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Sin Hat 33 (1972)
Acrylic on cardboard mounted on panel
25.6 x 25.6 in
Artist Victor Vasarely was a true polymath and one of the few genuine innovators in 20th century art. His artwork is both mathematical and powerful, transcending both to create a unique experience for the viewer. Many artists pushed the envelope, but few created an entirely new one. Even if you’re not familiar with Victor Vasarely artworks, you’ll likely recognize it by its style.
Born in Pécs, Hungary in 1906, Victor Vasarely moved to Pieštany, Slovakia as a small boy and spent most of his childhood there. His early life is not well documented, but we do know his family traveled a great deal across the Eastern Europe. And that as boy he wasn’t very interested in art, preferring the scientific disciplines.
At the age of 19 Vasarely began schooling for a medical degree in Budapest, where his family had recently relocated. This only lasted two years, because he decided he wanted to be an artist. He began with traditional painting techniques and theory. In 1929 he enrolled at the Sándor Bortnyik private academy. Bortnyik was an avant garde artist and the school a hotbed of artistic experimentation. He also advocated the Bauhaus movement, and his workshop (Mühely in Hungarian) had the nickname of the Hungarian Bauhaus.
It was at the Mühely that Victor Vasarely learned the principles of geometric abstraction and applied techniques. Attending lectures on leading artists of the time, Vasarely learned about Piet Mondrian, Theo Van Doesburg, Walter Gropius and the artists of De Stijl movement. He also studied the ideas of Constructivism and Concrete Art. The vast and exciting art scene in Europe unfolded right before Victor Vasarely.
In 1930, Vasarely, along with his new wife Claire Spinner, left Budapest for Paris. They lived there on and off for the next twenty years. Their first son, André, was born there in 1931, followed by Jean-Pierre in 1934. During the 30’s and 40’s, Vasarely supported his family by creating commercial artwork. He designed posters and logos for news agencies, advertisers and pharmaceutical companies. In his spare time he experimented with chromatic and geometrical patterns and principles. This was the foundation for his later works.
This was a successful period for Victor Vasarely artworks. His graphic design work paid well and gave him the time and freedom to develop his ideas and techniques. Hardly the image of an artist before “success” we like to hold, but it is difficult to see how his later groundbreaking work could have been possible without him having the means to support himself. He learned as much as possible about “non artistic” disciplines such as quantum mechanics, astrophysics, color and optical mathematics. All crucial to what came next in his career.
Vasarely became fascinated with the perception of 3-dimensional objects. He deepened his studies into the principles of perspective and light (as well as its absence). This broad range of studies all fed his fertile mind and resulted in a level of creativity that would have been impossible without this preparation.
Employing a scientific and rigorous approach to his work, Vasarely did not differentiate between scientific methods and the techniques he used in his art. He regarded them both as performing an experiment. By the late 1930’s, Victor Vasarely was experimenting with black and white contrast. He drew from nature in the form of zebras and tigers and produced what is widely considered the very first Op Art (Optical Art).
Victor Vasarely spent the War in France. Returning after the cessation of conflict to Arcueil, in Paris, he took over a studio and started to develop into the artist we are familiar with. Along with his friend, Denise René, he co-founded the Galerie Denise René, a center point for the early Op Art movement and a space in which he exhibited his art.
Leading up to 1951, Victor Vasarely made a profound realization that the illusion of space and depth could be created with 2-dimensional forms, especially geometrical ones. Even the illusion of movement was possible with flat, motionless drawings.
Ever the scientific investigator, it was during his holidays in the Belle-Isle and Gordes-Crystal areas of France that the “implacable sun” ignited in him a “contradictory perspective” that led to these discoveries and insights. He soon left figurative and graphic styles behind and dove headfirst into pure abstract art. With the Kinetic Art of Naum Gabo and others as a launching pad, Victor Vasarely produced some of the defining works of Op Art in the coming years. He launched his Yellow Manifesto (Manifeste Jaune), in which he used the founding principles and theories of Op Art.
By the 1960’s, Victor Vasarely paintings had taken Op Art to new levels. He developed the “alphabet plastique”, a series of “compositional units” that are interchangeable and infinite. These provided the basis for many of his later works. Commissions for architecture came in from the University of Caracas and the 1967 World Exposition.
Artist Victor Vasarely became a French citizen during this period and deepened his humanist ideals. He used his increased visibility to argue for peace through artistic endeavor and the union of scientific and spiritual beliefs.
As all things do, Op Art’s popularity waned. Victor Vasarely was disappointed that more artists hadn’t taken up his principles but remained the head of a legion of devoted fans. He spent much of his later years to the founding of museums and foundations. Victor Vasarely remained energetic into old age and traveled widely promoting his Alphabet Plastique ideas. He died at the age of 90 in 1997, having survived both his wife Claire and his son, Jean-Pierre.
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