming accepted as a painter but, despite his experiments with several modern art movements like Cubism, Futurism, Symbolism, Surrealism and Expressionism, he had yet to discover his signature style.

Optical Art

Between 1947 and 1951, Vasarely finally achieved his quest and found the style of geometrical abstraction for which he is best known. He began to paint predominately in black and white, in an idiom we now call Op Art (Optical art). In his first such paintings, the viewer's eyes are met with contradictory data of diagonals, circles and squares. The paintings seem to expand, contract, dilate and vibrate. This led to experimentation with Kinetic art - an art form that relies on movement for its effect. An example is his Ondho (1956, Museum of Modern Art, New York). In sculpture, Kinetic art incorporates movement primarily through motors, electricity, steam or clockwork, as can be seen in works by Naum Gabo (1890-1977), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Jean Tinguely (1925-91). Other artists who experimented with Kinetic Op Art include Bridget Riley (b.1931), Nadir Afonso (b.1920) and Getulio Alviani (b.1939). In 1955 The Denise Rene Gallery gave a pioneering exhibition on Kinetic art entitled Le Movement, which Vasarely took part in. The same year, Vasarely published his Yellow Manifesto on Kineticism, for which he received the Gold Medal at the Milan Triennial.

Op-Art Paintings

Between 1960 and 1965, Vasarely produced a series of paintings called the Plastic Alphabet. This type of non-objective art was based on a grid system and marked the reintroduction of colour into his work. Each work was based on 15 root forms, derived from the square, circle and triangle. These forms were then developed using colour scales. Each unit within the grid, has a foreground and background. In 1965 a major exhibition entitled The Responsive Eye was held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which included works by Frank Stella (b.1936), Ellsworth Kelly (b.1923), Alexander Liberman (1912-99), Richard Anuszkiewicz (b.1930), Bridget Riley and Vasarely. The exhibition focused on the illusion of movement and the interaction of colour. The public loved it, but critics dismissed Op Art as simply nothing more than trompe l'oeil. As a result of the exhibition, Vasarely was immediately dubbed the 'Father of Op Art'. The movement made its way into the commercial world, through advertising, print, materials, fashion and furniture design. In 1969 he produced his popular Vega series employing spherical and polychromatic grids. The surface appears to be warped, as though something is trying to recede or break out of the canvas. Other major series included his Vonal and Gestalt paintings.

Awards and Collections

Recognized as one of the most interesting 20th century painters, Vasarely received a number of important awards and commissions, including the Guggenheim prize (1964) and the French Chevalier (1970). He also worked on designs for outside spaces, creating the official spiral-shaped logo of the 20th Olympic Games, held in Munich in 1972. He died in 1997. Works by Vicor Vasarely hang in some of the world's best art museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Tate, London; the Museo de Belles Artes, Bilbao; and the Musee d'Art Moderne at the Pompidou Centre, Paris.

Legacy

His importance as an artist stems from his pioneering experimentation with the optical effects of geometric-style concrete art, which paved the way for movements such as Op-Art, Kinetic Art, and other associated styles of contemporary art such as Minimalism. Looking ahead, Vasarely's work is likely to be further developed by computer art and other forms of digital image creation.

• For more biographies of Hungarian artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about geometric abstract painting, see: Homepage.


ENCYCLOPEDIA OF VISUAL ARTISTS
© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.