In the

Victor Vasarely at Städel Museum Victor Vasarely at Städel Museum



Hypnotic motifs, pulsating forms and flickering patterns: the master of optical illusion put vision to the test.

black and white – multi-coloured

figurative – abstract

static – dynamic

flat – spatial

informel – geometric

prosaic – poetic

technical – artistic

stringent – playful

Victor Vasarely’s variegated oeuvre is today more up to date than ever. Availing itself of the visual effects generated by computers of the present, it anticipated the aesthetic of computer games. Yet the vivid colours of Vasarely’s rigorously geometric patterns are elements of artistic design – as are the strong contrasts of his black-and-white painting.

Thanks to reproduction techniques and the application of his ideas in everyday life, his art ultimately gained presence throughout our visual world. And to this day, it plays its part in shaping our conscious. By 1972, Victor Vasarely had reached the height of his creative powers. He received ever more commissions to design architecture and interiors.

Victor Vasarely and Yvaral, Dining room, 1972

Spatial installation, Deutsche Bundesbank, Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Wolfgang Günzel, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Victor Vasarely, Vega Pal,1969

Acryl auf Leinwand, 200 × 200 cm, Musée Unterlinden, Colmar, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Highly expressive interior decoration, or space-consuming work of Op Art? Victor Vasarely blurred the boundaries between free and applied art. His concepts draw on medical and mathematical findings about perception. He explored them comprehensively in his art: his wall and ceiling structures seem to make the room vibrate as the viewer traverses it. A Hungarian-born Frenchman, the founder of Op Art is one of the great artists of the twentieth century. Vasarely moved between the various styles of the interbellum period and post-war modernism. His artistic roots lay in his explorations of early modern art. He took inspiration and orientation from theories of the Bauhaus, Suprematism and geometric abstraction.

His colourful images – as technical as they are psychedelic in appearance – would one day push their way into three-dimensional space by means of optical effects. In the process, they bewilder the senses and deceive perception. The artist’s structures consist of fundamental geometric forms and use the loud colours of Pop Art. His imagery stands for a society heading confidently towards a future it believes in. It contributed to shaping the iridescent face of 1960s and ’70s modernism and was as much a part of the artistic avant-garde as of popular culture.



The unity of art, life and craftsmanship – that was the basic idea of the Weimar Bauhaus. It would also become Victor Vasarely’s guiding principle.

Victor Vasarely, Études Bauhaus B, Bauhaus Studies A.B.C.D., 1929

Mixed technique on paper, 23 × 23 cm each, Michele Vasarely Foundation. ADAGP / Vasarely Estate, Foto: Michele Vasarely Foundation, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

By the time he was twenty-three, the Hungarian Victor Vasarely already had a degree in business communication to show for himself and had embarked on the study of economy and advertising. He worked as a bookkeeper and graphic artist in a medical laboratory in Budapest and attended lectures at the medical school. During a two-year training course at a private art academy he learned precision draughtsmanship. On the side, he earned a living with graphic design for advertising purposes.

In 1929, Vasarely enrolled at the Műhely (Hungarian for “workshop”, “studio”) in Budapest, where he learned about the latest tendencies in international art. Sándor Bortnyik had founded this private school for commercial design after the model of the Weimar Bauhaus. It was during a stay of several years in Weimar that Bortnyik had acquainted himself with the Bauhaus activities. He had been well-connected in the Eastern German town and kept company with the circle around De-Stijl co-founder Theo van Doesburg. At the Műhely, Bortnyik passed his insights on to his pupils.

Victor Vasarely, Études Bauhaus C, Bauhaus Studies A.B.C.D., 1929

Mixed technique on paper, 23 × 23 cm each, Michele Vasarely Foundation. ADAGP / Vasarely Estate, Photo: Michele Vasarely Foundation, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Victor Vasarely, Études Bauhaus A, Bauhaus Studies A.B.C.D., 1929

Mixed technique on paper, 23 × 23 cm each, Michele Vasarely Foundation. ADAGP / Vasarely Estate, Photo: Michele Vasarely Foundation, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Victor Vasarely, Études Bauhaus D, Bauhaus Studies A.B.C.D., 1929

