The Father of Optical Art: Who Was Victor Vasarely?

Regarded as the father of optical art, Victor Vasarely created hundreds of works that trick the eye of the viewer.

May 28, 2023By Selin Oguz, BSc, Minor in Art History and Visual Culture
who was victor vasarely optical art


Seemingly moving figures, bulging spheres, and vibrating colors are just a few things that characterize Victor Vasarely’s fascinating body of work. Born in 1906 as Győző Vásárhelyi, Vasarely became known as the father of optical art. Op-art was meant to create illusions of movement and distortions to the human eye, evoking a wide range of emotions, from discomfort and confusion to fascination and joy. Let’s explore Vasarely’s career, the illusionary master of optical art.


Victor Vasarely’s Beginnings

victor vasarely portrait upside down
Portrait of Victor Vasarely by Warner Hannappel, via Vasarely Foundation


Despite carrying out most of his artistic career as a Parisian, Vasarely was born in Pécs, Hungary in 1906. Similar to many famous artists from his generation, he started out his early education not in the arts but in something entirely different. He attended the School of Medicine at the University of Budapest for two years (1925-27) before enrolling in a local art school, the Poldini-Volkman Academy of Painting.


Much of Vasarely’s early artistic influences, however, came during his time at Budapest’s Mühely academy from 1929 to 1930, right before he left Hungary for Paris. With a curriculum founded on Germany’s Bauhaus principles, the artist incubated his style for graphic design, which included the functionality and design principles the school was known for. In the years that followed, the artistic influences of Bauhaus leaders such as Walter Gropius and Josef Albers would continue to be evident in Vasarely’s work.


victor vasarely zebra painting op art
Victor Vasarely’s Zebra painting, 1938, via BBC Culture



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Following a formal education in the arts, Vasarely moved to Paris in 1930, at the age of 24. During the decade, he would work as a designer for various advertising agencies in the city while continuing to develop his optical style of art. His experimentations on a series titled Zebra (1937) created during this time would later become known as the first pieces of optical art ever made.


Optical Experiments

victor vasarely ot geometric painting 1945
O.T. by Victor Vasarely, 1945, via MutualArt


Vasarely’s artistic experiments in the 1930s and 1940s laid the foundations of his signature illusionary style that would become widely known in the decades that followed. Though he would experiment with surrealism and cubism for a brief period of time, he eventually returned to what we know as optical art.


Keep in mind that Vasarely’s divergence from the dominant art movements of that period occurred at a time when op-art wasn’t even called op-art. While building on his Bauhaus roots, Vasarely studied math, color theory, and geometry to create paintings with abstractions and distortions that had rarely been seen before. This style was truly unique.


A breakthrough was evident in Vasarely’s work with his realization that warm colors advance and cool colors recede when viewed in conjunction. One of the first applications of this is seen in his 1945 painting titled O.T. Needless to say, this painting would only mark the very beginning of his checkerboard style. He would continue using the techniques used in this painting during the 1950s and the 1960s. By the year 1950, Varasely’s optical experiments with color and geometry would lead to the official founding of his optical and illusionary style of art, to which he would fully devote himself for the remainder of his artistic career.


hommage a malevich victor vasarely
Hommage à Malevich (Homage to Malevich), Victor Vasarely, 1953, via Museum of Modern Arts, Budapest


Vasarely’s style grew beyond the Bauhaus principles and he drew inspiration from other non-Bauhaus-affiliated artists who used geometry in their pieces. Dutch abstract artist and theoretician Piet Mondrian and Russian-born artist Kazimir Severinovich Malevich were among some of the artists who inspired Vasarely.


In the years that followed, Vasarely even paid homage to these well-known artists. His appreciation even led to the incorporation of Malevich’s Suprematist Black Square in his series titled Hommage à Malevich. Here, the famous Suprematist black square undergoes a distortion underneath the artist’s brush.


Vasarely’s Involvement in the Kinetic Art Movement

vega anneaux victor vasarely op art
Vega-Anneaux by Victor Vasarely, 1969, via Vasarely Foundation


Op-art is its own category of visual and creative expression. But, if looked closely, one can find points of overlap between the fields of optical and kinetic art. Kinetic art is an art form that relies on movement, or the effect of movement, to achieve its desired effect. The seemingly receding figures, vibrating colors, and protruding spheres that regularly characterize optical art can thus also fall into the category of kinetic art, though it’s less common for kinetic art to be characterized as optical art.


