The Permanent Exhibition
Inaugurated on 8 May 1987, the first permanent exhibition displayed almost the entirety of Victor Vasarely’s gift to establish the museum. A total of 411 items were registered in the collection, including such rarities as the artist’s early drawings and graphic designs from the 1920s and 1930s, several of his early oil paintings, as well as his paper and plastic collages from the 1950s and 1960s. The kinetic objects were delivered folded in flat boxes from Paris and could be installed at the museum according to the printed instructions provided. An important part of the donation was the works of Gestalt that Vasarely created between 1965 and 1981 based on his experiments in optics or Gestalt theory (which he initially called a period L’Art pour l’Art), as well as the “architectural integration” models, designed for an urban scale. In addition to the industrially reproduced multiples of metal and porcelain, three monumental tapestries arrived in Budapest, woven in the famous Pinton workshop of Aubusson Manufacture. Most of the 103 prints donated were published in albums by the Fondation Vasarely in Aix-en-Provence and Gordes, the Galerie Denise René, and by renowned art publishers, such as the Éditions Pierre Belford and the Édition Nicole Fauche in Paris, the Studio Bruckmann in Munich, the Nanteshi Gallery in Tokyo and the Intercontinental Art Agency Ltd. in Vancouver. The art collection has been accompanied by a ninety-two- item book donation and a two-volume diapositive series. At that time, the collection was valued at seven million French francs; hence, it is understandable that at the express wish of Vasarely, new acquisitions could only be made in separate units and in accordance with specified restrictions.
The permanent exhibition today
Today, the permanent exhibition is featured in four rooms on the ground floor and in two spaces on the first floor of the Vasarely Museum. The artist’s œuvre is displayed in chronological order: after the first drawing school he attended in Budapest, his education at the so-called Hungarian Bauhaus in Sándor Bortnyik’s Workshop (Műhely), his “Wrong Roads” and Design Period in Paris, his pictorial shift to a hard-line geometric abstract art, his kinetic objects and the op art works based on Gestalt principles and executed in a wide range of materials and genres.
Arthur Podolini-Volkmann’s Free School of Drawing and Painting
The academic female nude drawings in the collection were executed from the year 1926 in the Free School of Drawing and Painting run by Arthur Podolini-Volkmann (Podolin [today Podolínec, Slovakia], 4 August 1891 – Cape Town, South Africa, 24 February 1946), an artist engaged in plen-air painting. Vasarely attended his school at 15 Váci út in Budapest, on the edge of the Industrial City. (Nudes made in Arthr Podolini-Volkmann’s free school, 1926, inv. V. 5–8.) Podolini gave after-school lessons in drawing and painting mostly for artisan apprentices. He attracted young artists as well, among them Gyula Derkovits, István Dési Huber, and Dezső Korniss.
Vasarely’s career began in 1929–1930 in the advertising design Műhely (Workshop), run by Sándor Bortnyik (Marosvásárhely [today Târgu Mureș, Romania], 3 July 1893 – Budapest, 31 December 1976), as he recalled: “I came to Paris, enriched, armed with the baggage of two years of studies at the Budapest Bauhaus. To my great surprise, France seemed not to be aware of the existence of this revolutionary movement.” (Book cover and poster designs created in Sándor Bortnyik’s Bauhaus school, Budapest, 1929–1930, inv. V. 11, 9, 10.)
At the invitation of the painter and architect Farkas Molnár that Sándor Bortnyik joined the circle of Bauhaus artists in Weimar via Berlin, where he participated in the exhibition staged by Herwarth Walden’s gallery, Der Sturm, in 1922 and published his Constructivist Woodcut in its magazine. In Weimar, he became a member of the Hungarian artists’ colony along with Marcel Breuer, Fred Forbát, László Moholy-Nagy, Farkas Molnár and Andor Weininger, who issued their manifesto, K.U.R.I! (Konstruktív, Utilitär, Racionell, Internacional!), advocating for artistic synthesis. In Weimar, Bortnyik used the studios of El Lissitzky and Theo van Doesburg. He also gained an insight into the educational objectives of the Bauhaus through his occasional visits as a guest student. He attended the preliminary course of Josef Albers, who introduced the newcomers to the principles of handicrafts, cutting and folding three-dimensional forms from two-dimensional sheets of paper. Later his work also included designing furniture and making toys. Bortnyik returned to Budapest in 1925 and became the co-founder of the Műhely (Workshop) in 1928.
The Műhely (1928–1938), promoting itself as the “Hungarian Bauhaus”, was a private school founded in 1928 by young architects, engineers and fine artists, including Sándor Bortnyik. (Bauhaus movement in Hungary, Magyar Magazin [Hungarian Magazine] II (1929), 1, 76–77.)