Mixed technique on paper, 23 × 23 cm each, Michele Vasarely Foundation. ADAGP/ Vasarely Estate, Photo: Michele Vasarely Foundation, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn


The founding of the Bauhaus as a state art school in Weimar in 1919 provided decisive impulses for modern art. Under the direction of the architect Walter Gropius, an entirely new kind of art institute with an educational mission emerged. The idea: to merge intellectual-artistic study with training in technical methods and the crafts. The aim: to synergize art, industry and the shaping of life in society. The wide-ranging curriculum included instruction in painting, photography and typography, weaving, carpentry and architecture, bookbinding, stone sculpture and the stage.
Prominent exponents of various currents from all over Europe taught at the Bauhaus: Josef Albers, Lyonel Feininger, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, László Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Schlemmer and others. Thanks to their presence, the school became a hub of the international 1920s artistic avant-garde and brought forth a substantial number of successful artists.
The Bauhaus teachings adhered to the principle of functionalism and placed art in the service of modern industrial design. This approach reflected the influence of the De Stijl movement. To this day, the term Bauhaus stands for the abstract-constructivist design principles of modernism.

Reform, a new departure, a vision of society: the instruction at the Műhely revolved around art’s influence on everyday life. Social utopias were also of key importance for the concepts underlying the Bauhaus and De Stijl. Living environments were to be designed in such a way as to benefit their inhabitants.

Simple forms and clear colours characterized the style that developed. Study after study was undertaken to investigate their interaction and impact.

De Stijl

Inspired by the writings of Wassily Kandinsky, Theo van Doesburg devoted himself to the topic of abstraction from 1914 onward. In 1917 he was involved in founding an association called De Stijl (Dutch for “style”, “formation”). Apart from van Doesburg, the most important members included Piet Mondrian and Bart van der Leck as well as the architect Jacobus Johannes Pieter Oud. They strove to invent a universal pictorial language by concentrating on elementary forms. At the same time, they sought to avoid symmetry, but nevertheless to achieve an overall balance in the distribution of colour and form.
One of their main goals was the design of the entire living environment. To that end, they applied elements of painting in interior decoration, architecture and design. They envisaged bringing harmony to society with the aid of geometric simplicity. In its formal language and its claim to modernity, the De Stijl movement bore a strong affinity to the Bauhaus.

Victor Vasarely internalized the ideas of the Bauhaus and his urge for change grew. In response to the political situation in his native Hungary, he emigrated to Paris in 1930. There he worked as a graphic designer in advertising and was extremely successful.


Experiment on paper

Commercial designer by day, artist by night. Vasarely dealt with various aesthetic issues on the job, and also pursued them in painting.

His day-to-day work involved finding optical effects that would have an impact on the viewer. He learned how perception reacts to patterns and structures that deform and change, and what effect strong light-dark contrasts have on the beholder. Fascinated by form and colour, line and surface, he explored their interrelationships in his paintings as well.

“During this period, I subjected all the problems of plasticity that occurred to me – composition, colour, light and shade, matter, two and three-dimensionality – to close investigation.”

Jean-Louis Ferrier, Gespräche mit Victor Vasarely Spiegelschrift 8, Köln 1971, p. 23.

Striking patterns and strong contrasts sparked Vasarely’s interest. Zebra skin was accordingly a recurring theme in his work over the years. It was the perfect field for his artistic experiments.


Victor Vasarely, Le Prisonnier, The Prisoner, 1945

Oil on canvas, 130 × 97 cm, Private collection © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

A prisoner is pictured sitting behind the bars of his cell. Like his contemporaries, the Cubists, Futurists and Surrealists, Vasarely experimented with figural depiction. Yet the painting’s structures and patterns are far more conspicuous than the actual pictorial motif. The texture created by the dark bars and the shadows they cast on the white body takes on a life of its own.

A self-portrait of the artist, shattered to pieces. Here we find several Vasarelys gazing at us, as if through the shards of a broken mirror. Deconstruction and movement were aspects the Futurists devoted themselves to. From his exploration of the styles prevalent in early modern art, Vasarely developed his own optical vocabulary.

