Wednesday Art Idol

Victor Vasarely: the founder of op-art who hypnotised the world
Art | 12 May 2021
Text Finn Blythe

Vega III, Victor Vasarely, 1957-59

This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Wednesday Art Idol

HERO DAILIES: Essential culture, curated daily
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Victor Vasarely always knew how to make an impression. Having studied graphic art and typographical design in Budapest, the Hungarian-French artist developed a gift for images that drew people’s gaze with hypnotic intensity. Today, Vasarely is regarded as the founding figure of op-art, with a 50-year oeuvre of work that pushes at the limits of human perception. 

After leaving Budapest, Vasarely settled in Paris where he began working as a graphic artist and creative consultant at the city’s biggest advertising agencies. Here he experimented with textural effects, spatial depth, shadow and light to create works that swam and morphed in front of the viewer, never yielding to a single perspective but evoking new interpretations at every glance. Through the precise arrangement of geometric shapes and colour, Vasarely discovered he could add an extra dimension to the canvas, with works like Zebras (1937) and Chess Board (1935) offering key examples of this early style that borrowed heavily from legendary Dutch artist M.C. Escher.

Zebras, Victor Vasarely, 1937

The ending of the war allowed Vasarely to open a studio and pursue his own distinct visual style. Like the Constructivists before him, he sought to develop a universal language within art capable of overcoming national barriers and healing war-time divisions. By the mid-50s he had found it in his unités plastiques. This ‘alphabet’ consisted of small squares, each with basic colour and shape that could be endlessly interchanged. Grouped together, these compositions appeared to vibrate on the canvas and, together with the work of Soto, Calder and Man Ray, came to form the basis of kinetic art.

By the beginning of the 60s, Vasarely had taken the principles of op-art further still, creating large-scale optical illusions that echoed the psychedelia of the decade. Often using a monochrome chequerboard as his starting point (as in his famous Vega series), Vasarely would use mathematical logic to create the impression of warped surfaces that were simultaneously concave and convex, spinning and stationary, swelling and retracting. In these new works, Vasarely believed he was discovering new worlds that, “up until now, have escaped the investigation of the senses: the world of biochemistry, waves, fields and relativity.”

Unités plastiques, Victor Vasarely, 1958

Renault logo, 1972

Three years after producing the cover art for David Bowie’s Space Oddity album, French car manufacturer Renault approached Vasarely to design them a new logo. The artist undertook the project with his son, Yvaral, and delivered his signature optical distortion with clean yet simple lines that elevated the diamond logo to new heights. In classic Vasarely style, the artist created an Escher-esque infinite loop using little more than contrasting line thickness to achieve the effect. 

Though Renault officially stopped using the logo in 1992, Vasarely’s continued influence on the logo is plain for all to see. Not only did they maintain the hollowed-out diamond shape of his design, they attempted to recreate his sense of depth in the logo that followed – only to produce a limp imitation of the original with none of Vasarely’s dynamism. 

Top image: Vega III, Victor Vasarely, 1957-59

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