Victor Vasarely (born Győző Csiszár) was born on 9 April 1906 in Pécs, Hungary, third child out of wedlock of Anna Csiszár and Győző Lajos Vásárhelyi. Anna was from Trnava, in present-day Slovakia, while Győző, who worked as a butler, was from Timisoara in Romania. A couple of years later, Anna Csiszár and Győző Vásárhelyi get married, and the child is recognized by his father, giving him his surname. He grows up in Trencsen and Pöstyén, in northern Hungary. In 1919, the Vásárhelyi family flees Pöstyén, which became Piešťany when it joined Czechoslovakia, and settles in Budapest.
The young Vásárhelyi studies in a vocational school where, in addition to general subjects, he took courses in economics, management, and French and German commercial communication. From 1922, he was also enrolled in the Arthur Podolini-Volkmann Academy, where he studied plaster and live sketching. Vásárhelyi works as a bookkeeper for the pharmaceutical and chemical firm Labor, then for SKF, a Swedish ball bearing company. It is in this context that he designs his first advertising works. In 1929 Vásárhelyi enrolled at Mühely, a school founded by Alexandre Bortnyik and based on the principles of the Dessau Bauhaus. It was during this time that he first encountered Constructivism and Abstract Art. There he also met his future wife, the artist Klara (Claire) Spinner.
In 1930, Vásárhelyi moves to Paris, where he starts to work as an advertising graphic designer. Győző and Klara get married and have their first son, André, followed by Jean-Pierre in 1934, the future artist Yvaral. During this first graphic period (1929-1946), Vásárhelyi lays the foundations for his future practice. He starts to spell his name the French way and to socialise with the arts circle in Montparnasse. In 1933, he has his first personal exhibition at the Ernst Museum in Budapest, with a selection of advertising works.
At the beginning of the Occupation, when his family took refuge in Hungary with his parents-in-law, Vasarely meets Denise Bleibtreu (Denise René). He soon encourages her to transform the premises of her fashion studio into an art gallery, where he has his first solo show in France in 1944, titled Les dessins et compositions de Vasarely. In the following years, he showcases at Galerie Denise René not only graphic advertising studies, but also paintings of surrealist and crepuscular inspiration relating to the war in solo and collective exhibitions. In 1947, he starts his “Belle-Ile” series after his stay in Belle-Île-en-Mer, enthused by the oceanic natural landscape. The following year, he starts the series “Cristal-Gordes” characterized by a juxtaposition of contrasting, brightly coloured shapes, inspired by the geometrical views of the Provençal village.
In 1950, Vasarely has his first abstract exhibition at Galerie Denise René. The following year, the exhibition Dewasne, Jacobsen, Vasarely. Formes et couleurs murales at the Denise René Gallery brings together Jacobsen, Dewasne and Vasarely in their common aspiration of integrating art into architecture. Vasarely shows a large quadriptych composition, made for transposition on cement panels, as well as his Photographisms, photographic scaled enlargements of the frame wall with distorted black and white lines. In 1954, a retrospective of 70 works divided into five series (Arcueil, 1948; Belle-Isle, 1947-1953; Cristal, 1949-1953; Denfert-Gordes, 1950-1953 and Belle-lsle-Gordes, 1951-1953) is held at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. Vasarely starts to use his “plastic units”. During these years, he starts to concretize his ideas about the integration between art and architecture as a prelude to his kinetic works. In 1955, he announces the advent of a “new plastic-kinetic, moving beauty”, describing the “plastic unit” at the base of his work: “two necessarily contrasting forms-colours, constitute the plastic unity, therefore the unity of creation: eternal duality of all things, finally recognized as inseparable.” At the end of the year, a personal exhibition comprising 56 works from 1946 to 1955 is presented at Galerie Denise René. This is the first appearance of a group of paintings opening the abundant “Black-White” period. Referred as the “father of plastic-kinetic” by artist Gyula Kosice, Vasarely continues to exhibit internationally. In 1958, he has his first solo show in the US at Rosa Fried Gallery and participates in Documenta II in Kassel in 1959.
During these years, Vasarely gets more and more recognition from the international art world. After an important exhibition at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels in 1960, the following year he takes part in Bewogen Beweging at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the first kinetic art show in a museum. In 1962, he has a solo show at Pace gallery in New York. In 1963, he exhibits at the Museé des Arts Décoratifs in Paris as well as at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hannover with a retrospective of works dating 1953-1963, a travelling exhibition that then took place at the Kunstverein in Dusseldorf and at the Kunsthalle in Bern. Vasarely is dedicated a personal space at Documenta III in Kassel, where the artist alternates spatial and two-dimensional compositions around the “plastic unit” theme. Vasarely continues to explore movement and perception, and in his so-called “Vonal” period (1964–1970) he goes back to drawing, combining the linear and graphic themes of his “Black and White” period with a new exploration of colour. In 1965, he takes part in The Responsive Eye, an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, dedicated to Optical Art, and Kinetic and Optic in Buffalo, two events that contribute to affirm Vasarely as the “Father of Op Art.” In the same year, Vasarely shares with Alberto Burri the grand prize of the 8 th Biennial of Sao Paulo, and starts new collaborations, such as the one with Sidney Janis Gallery in New York. His “Vega” period began in 1968, at which time he deforms the compositional elements to create the optical illusion of a dilated painted surface. In 1969, Vasarely creates a graphic logo for the International Year of Human Rights supported by UNESCO.
In 1970, the “Didactic Museum” is inaugurated in the Renaissance castle of Gordes, hosting almost 1500 works covering Vasarely’s entire career. Offering numerous insights into the integration of art in the modern city, the Didactic Museum of Gordes prefigures the project for the future architectural centre in Aix-en-Provence, now the Vasarely Foundation, inaugurated later in 1976. The ceremony is held in the presence of Claude Pompidou and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, placing the Vasarelian project in a historical and international perspective. In the same year, the Vasarely Muzeum in Pécs is also inaugurated. In 1977, the artist becomes honorary adviser of the International Association of Plastic Arts of UNESCO and receives an honorary degree from the University of Cleveland. In 1979 he illustrates the cover of a special issue of The UNESCO Courier with his painting Einstein (1976) as a tribute to art and science and the father of the theory of relativity.
In the 1980s, Vasarely is internationally renowned and politically involved. In 1983, Vasarely is made honorary citizen of New York City. In 1987, the Vasarely Museum in Budapest opens its doors in the presence of the artist, who granted a donation of more than 400 works. On 15 Mars 1997, Victor Vasarely passes away in Paris. Among tributes from the art and political world, he was, according to the newspaper Le Monde, the “painter of faith in technical progress”, a faith “that makes Vasarely’s art the style of the Pompidou years, in the same way as the Citroën DS or the armchairs designed by Pierre Paulin.” Vasarely’s oeuvre is from now on considered one of the great legends of the 20 th century.