Victor Vasarely, Autoportrait, Self-portrait, 1944

Oil on canvas, 116 × 89 cm, Gallery Philippe David, Zurich © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The labyrinth of modern art

Victor Vasarely moved in a realm between the avant-gardes. The term “avant-garde” (literally “advance guard”) originally referred to the troops of an army that engaged with the enemy first in battle. It came into use again in the early twentieth century to describe groups that identified with the idea of progress. By the standards of the time, these progressives used very radical means to defend their political and aesthetic positions.
Various artistic currents emerged in quick succession all over Europe. Among the most well-known and earliest were Expressionism in Germany, Cubism in France and Futurism in Italy. And one of the most influential was the Russian avant-garde led by Kazimir Malevich. Yet Constructivism, the Dada movement and Surrealism are also considered avant-gardes. The artists aspired to break with tradition and old values. Their concern was with the relationship between art and life, but also between art and politics. In an age characterized by scientific and technical progress, art was to provide solutions for general issues of humanity on the threshold from capitalism to socialism.

Unknown Photographer (Kata Kálmán?), Bortnyik’ Students at Műhely , around 1930

Gelatine silver, photo paper. Courtesy of László Borbély, Budapest

The moving eye

It’s easy to depict movement in a video. But how can an artist represent it in a static painting?

To find ways of depicting vibrations, rotations and oscillations on canvas – that was the most important challenge Victor Vasarely faced. Already as a commercial designer he began constructing them with the aid of lines, surfaces and volumes.

The eye glides rhythmically from one wave to the next. The rings curve themselves around the centre at regular intervals. Likewise in a regular pattern, they grow now wider, now narrower. An impression of movement is created. This phenomenon is undoubtedly what appealed to Vasarely most about the depiction. He nevertheless gave it a kind of narrative content by adding drops of water and a whale.

Victor Vasarely, Étude de mouvement (Anneaux baleine), Study of Movement (Whale-shaped Rings), 1939

Ink, gouache on paper on wood, 63 × 58 cm, Private collection © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Real observa­tion

abstract effect

Vasarely’s experiences and observations of his surroundings turned his conceptions of art topsy-turvy. He abandoned representational painting.

Abstract painting works with the simplification or re-forming of real objects. Vasarely took this process a step further, conceptually speaking: ever more frequently, perception and the visual process themselves were the themes of his painting.




Special experiences provided the impulse for these three work series, which simultaneously paved Vasarely’s road to abstraction – though in very different ways. Elements from his art of these years would reappear again and again in his later works.

Stones and ellipses

What happens in the visual process when forms are incomplete or overlap one another? Vasarely began investigating such matters in the coastal town of Belle Isle.

“I observed the forms Belle Isle offered me, all of which could be traced back to ellipses and ovals. And in the process, I discovered very intimate relationships between things that were obviously very different. In the morning, the clouds took on the form of pebbles, and just a few metres from the beach, where the sea was already deep, the breakers hitting the rocks looked like huge shells. Even the setting sun was misshapen and became elliptical.”

Jean-Louis Ferrier, Gespräche mit Victor Vasarely. Spiegelschrift 8, Köln 1971, p. 15-16.

Shells and waves, sun and rocky coast: In the summer of 1947, Victor Vasarely spent several weeks in the town of Belle-Île-en-Mer on the coast of Brittany. Sketch-pad in hand, he made drawings of what he saw on his wanderings and collected pebbles, shells and shards. Over time, the force of the waves had rounded their forms.

This natural geometry fascinated the artist. He encountered it both in every grain of sand and in the expanses of the universe. Yet how could he record the pure forms without distorting them? Vasarely embedded the objects, exactly as he had found them, in liquid plaster.

Victor Vasarely, Belle-Isle, 1947

Glass and stones on plaster, 53 × 45 cm, Michele Vasarely Foundation. ADAGP / Vasarely Estate, Photo: Michele Vasarely Foundation, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Victor Vasarely, Goulphar, 1947

Oil on canvas, 81 × 130 cm, Private collection. Photo: Vincent Everarts Photography Brussels, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Found objects as art

An objet trouvé is an object the artist finds and, leaving it virtually unchanged, defines as art. Vasarely was undoubtedly familiar with the practice from works of Dada and Surrealism that united objects in collage-like manner, thus endowing them with new meaning.