Therefore, it’s not surprising that Victor Vasarely’s path crossed with that of kinetic art. In fact, he played a significant role in the development and rise of kinetic art, specifically with his involvement in the exhibition titled The Movement held at Galerie Denise René in Paris in 1955.


victor vasarely sculpture kroa a 1970
Kroa-A by Victor Vasarely, 1970, via Masterworks Fine Art Gallery


Seen as the official start of the kinetic movement, Le Mouvement included the works of new and seasoned contemporary artists such as Vasarely, Jesús Rafael Soto, and Marcel Duchamp, whose works fell in line with kinetic art. Vasarely also wrote his famed Manifeste Jaune (Yellow Manifesto) for this exhibition, in which he declared many of his beliefs about the creation of art, solidifying his spot in the art arena.


Following the exhibition, Manifeste Jaune became a huge source of inspiration for the younger artists of the generation, who’d go on to study Vasarely’s questioning of the contemporary idea that an artist’s individual works need to be entirely unique and different from one another. On the contrary, Vasarely thought that art thrived on the concepts of recreation, multiplication, and expansion.


This notion is incredibly evident in Vasarely’s work following his Yellow Manifesto, with a large proportion of his pieces recreating his checkerboard illusionary style through various mediums such as paint, fabric, and sculpture. No matter the form, nearly all of his works would include illusions that are enhanced through masterfully created color relations, geometric designs, and repetitions.


The 1960s: The Op-Art Movement Ignites 

the responsive eye moma op art exhibition 1965
The Responsive Eye Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, 1965, via MOMA, New York


Despite the fact that Vasarely worked with geometry and optics for a decade before, the term op-art was not attached to his work until 1964, when Time Magazine came across one of his pieces. The coining of the term served as an official ignition of the movement at large, with Vasarely acting as one of the central figures.


Vasarely’s growing influence on the international art arena was specifically recognized during the New York Museum of Modern Art’s 1965 op-art exhibition titled The Responsive Eye. During this exhibition, his pieces showing abstract forms stimulated the gaze of visitors and brought him to the forefront of the international op-art movement. The exhibition also included works from Josef Albers and Jean-Pierre Vasarely who was Vasarely’s son.


victor vasarely 1984 acrylic sculpture kettes
Kettes sculpture by Victor Vasarely, 1984, via Masterworks Fine Art Gallery


The 1960s and the 1970s marked the height of the optical art movement. During this time, Victor Vasarely produced hundreds of artworks in his signature style and ventured towards sculptures in the late 1960s, with some of his paintings also incorporating various forms of three-dimensional elements to create even more realistic effects of depth, movement, and illusion. The op-art movement included many other celebrated artists during this period of time, such as Bridget Riley, Marina Apollonio, and Richard Anuszkiewicz, who all achieved optical effects through artistic methods and styles of their own.


During his late career, sculptures became an essential part of Vasarely’s growing oeuvre and became increasingly popular with art collectors. The lucite, acrylic, and glass incorporated into the pieces made the sculptures incredibly eye-catching, while the illusionary effects were heightened by their grand nature.


Victor Vasarely’s Legacy  

vasarely foundation building france
Vasarely Foundation, France, via Vasarely Foundation


Victor Vasarely passed away at the age of 90 in 1997. The paintings, sculptures, and prints he left behind continue to be treasured in galleries, museums, and private properties. These pieces allow the viewer to get lost in the hypnotizing colors and distorted surfaces.


Opened in 1976, the Victor Vasarely Museum is located in his hometown of Pécs, Hungary. This museum was established following Vasarely’s donation of hundreds of graphics, silkscreens, tapestries, serigraphs, and sculptures to his hometown in 1968. The collection also includes one of his famous Zebra paintings. Another Vasarely museum continues to welcome thousands of guests each year in the Hungarian capital, Budapest.


Having spent most of his adult life in France, Vasarely also left a big legacy in this European country. The Vasarely Foundation continues to house many of his works in Aix en Provence, France, while also hosting many temporary exhibitions. The Vasarely Foundation was founded in 1976 and endorsed by the then-president of France ​​Georges Pompidou. This way Victor Vasarely’s legacy continues to live on as his eye-catching illusions fascinate art lovers across the globe.

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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.