Optical Illusion Art: 5 Mind-Bending Works by Victor Vasarely

Victor Vasarely is considered the grandfather of optical illusion art. Let’s explore five of his spectacular and deceptive artworks.

May 31, 2023By Selin Oguz, BSc, Minor in Art History and Visual Culture

mind bending optical illusion art by victor vasarely


Optical illusion art, commonly referred to as op-art, is a style of visual expression that relies on illusions, distortions, and deceptions to trick the eye of the viewer. Achieved through powerful color and geometric relationships, op art’s rise in the 1960s and 1970s diverged from the prevalent artistic movements of that period and defined itself as its own category.


When thinking about op-art, artists like Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely inevitably come to mind. Let’s dive into five mind-bending artworks made by Victor Vasarely.


Optical Illusion Art and Victor Vasarely?

Victor Vasarely standing beside his artwork, via Vasarely Foundation


Born in 1906 in Pécs, Hungary, Victor Vasarely was a skilled artist who devoted his entire life to various forms of art. Although he explored many different art forms throughout his career, his main focus was on optical art. Op art was an art form he helped pioneer in the 1960s, so he became a central figure of this movement. Vasarely’s curious nature continuously led him to incorporate math and science into his artworks, with many of his inspirations coming from biology and astronomy.


Throughout his time as a successful artist, he also sought to make art accessible to the masses and worked hard to present it beyond art galleries. By combining his art with more affordable and readily accessible prints, posters, and textiles, he democratized art in a way. Vasarely moved to Paris in 1930 where his career flourished for the remainder of his life. To understand his work a little better, let’s explore five examples of his work, starting with what is considered to be the first optical art piece ever made.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


1. Zebras, 1937-1980

Zebras by Victor Vasarely, 1938, via BBC Culture


Victor Vasarely’s Zebra series features some of the most iconic pieces of his massive oeuvre. Starting out his experiments with the zebras very early on in his career, Vasarely continuously returned to and recreated this piece throughout his life, playing with and deepening his masterful understanding of graphics and the illusions that could be achieved on a two-dimensional surface. Using lines and creative play of shadows and light, Zebras laid the foundation of Vasarely’s artistic style and remained a fascination to the artist, allowing him to apply his growing skillset to the seemingly-moving animals time and again.


With illusions as to where one zebra ends and the other starts, as well as the animals’ seemingly kinetic nature, the first known version of Zebras from the 1930s is considered to be one of the first-ever op-art pieces. Needless to say, Zebras represent an iconic piece of art history. Because of this, Vasarely’s Zebras are widely sought after by art collectors.


In his late career, Vasarely created several ceramic and plexiglass sculptures featuring animals. Zebras are also one of the few black-and-white artworks created by Vasarely. Most of his pieces show multiple colors that enhance optical illusions and distortions. Following the end of his experiments with black and white pieces, Vasarely stated that although his black and white period culminated in binary optical kinetics, it also presaged the advent of color.


2. Oerveng, 1968

Oerveng by Victor Vasarely, 1968, via Vancouver Art Gallery


After focusing on his black-and-white works, Vasarely started incorporating more and more color into his works in order to achieve the illusion of movement. His artworks from the late 1950s and 1960s, such as Oerveng and Vonal, show the artist’s growing interest in creating a kinetic effect. Vasarely also showed a growing interest in color theory, which represents studying the relationships between colors and the effects they have on human perception when viewed in conjunction. As the artist took on the pursuit to create better and better optical illusions with his art, he started using warmer colors to achieve the effect of objects coming forward in the picture plane and cooler colors to achieve the effect of receding. This is seen in his work Oerveng in which Vasarely used both cool and warm colors, as well as the repetition of lines, in order to draw the eye into the very middle of the piece and successfully achieve the illusion of motion.


3. Vega Anneaux, 1969

Vega Anneaux by Victor Vasarely, 1969, via Vasarely Foundation


Science and math always had a part in Vasarely’s works of art. This is especially important for the artist’s series of works that originated during his so-called Universal Expansive Regressive Structures period in the late 1960s. The primary characteristic of the works from this period is seen in the deformation of straight lines that create the illusion of swelling and bulging, the coming forward of an object from the picture plane that remains seemingly undisturbed in the background. His 1969 painting titled Vega Anneaux is an excellent example of this type of work.


When exploring Vasarely’s paintings that incorporate similar structures to Vega Anneaux, viewers can find many pieces with title tributes to Vega, a star 25 light-years from Earth and the fifth brightest in our sky. Speaking of his artworks such as Vega-Zett, Vega 200, and Vega-Nor, Vasarely explained that the compositions expressed the extension and the expansion of the Universe. According to the Vasarely Foundation, the artist also took inspiration from the universe of the galaxies, the cosmic pulsations, and the biological mutation of the cell.


4. Okta, 1972

Okta by Victor Vasarely, via Vasarely Foundation


One of the many fascinating aspects of Vasarely’s work includes the universal language of art that he devised called the Plastic Alphabet. According to the artist, this language was intended to be adopted and used all over the world in ways that aligned with local cultures while still remaining understandable by everyone. In 1960, Vasarely collectively named works that were a result of this alphabet Planetary Folklore. The Plastic Alphabet is composed of individual plastic units, all of which combine two separate units. The shapes and colors of both of these units are by no means arbitrary and create millions of potential combinations, just like the diverse letters in different languages worldwide.


Once Vasarely laid down the foundations for his Plastic Alphabet in 1959, a whole new world opened up in his work. He incorporated his various codes and algorithms using the units to make paintings, sculptures, murals, textiles, and prints. He wanted to popularize his artistic and colorful alphabet. Through Planetary Folklore, Vasarely’s goal was simple: to democratize art and make it as accessible as possible. He also wanted to achieve what he called the polychrome city of happiness.


5. Kezdi, 1988

Kezdi by Vasarely, 1988, via Private Air Magazine


Victor Vasarely dived into sculpture during his late career, creating hundreds of pieces that showed his signature style. Successful visual illusions were made through the use of the third dimension. His 1988 piece titled Kezdi is an incredible example of this. Kezdi is a hexagon-shaped wood structure painted by hand in acrylic. During his career, Vasarely was fascinated by cellular structures and explored this through a series called Homage to the Hexagon of which Kezdi is a part.


Where Can I See Vasarely’s Optical Illusion Art?

Majus by Victor Vasarely, 1964, via Vasarely Foundation


Victor Vasarely (1906-1997) is a widely-known artist. He is considered the father of the optical art movement. Luckily, his artworks can be seen all over the world. There are also two museums dedicated to his work that were opened during his lifetime in his home country of Hungary. One is based in Pécs and the other one is situated in Budapest. A permanent collection of his works can also be seen at the spectacular Vasarely Foundation building in Aix-en-Provence in France. The foundation is run by his grandson Pierre Vasarely. Many of Vasarely’s works can also be seen in temporary exhibitions all around the world.

Author Image

By Selin OguzBSc, Minor in Art History and Visual CultureSelin is a writer and photographer based in Vancouver, Canada. When she isn’t writing all things art, she is either traveling, meditating, or reading old classics on her couch.