Vasarely ultimately applied his experiment with natural objects to painting. In the process, his focus shifted more and more to the arrangement of the individual forms and the play of colours. Over the course of several years, he repeatedly studied the effects of various combinations. In some cases the forms overlap or are incomplete. This poses a challenge to visual perception: as we look, a subconscious process undertakes to introduce order to the shapes.

Cracks and lines

Do figures lie in the foreground even though they have been painted two-dimensionally? Yet Vasarely’s experiment with perception had its starting point in a pattern that had evolved naturally.

An everyday occurrence in the 1930s proved to be a decisive event. The artist and his family lived in a suburb of Paris. On his daily commute to his office in the city centre, he had to change trains at the Denfert-Rochereau Metro station: 

As I was waiting for my connecting train, I walked back and forth on the nearly deserted platform and I suddenly noticed the white tiles covering the walls and discovered very bizarre fine cracks in them. Many of these cracks were vertical and looked to me like the ruins of great vanished cities [...]. But the horizontal lines made me think of hallucinatory landscapes [...].

Jean-Louis Ferrier, Gespräche mit Victor Vasarely. Spiegelschrift 8, Köln 1971, p. 41.

Victor Vasarely, Latorca, 1953

Oil on wood, 49 × 44 cm, Lahumière Collection, Galerie Lahumière, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Craquelé on a tile

© Shutterstock

Vasarely’s titles

“Kandahar, Darjeeling, Orom, Latorca” – titles like these evoke visions of cities, landscapes and rivers. An association with the title seems to suggest itself now in the colour, now in the forms of the lines and contours. Or perhaps the title is a Hungarian word, or even an imaginary one. Vasarely leaves it to the viewer to decide whether the title is related to the work, and if so, how.

About one decade later, the memories of the tiles in the Metro station provided a new impulse for Vasarely’s art. He translated the cracked lines into abstract drawings. The drawings led in turn to large paintings with different-coloured zones.

The zones seem to be staggered one behind the other, as if there were a foreground and a background. The darker hue evidently forms the background. Or does it penetrate the pictorial field from above as a form in its own right? Vasarely led the gaze astray. He played with the laws of vision and perception as formulated in gestalt theory.

Victor Vasarely, Darjiling, 1952

Oil on canvas, 108 × 100 cm, mumok - Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien. Acquired in 1961 © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Gestalt theory

When objects are located next to each other, they are perceived as belonging together. If two things resemble one another, for example in hue, they spark the impression of being a single entity. If the eye perceives a form and a plane, the form always appears to be in the foreground.
Gestalt theory explains phenomena of sight that don’t actually happen in the physical world. The conscious mind integrates feelings, modes of behaviour and memories into the process of seeing and creates relationships between them. Scientists began investigating the functional principles of human perception in the late nineteenth century. Particularly the laws of visual perception are of paramount importance for commercial artists. Vasarely studied them in great depth and made use of the scientific insights in his art.

Houses and forms

Do the forms lie on the two-dimensional surface or hover in three-dimensional space? The flickering sunlight in the mountain town of Gordes caused Victor Vasarely to doubt his own sense of sight.

Summer of 1948: Victor Vasarely moves into his temporary quarters in Gordes. The medieval houses and towers cover the slopes one next to and one above the other. In the glistening light, the artist witnesses an extraordinary effect. The cubic forms of the buildings and roofs appear as nothing more than bright and dark surfaces. They lose their three-dimensionality.

For Vasarely the houses were a means to an end. He translated his own visual experience into shapes and colours. They seem to be suspended in space and take on now two-dimensional, now three-dimensional form. Here they lie one in front of the other; there they appear side by side.

“On this surface, a spatial phenomenon emerges and vanishes again: the surface is in constant motion. [...] The tragedy and triumph of the painter has always been to realize the impossible, to give more with less, to give more on this one surface than just this one surface.”

Vasarely, Einführende Worte von Marcel Joray Entwurf und Layout von Victor Vasarely, Éditions du Griffon Neuchatel, 1965, Vol. 1, p. 32.

