Let’s talk about Vasarely. Does his name bring psychedelic forms and colors shifting in front of your eyes? Or if you are French, do you think of the Renault logo? Yes, Vasarely designed it with his son in 1972! Are you ready to experience powerful optical illusions from an OpArt genius?
If you are in Paris, you are in luck as a big retrospective opened this week at Centre Pompidou. If you are based elsewhere, let me take you on a visual and colorful tour, sharing my visit of the Fondation Vasarely from last October.
Born in 1908 in Hungary, at the age of 20 Victor Vasarely became a student of Graphic Arts under Alexander Bortnyik who had set up a school in the spirit of the Bauhaus. Mondrian and his Neoplasticism, Malevich and his Constructivist approach but also Ostwald’s Color Theory were studied and practiced upon by young Vasarely.
These theories and artistic movements all informed Vasarely’s approach to Applied Art. Yet in 1930, he decided to move to Paris to put his graphic talent at the service of Advertising rather than Art. This is telling you already that Vasarely looked beyond what he perceived as the narrow world of art as a religion, looking instead to conquer the secular world of the masses. (And yes, he quickly got his card from the Communist Party 🙂
With advertising, Vasarely looked for “the perceptional shock”. Playing on optical effects of color juxtaposition and small variations of essential geometric forms, Vasarely’s graphics grab the viewer’s attention instantly. Look at the top white band of the image below: what can you see?
This is evident in many works exhibited at the Fondation Vasarely, where my children and I spent quite some time discussing the optical and kinetic effects we could observe. We differed on which part of a cube appeared to come forward, which part receded, but we were mesmerized all the same by such dynamic visions and illusions.
And this nods to Vasarely’ s ideal, for his art truly has universal appeal. It equally delights children wide-eyed by optical illusions and art-minded adults more versed in abstract art. All this because Vasarely’ s art, in Kirk Varnedoe’ s words, is “purely optical (…), an utterly democratic kind of vision (…) it requires no elite training”.
Vasarely pushed such a “social agenda” even further by making his art in large series, making art available to a vast public: mass media for a mass market. As early as 1953, he declared:
“I dream of a social art. (…) inside the city of the future, the “poetic function” will develop into forms industrially multipliable and thus diffusible on a generous scale”.
This in 1953. That is before Warhol produced his first Dollar Bills screen prints in 1961; the Soup Cans and Marilyns came later.
Yet such visibility is one of the problems Vasarely had to contend with when it came to viewing his “objects” as “art”, and vice versa.
The Vasarely “wave” became a tangible and commercial phenomenon, overexposure threatening to overpower Vasarely’s original intent of depicting MOVEMENT.
In all his works, he sought and achieved a “vibration”, also referred as “a plastic event”. It showed in the rippling forms he drew, in the color contrasts letting an inner (almost spiritual) light coming through.
You may wince at the mention of the spiritual when Vasarely’s idealized geometric abstraction seems anything but. Yet Vasarely lived through times where scientific discoveries and space travels meant that cosmic, spiritual beliefs and art were intertwined in many ways – Kandinsky may be known for his legacy on Abstraction but his most important text was titled Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910). Vasarely made such a universal and cosmic connection when 154 of his specially created serigraphs were taken into space by cosmonaut Jean-Loup Chrétien, on board the French-Soviet spacecraft Salyut 7.
To experience such a spiritual connection with pure forms and colors, look no further than his monumental works and tapestries at the Fondation in Aix-en-Provence.
I will let images speak for themselves.
Vasarely, le Partage des Formes is on at Centre Pompidou until May 6, 2019.
© 2019 Ingrid Westlake
All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.