Planetary Folklore

Artist: Victor Vasarely
Born: 9 April 1906, Pécs, Hungary
Nationality: Hungarian-French
Movement: Op Art, Kinetic Art, Modernism, Modern Art
Died: 15 March 1997, Paris, France

Vasarely’s work provides some of the most distinctive images and optical effects of the 20th century. He steered a unique course, combining virtuosic technical precision and geometrical effects. His work speaks quintessential with the concern of what is the difference between what we can see and what is really there.

The first modern artist to realize that Kinetic At did not have to move, Vasarely created an extraordinary series of paintings and sculptures using geometrical effects to suggest motion with static forms. Varesely’s pioneering techniques of illusions of oscillation and vibration to the Escher-like tricks of apparent indentations in a picture’s surface that suddenly seem to protrude from it both influenced Op Art in the 1960s and helped define the psychedelic mood of the decade.

Zebra, 1937, acrylic on canvas. Private Collection

Vasarely wanted to create a universal visual vocabulary for modern art. In the 1960s he developed his Alphabet Plastique of endlessly interchangeable elements of composition. Small square units consisting of a simple combination of figure and ground, the colour and shape could be changed in any number of ways, to be arranged in any conceivable pattern. It exemplifies the post-Second World War concerns using art to communicate across national and cultural borders. By stripping away all topical reference and using visual effects so simple they mean the same thing to any viewer, Vasarely sought to create what he called ‘Planetary’ Folklore’.

A student of constructivism, Vasarely believed art should be functional within society, an aim he pursued by exploring the overlaps of art and architecture. Along with the design of murals and other visual features for architectural spaces, Vasarely believed visual vocabulary of interchangeable elements of composition could be used in urban planning, combining domestic architecture with elements of regularity and variety.

Shortly after Vasarely was born his family moved to Pieštany in Slovakia, where he spent his childhood years. He also travelled Easter Europe extensively. Very little is known about his early life except he seemed more interested in science than art. The family moved to Budapest and in 1925 Vasarely began at Eötvös Loránd University studying for a medical degree. Two years later he abandoned his medical studies to become a painter. In 1929 he enrolled at the academy of Sándor Bortnyik, an avant-garde artist and advocate of the Bauhaus.

Vega III, 1957-59, oil on canvas. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA

It was at this time Vasarely married his fellow student Claire Spinner. They aimed to study together but the uncertain political situation in the Weimer Republic meant the couple left Budapest in 1930 and settled in Paris. Over the following two decades Vasarely made a living as a commercial artist, creating advertising posters and logos for companies. In 1931, the Vasarely’s had their first child and a second in 1934.

Vasarely’s graphic design career was relatively successful, providing him enough income to pursue his private creative projects away from the Parisian art world; a stark contrast to the image of the impoverished, young, bohemian artist. He experimented effects of perspective, light, and shadow in three- dimensions and studied scientific principles of optics and colour, astrophysics, relativity, and quantum mechanics. In physics, he found the principles to animate his creativity. His methods throughout his career were meticulous and he perceived art as a process of ongoing, rational experiment, just like a science. Chosen for their natural abstract pattern, some of Vasarely’s pieces from 1933-38 depict tigers and zebras and are considered the first works of Op Art.

Sophia III, 1954, wall mural. University of Caracas, Venezuela

After World War Two Vasarely returned to Paris to take a studio in the district of Arcueil, on the city’s southern outskirts, a move that marked a profound shift in his artistic style. Vasarely realized that certain two-dimensional geometric forms could generate perceptions of space and depth to create the optical illusion of movement. During the early 1940s, Vasarely co-founded a gallery with the art dealer Denise René and it became an important centre for the early Op Art movement.

Vasarely had abandoned the graphic, figurative style of his early work by the 1950s, in favour of purely abstract paintings . Throughout the following decade he focused on depicting movement in static forms, extending the principles of Kinetic Art developed by Naum Gabo earlier in the century. The theoretical groundwork for Op Art was also laid down, influentially in Vasarely’s Manifeste Jaune of 1955 which expressed that pure form and colour can signify the world.

By the start of the 1960s, Vasarely developed his ‘Alphabet Plastique’ and the series of interchangeable units became the basic building blocks of much of his subsequent work. The alphabet was used to create his most influential series of work, the ‘Planetary Folklore’ series. The intent to create visual effects so simple any given viewer would be engaged in some way. Vasarely worked on various architectural projects from 1966-70, including for the French Pavilion at the 1967 World Expo in Montreal. He had taken French citizenship in 1959 and the Vasarelys moved Annet-sur-Marne in 1961, where Vasarely remained for the rest of his life.

Vega-Nor, 1969, acrylic on canvas. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, New York, USA

The 1960s was a period of both critical and popular success for Vasarely. The Op Art movement took off an he was often frustrated his own artistic systems had not been as widely taken up as head hoped. A humanist whose scientific rigour complemented his spiritual beliefs, he genuinely believed a universal artistic vocabulary would make the world a better place.

Vasarely opened the Vasarely Foundation in Gordes, France in 1970 along with a large museum devoted to his work. Over the following years his network of museums and foundations grew with a Vasarely Museum opening in Pécs in 1976, and Vasarely Foundations opening up during in the 1980s in America, Germany and Norway. Vasarely used the headquarters of the Foundation in Gordes to explore architectural concepts – based in his Alphabet Plastique and its use in urban planning – and he also created a range of educational and research programs.

Kettes, 1984, Hand-painted acrylic on wood. Park West Gallery Collection, Southfield, Michigan, USA

The popularity of Op Art decreased dramatically in the 1980s, and Vasarely devoted much of his time to his network of museums and foundations. After the death of his wife in 1990 his creative output and health declined and in the mid-1990s he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died in Paris in 1997

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