Three-dimensional perception

The eye is subjected to a constant flood of visual stimuli. In order to process and interpret them, the subconscious brain compares the images with memories and experiences. That’s what distinguishes personal perception from the actual physiological image.
Large objects in the foreground, small objects in the back and lines converging at a vanishing point. As soon as the eye receives signals like these, it perceives even a two-dimensional image as spatial. That is why artists usually use so-called central perspective for their naturalistic depictions – not least of all in pictorial representations of cities. They work with lines that converge as they recede into the depths of space, just as they seem to do in the perception of reality.
Vasarely, for his part, made frequent use of axonometric projection – a geometrical method of constructing three-dimensional forms. The parallel side lines are drawn tipped over to one side at equal angles. This has a bewildering effect on visual perception: does the picture really depict a three-dimensional object? 

Victor Vasarely, Nives II (Detail), 1949-1958

Oil on canvas, 194.9 × 114.3 cm, Tate: Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1961, Tate, London 2018, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn



Form and contrast – Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” is the icon of early modern abstract art. It pointed Victor Vasarely in a new direction.

The Russian artist Kazimir Malevich broke with the painting tradition as far back as 1915. He painted a black square on a white ground. For the first time, the absolute absence of any object had become a theme of art.

Some forty years later, Vasarely picked up on the principle of the black square and developed it further in a painting. Each side of “Hommage à Malevich” features a black square and an elongated rhombus. We notice the irregularities only on closer inspection: the forms do not fit into each other exactly.

Victor Vasarely, Hommage à Malevich, Tribute to Malevich, 1952–1958

Acrylic on canvas, 130 × 195 cm, Private collection, Belgium © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The black square and its consequences for art

It was the radical end of representational art. The black square had been divested of both colour and content. It no longer depicted anything, but represented nothing but itself. By emancipating art from the burden of content, Malevich forced the viewer to subject himself to the pure sensation of what he saw. He referred to this revolutionary approach as Suprematism. He was concerned with the search for a work’s irreducible core. In Suprematist paintings, monochrome basic geometric forms are suspended on the white canvas. The black square here represented the “zero form”. By fragmenting and rotating this basic element, Suprematist artists arrived at a variegated repertoire of geometric forms.

Vasarely now made visual experience the chief focus of his works. This pursuit required no colour: strong contrasts suffice to create an optical illusion. For several years, he accordingly limited his palette solely to black, grey and white. He also used the square again and again as a functional element in play with visual perception.

Victor Vasarely, Tlinko II, 1956

Oil on canvas, 195.1 × 130.1 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel. Gift from Carl Laszlo, Basel, 1964, Kunstmuseum Basel, Photo: Martin P. Bühler, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Victor Vasarely, Fugue, 1958–1960

Oil on canvas, 100 × 79 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Städel Museum – Artothek, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Tipped, rotated around their own axes, stretched into rhombi: the squares in "Tlinko II" break out of the rigid grid pattern. A subconscious endeavour to sort the system’s individual elements begins. The inconsistencies take our gaze on a dynamic tour of the picture surface.

The viewer will wait in vain for the black lines in “Fugue” to lock into a neat row of congruent verticals. The rhythmically placed lines of varying width flicker before the white background. At the same time, the eye completes the contours suggested by the interrupted lines. An image of nested squares appears.

Motion begins!

As the viewer moves, the motifs change! With optical illusions, Vasarely pronounced human visual perception his field of artistic experimentation.

Flickering lines everywhere! Does the eye follow the horizontal lines or remain fixed on the figure? Taking collages of differently lined photo paper as his point of departure, Vasarely embarked on investigations based on the positive-negative principle of photography.

Victor Vasarely, Naissance-N, 1951

Collage, ink on paper and photograph, 63 × 48 cm, Janus Pannonius Museum, Pécs, Janus Pannonius Museum, Pécs, Foto: István Füzi, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Victor Vasarely, Meandres, 1959

Oil on canvas, 100 × 193 cm, Collection RE Wiesbaden © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

He placed a positive and a negative film of a photographed drawing one on top of the other. Initially the surface appeared uniformly black. A slight shift of the overlying film caused the lines to take on a vibrating shape. He then transferred these structures to canvas, as in the case of “Meandres”.
Lines in motion. Vasarely copied his black line drawings onto transparent sheets of Plexiglas and set them up one behind the other with a space in between. As the viewer moves past these so-called kinetic depth paintings, the structures change.

