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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Victor Vasarely

Victor Vasarely (1906-1997)--art that's not easy on the eyes.
The seeds of an art movement are often planted decades before they sprout and bloom in all their artistic glory. A couple days ago I mentioned this fact with regard to the work of Frank Stella's hard-edged Minimalism and his forerunner, Kasimir Malevich. The Hungarian-born op-artist, Victor Vasarely, was another such forerunner. His Zebras (below) he painted in 1938. The difference, in Vasarely's case, is that he lived and worked long enough (he died in 1997 at the age of 90) to see his Op Art seeds sprout and take on life, then to harvest the rewards of a movement he largely started and fostered on his own (though M.C. Escher might be considered a forerunner in this genre, see 01-04-11). The only other artist to challenge Vasarely in this field of retinal fatigue was Bridget Riley (05-18-12) who was but a child of seven when Vasarely discovered zebras.

Zebras, 1938, Victor Vasarely
Blue Study, 1929,
Victor Vasarely

To the uninitiated, it would not be difficult to confuse the works of Riley and Vasarely. As for giving you a "quick and easy" rule of thumb in differentiating between them; Riley's work tends to deal more with lines while Vasarely's deals with optical masses, particularly the square and cube. As with all such guidelines, there are exceptions in both artists' work. Riley sometimes used squares and Vasarely, perhaps unavoidably, sometimes used lines to make our eyes hurt. Worse, it seems almost as if they were imitating one another at times. Beyond that, Vasarely's work tends to be more suffused with color than does Riley's optical illusions.

OB-NEG, 1955,
Victor Vasarely
Vasarely arrived at his "trick the eye" work the hard way--he all but invented the genre. Riley, of course, knew of Vasarely's work and embraced the dynamics and technical discipline, making it her own. Vasarely studied first to be a doctor (parents often do that to young, would-be artist). Then, when he was about 20, Vasarely switched to academic art instruction at a private Budapest school aligned with German Bauhaus philosophies. His Blue Study (above, left) from 1929 is indicative of how far Vasarely traveled from his student days to his mature work.

Gestalt V, 1970, Victor Vasarely
In 1930, Vasarely left the artistic backwater of Hungary for Paris. Even in Paris, life for an unknown artist was no bowl of cherries jubilee. He eked out a living from cheap hotels working as a graphics art "consultant" while bouncing around the Paris environs struggling with various schemes in hoping to become successful. His Zebras came from this period. The war came and went further adding to his travails. After the war, Vasarely experimented with Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Symbolism, even Surrealism, dabbling in virtually any "ism" coming along and finding little success or fulfillment in any of them. Then, around 1950, harkening back to his Zebras of a decade earlier, he decided he'd been onto something before, but simply hadn't recognized it. From that point on, Vasarely focused his inclination toward experimentation on further studies of painted optical illusions and distortions. In so doing, he discovered what most successful artists have learned the same hard way down through the 20th century--you invent your own football then run with it.
The Foundation Vasarely Museum, (1972) designed and funded by
the artist in Aix-en-Provence, France.

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