The first time the Hungarian public was introduced to the name Vasarely was at a small exhibition titled Modern French Prints and Drawings, featuring works from the collection of Árpád Mezei, which was held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, in 1968. This was a period when the arts were strictly controlled by state cultural policy, which encouraged socialist realism and rejected every form of non-figuration. For this reason, the Hungarian-born artist would have felt honoured that one of his works was included in the exhibition, despite the official ban. Vasarely was very keen for the Op Art movement that he represented to become more widely known and appreciated in his homeland, so that same year he donated to the Hungarian nation an enormous collection of 160 artworks, which were shared between the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, and the Janus Pannonius Museum in Pécs. In subsequent years, he gave the two institutions a further 26 pieces from his own collection of works by some of the most important exponents of international geometric abstraction. Thanks to his generosity, it was now possible for Hungarians to see and study original exemplars of the latest trends in abstract art. In 1969 Vasarely, backed by his formidable political contacts, succeeded in obtaining permission from the Hungarian government to organise a solo show in Budapest. Held in the Műcsarnok (Art Hall), this was the largest exhibition of his career, and in just a few weeks it attracted 150,000 visitors. Vasarely was back at the same venue the following year, as part of a show titled Twentieth-Century Hungarian Artists Abroad; after this event, he gave three large and important oil paintings to the Museum of Fine Arts. In 1971, for the first time since childhood, he visited Pécs, the city of his birth, where he negotiated with the city leadership to establish a permanent exhibition of his own works and those by artists from his “circle of friends”. The deed of foundation for the Vasarely Museum in Pécs was signed in 1973 and three years later, when the artist was seventy years old, the museum was opened, at the same time as his Vasarely Foundation in Aix-en-Provence. Owing to his continued donations, which lasted until 1982, the collection of the museum in Pécs swelled to almost 400 works.
A decade later, he came up with the idea of the Vasarely Museum in Budapest, which – unlike the one in Pécs, but similar to those in Aix-en-Provence and Gordes (the latter had opened in 1970) – would function as a foundation and an art centre. On 23 September 1981 he signed his first deed of gift concerning his “inalienable” donation to Budapest, the capital of the nation. The first exhibition of the artist’s gifts was installed on a temporary basis in the Museum of Fine Arts in spring 1983, after which it toured cities around the country. In 1986 the artist consolidation his donation with two further deeds, and designated the south-eastern wing of the Baroque Zichy Palace in Óbuda as the site of the future museum. (The choice of location was probably partly inspired by the fact that in 1976, the other wing of the palace had been converted into a memorial museum dedicated to Lajos Kassák, the leading figure of the Hungarian avantgarde and one of Vasarely’s idols.) According to the permit issued by the ministry in 1987, the Vasarely Museum would operate as “an affiliate of the Museum of Fine Arts”. The designs for installing the permanent exhibition were drawn up by Vasarely himself, and the museum was opened on 8 May 1987 with a ceremony attended by the artist. Ever since, the institution has concentrated its activities on preserving and publicising the life’s work of Victor Vasarely and on conducting related scientific research. From the time of its inception it has hosted temporary exhibitions of works by exponents of movements closely related to the art of Vasarely, including the thematic shows of the Open Structure Art Society, founded in 2007 with the aim of maintaining the long-standing traditions of Hungarian constructivist, abstract geometric, concrete and kinetic art.
The notion of sending a collection off on a journey to be shown in another part of the world is closely in line with Vasarely’s general approach, his efforts to find democratic forms of art and his belief in the universal nature of visual images. He put his democratic principles into practice in the way he executed his kinetic artworks, and he intended them to be accessible to everyone. He created what he called his “multiples” with the express objective of making sure that the pictorial aesthetic expressed in them would not only be enjoyed by a privileged elite, but would also reach the general public. The symbolic significance of the universality in Victor Vasarely’s optical art lies in the fact that he discovered, even before its time, a visual language that would sufficiently satisfy the demands of a globalising world and which, by transcending cultural conventions, anticipated the visual needs of the modern age. His works express the broadest possible range of emotions, and the algorithmic logic applied to his compositions, which enables their constituent elements to be changed at will, means that they convey a separate subjective message to every single person who sees them. It is on account of this aspect of his works that, even in today’s world, where we have grown accustomed to the dazzling opportunities of electronic picture-making and of instantly accessing image after image on social media, Vasarely is still capable of satisfying our insatiable appetite for visual stimulation.
text by Márton Orosz