“In my kinetic depth paintings, the moving viewer plays the most important role. When he views them from a fixed standpoint, he sees only two forms overlapping one another, owing to the transparency of the surfaces. But as soon as he starts moving, as soon as he steps forward or back or passes by the picture from one side to the other, it keeps changing; the emotional shocks follow one after the other unceasingly, and the work comes to life and becomes visually diversified.”

Jean-Louis Ferrier, Gespräche mit Victor Vasarely. Spiegelschrift 8, Köln 1971, p. 76.

Le Mouvement at the Galerie Denise René

In April 1955, Vasarely made his breakthrough when he participated in the group exhibition “Le Mouvement” (French for “movement”) in Paris. This show was the first to assemble works that shared a concern with movement. They mirrored the mechanization of the twentieth century and embodied clocked rhythm. Among the other artists involved were Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Man Ray, Jesús Rafael Soto, Pol Bury, Jean Tinguely, Yaacov Agam and Robert Jacobsen. Vasarely was the only participant to exhibit two-dimensional artworks. In those works, movement came about solely by means of optical phenomena.

Real movement or optical illusion? Alexander Calder made mobiles that change when they are exposed to a draught of air. Jean Tinguely created sculptures activated by mechanisms. Vasarely, for his part, worked with movements perceivable only with the eye and brought about solely by various visual stimuli. He published his ideas about kinetic art (from the Greek kinesis: “movement”) in 1955 in his Yellow Manifesto.

Exhibition The Movement, galerie denise rené, 1955 Paris, France

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The­ birth of

Op Art

Like the starry sky of night-time, Vasarely’s art also began to flicker before the eye of the beholder. It was the birth of Op Art.

In a workshop book, Vasarely collected small sketches of all his works. Again and again, a look through the book provided the impulse for a suspenseful new development in his art. For example, he introduced visual three-dimensionality to the two-dimensional black-and-white chequerboard pattern he had recorded in 1935. To this end, he enlarged some of the squares and diminished others.

Victor Vasarely, Vega, 1956

Oil on canvas, 130 × 195 cm, Private collection, Centre Pompidou / Philippe Migeat, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn


Op Art targets the viewer’s perception. It carries the game with light, air, movement, space and time to extremes. Its practitioners frequently work with familiar patterns and structures that create visual effects.
Other artists responded to the precision of Op Art with free abstract painting and the great mystical and emotional gestures of Informel painting. Influenced by the experiments of the Futurists, Constructivists and Dadaists and inspired by the exhibition “Le Mouvement”, Op Art centres sprouted up all over Europe. In 1965, “The Responsive Eye” – a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – introduced Op Art to the American public.

If the forms of regular structures are changed, they take on the appearance of spatial volume. It is no longer possible to perceive them as flat. Vasarely took this idea to the absolute limit of visual comfort.

Victor Vasarely, Vega 200, 1968

Acryl auf Leinwand, 200 × 200 cm, Michele Vasarely Foundation, ADAGP / Vasarely Estate, Photo: Michele Vasarely Foundation, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Victor Vasarely, Vega Pal, 1969

Acrylic on canvas, 200 × 200 cm, Michele Vasarely Foundation, ADGAP / Vasarely Estate, Photo: Michele Vasarely Foundation, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

In his Vega series of the early 1960s, Vasarely returned to colour, thus heralding the beginning of Op Art. He again played with various sizes, degrees of brightness and colour values to heighten the effect of spatiality.In his Vega series of the early 1960s, Vasarely returned to colour, thus heralding the beginning of Op Art. He again played with various sizes, degrees of brightness and colour values to heighten the effect of spatiality.

Cosmological interest

Satellites had been orbiting the Earth since the 1950s and the first astronaut followed suit in 1961. Like his contemporaries, Vasarely was fascinated by the newly explored realms of the vast cosmos. He called one of the paintings in the “Vega” series “CTA 102”. The title makes reference to a quasar – an extremely bright galactic nucleus.

Victor Vasarely, CTA 102, 1965

Oil on canvas, 170 × 170 cm, Collection Renault, Paris, Collection Renault, Photo: Georges Poncet, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Pulsation, vibration: the images Vasarely recorded on canvas with a brush in the 1960s are strongly reminiscent of the computer-generated aesthetic of the present. Commercial artists and game designers still use visual effects of this kind today. Moving structures and patterns are often created through digital animation.

Vasarely thought about the possibility of programming his works on the computer, but deliberately decided in favour of painting. He made computer art without using a computer.


for all!

Vasarely thought every member of society should profit from an artistically designed environment. He therefore worked on a system that anyone would be able to apply.

Vasarely developed the ideas of Bauhaus and De Stijl further. He created a simple system that, because it is universally applicable and comprehensible, enables the comprehensive propagation of his aesthetic to all areas of life.

“We can’t leave the enjoyment of art to a privileged elite of connoisseurs for all eternity.”

Notes pour un manifeste, in: Vasarely, Einführende Worte von Marcel Joray, Entwurf und Layout von Victor Vasarely, Éditions du Griffon Neuchatel, 1965, Vol. 1, p. 64/65.

It would prove to be Vasarely’s most important artistic invention: his “Plastic Alphabet” was to be a means of responding to society’s needs. Once again, the square serves as the basic element. In each case it is combined with another basic geometric form: a circle, ellipse, rectangle, rhombus or triangle. With the aid of six predetermined basic colours, the elements are then combined in various richly contrasting nuances. He called this basic module the “plastic unit”.

Like the letters of the alphabet, the “plastic units” open up virtually infinite combinatory possibilities for the creation of artworks. Vasarely patented his idea in 1959.

Victor Vasarely, Alphabet V.B. / Alphabet L.R., 1960

Acrylic on canvas, Each 160 × 150 cm, Private collection, Belgium. Foto: Vasarely Estate, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Victor Vasarely, Alphabet V.B. / Alphabet L.R., 1960

Acrylic on canvas, Each 160 × 150 cm, Private collection, Belgium. Foto: Vasarely Estate, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Vasarely’s keen interest in science played a decisive role in his artistic work. Scientists and researchers frequented his studio. Inspired by their ideas, he often compared his "Plastic Alphabet" to an atom: elementary particles are the key building blocks of atoms; in like manner, the Plastic Alphabet was the construction kit for Vasarely’s art.

“Make your own Vasarely!”

The instructions for Vasarely’s “Plastic Alphabet” are like a musical score specifying the individual notes to be played in a piece of music.

The artist meanwhile employed several assistants in his studio. Among other things, they executed the numerous “Plastic Alphabet” paintings Vasarely had designed with the aid of a numerical system. As the artist no longer had to execute the works himself, they could be efficiently reproduced – it was the inception of the so-called “multiple”.

At the same time, Concept Art was on the rise in Europe and America. This current distinguished clearly between the idea of a work and its execution. Now the artist supplied the instructions, but often did not concretely specify the work’s actual realization. It could be carried out by a random person. Vasarely made use of this approach in his “Plastic Alphabet”: in 1969 he put a saleable building set on the market, accompanied by the motto: “Make your own Vasarely!”

The artist and his employees

From the Middle Ages onward, the most well-known painters ran flourishing workshops in order to meet the great demand. Assistants executed the paintings from sketches by the master. He would often make corrections only in the final stage or attend to the especially important commissions.
Victor Vasarely’s optimized studio operation thus continued a long tradition. He even used industrial production to make art prints. With the aid of simplified production methods, the greatest possible number of his works were to circulate.

Victor Vasarely, Lacoste-W, 1969

Plastic on wood, 153 × 153 cm, Musée d’Art Contemporain, Marseille bpk / RMN – Grand Palais, Photo: Benjamin Soligny / Raphaël Chipault, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

This is not a painting! The individual elements consist of plastic. “Lacoste-W” was a further development on the basis of the “Plastic Alphabet”. It demonstrates one of the many possible variations offered by the simple system. It was in 1963 that Vasarely first presented the “Plastic Alphabet” to the public under the title “Folklore Planetaire”.

At the Parisian Musée des Arts Décoratifs (museum of decorative arts), the multifarious possibilities offered by the system soon became clear to the visitor: in addition to paintings and prints, Vasarely had also designed wallpaper, fabric, furniture and more.

Renault Olympia Schach Carpet
Logo 1972 Vasarely

Renault Communication/All rights reserved

In 1972, the automobile manufacturer Renault commissioned Vasarely and his son Yvaral to revise its logo. The artist designed a simple diamond shape consisting of dynamic lines. It still represents the brand today.

Victor Vasarely, Munich Olympic Games Poster, 1972

Silkscreen print on vellum, 867 x 640 mm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt, Städel Museum – Artothek, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The poster for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games was developed with the help of the “Plastic Alphabet”. However, it turns the squares into three-dimensional bodies that seem to float towards the viewer.

Victor Vasarely, SAKK / Chess, 1979

screenprint on plexiglass, 715 x 715mm, 125 mm, Janus Pannonius Múzeum, Pécs © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

In 1979, Vasarely created a chess set with illusionistic effects. The chess pieces are made of acrylic glass, one set matte and one polished.

Victor Vasarely, Ködd, c. 1970

wall tapestry, wool, 201 x 199 cm, Collection particulière en dépôt à la Fondation Vasarely Photo: Gabrielle Voinot, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Art for the home: Vasarely designed wallpaper, textiles and carpets. The houses’ walls and floors seem to move with every step.

Life in the „Polychrome City“

“The multifarious plastic unit is a growing multiple. Prefabricated in large series, it will become the basis for huge architectural constructions that will ultimately give us the polychrome city.” Vasarely became more and more involved in architectural design. He envisaged countering dismal grey urban residential districts with the “Polychrome City”. The latter was to have a positive effect on how people felt and respond to their needs.
In the Fondation Vasarely, built to completion in 1976, the artist was able to realize all of his ideas and unite art and life. The building consists of sixteen structural units with hexagonal ground plans. It provides workspaces for artists, architects and city planners while also offering ideal surfaces for the presentation of Vasarely’s art.

Exterior view of the Fondation Vasarely, Aix-en-Provence, opened in 1976

Fondation Vasarely, Aix-en-Provence, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Victor Vasarely and Yvaral, Dining room, 1972

Spatial installation, Deutsche Bundesbank, Frankfurt am Main. Photo: Wolfgang Günzel, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

In 1972, Victor Vasarely was at the height of his success. His art was on display everywhere and he worked for major companies. In the dining room of the Deutsche Bundesbank in Frankfurt, he and his son Yvaral realized a synthesis of the arts. The colour concept, based on yellow, gold, grey and silver, permeated the entire space. Round silver discs unite to form a kinetic wall that begins to vibrate before the eye of the beholder as he walks through the room. Reflections, the incidence of the light and the interplay between the various materials all contribute to the overall effect.

“The outrageously unjust oblivion into which he plunged is proof of the fact that it is nearly impossible to keep the esteem of elitist experts once you become popular.”

Francois Morellet interviewed by Catherine Francblin in: „Art cinétique: la sortie du purgatoire”, in: Art Press 314, July-August 2005, p. 28.

Victor Vasarely’s artistic oeuvre spans more than six decades. Born in 1906, he experienced, shaped and processed widely differing styles and influences of interbellum and post-war modernism. Today he merits rediscovery as one of the key artist figures of the twentieth century, whose pictorial language is still in use in many areas today.
Thanks to the rapid spread of his multiples, Vasarely was omnipresent. Yet his popularity also made them available to the point of tedium. The more successful the artist, the more commonplace his art – which, tragically, led to the loss of its uniqueness. By the time he died in 1997, both his own popularity and that of Op Art had become obsolete. The comprehensive retrospective at the Städel Museum foregrounds Vasarely’s painting oeuvre. In the process, we encounter not only a completely different and more complex artist, but also gain a new perspective on twentieth-century modernism.


2D becomes 3D, paintings become sculptures, squares become cubes.

Vasarely’s paintings play with the perception of three-dimensionality. The experience of Op Art expands into space. His sculptures can be viewed from many perspectives. As the viewer walks around them, they make a new impression on him at every step. Now’s your chance to discover the optical effects and plays of light in the exhibition – and allow yourself to be led astray!

Victor Vasarely, Kroa-MC, 1969

Screenprint on aluminium, 50 × 50 × 50 cm, Vasarely Múzeum, Budapest, Szépmüvészeti Museum – Museum of Fine Arts Budapest, 2018, © 2018 VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

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