Located in a spacious applied art studio rented on the top floor of the building at 32 Damjanich Street, in Budapest’s seventh district, the Műhely was established with the aim of launching a complex art programme. Painter and graphic designer Sándor Bortnyik, architects Farkas Molnár and Pál Ligeti, ceramicist Antal Lonkay and Dr Ödön Mezey, a teacher of technology specialised in bioelectronics, awaited applications of young artists and artisan apprentices. The school offered education in graphic design, advertising art, elemental architecture, painting and plastic modelling, along with theoretical courses held by invited lecturers in stage design (Kálmán Kovács), art history and film (Iván Hevesy), psychology of advertising (Alice Hermanné Cziner) and printmaking techniques (László Korvin). With this complex model of education, the Műhely lasted only one year. In the summer of 1929, now owned by Sándor Bortnyik, it moved to a new location. A poster with Sándor Bortnyik’s face and address (3 Nagymező Street, 6th district) offered training in graphical and painting techniques, “mechanized graphic design”, including typography, colour theory, composition, poster, brochure, packaging design, etc., and probably also introduced his students to animated filmmaking. The courses were based on the technological advances of the “Mechanical Age” and embraced a synthesis of architecture, design and art. Bortnyik also lectured and published his methods on art education in art magazines. Vasarely read the advertisement in the periodical, Reklámélet [Advertising Life] and joined Bortnyik’s school in the summer of 1929.
The syllabus of Bortnyik’s Műhely is only sparsely documented. Sándor Bortnyik offered an informative reply to Vasarely’s request in 1965, explaining that the training’s scheme was set out from the image construction system of the Dutch constructivist painter, Theo van Doesburg, founder of De Stijl. In another letter, he told that he had taught colour theory with the help of “colour harmony finding” discs by the German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald. Bortnyik’s students could also see the furniture he had designed because he kept the pieces in his studio-flat during his classes, as is evident from the catalogue of his exhibition in 1930 held in Tamás Gallery in Budapest. As part of his educational method, he put his student’s designs into competition. Műhely trained artists, who could manage their own business affairs internationally, and Bortnyik himself also sought to ensure that the students’ works found public exposure. In the spring of 1930, Vasarely and his future wife, Klára Spinner took part in the debut of the Hungarian Book and Graphic Designer Society with Bortnyik’s school in the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest. (Klára Spinner’s cover design for Jenő Mende’s book titled The Beginner Physicist [Budapest: Athenaeum, no date])
Thanks to the increased demand for advertising at the time, Vasarely soon won numerous graphic design commissions in Budapest, including business cards, Christmas greetings and periodical covers. He recalled later: “Alexander Bortnyik had opened his own Bauhaus studio in Budapest. Both a painter and a professor, he became my master. He was forever warning us: ‘Beware of the artist-type Bohemian life. Develop a second trade that will allow you to live decently. You will still find the time you need to do your own creative work, which is the only thing that matters.’ Marked by my cultural background, conditioned by my environment, and possessing an already considerable artistic know-how, I found myself by turns in agreement or in contradiction with the ideas of the Bauhaus or with my own fund of knowledge. From then on I was driven to a permanent self-criticism, I was up against a merciless struggle. A struggle on three fronts: first, to subsist thanks to my second trade (Bortnyik’s inspired advice), next, to coexist with ‘Art’, and finally, to plunge into basic research, which was my true vocation.” (In Victor Vasarely, Vasarely Inconnu [Neuchâtel: Editions Du Griffon, 1977], 5–6.)
(Sándor Bortnyik in front of Victor Vasarely’s Blue Study (1929), a collage he made in Bortnyik’s studio, at the artist’s exhibition in the Műcsarnok in 1969, archives of the Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest)
“Wrong Roads” 1930–1946
Vasarely arrived in Paris in 1930 and immediately found a job in advertising, receiving commissions from several publishers, including Agence Havas and the printing house Draeger or Devambez. The experience Vasarely garnered in Budapest – making designs – was to benefit him in Paris, regarded as his “second trade”. He made use of well-known Hungarian advertising designs [BN1] in his earliest graphic designs, but he soon signed his works not as Győző Vásárhelyi but as Victor Vasarely. (Advertising poster design made in Paris, 1934–1937, inv. V. 17) He planned to open a school of advanced graphic design, and he created a series of drawings that served as teaching material for the project (finally not realised): “They were composed of Studies of materials, Two-dimensional studies, Three-dimensional studies, Studies of movement, Studies of colour, Studies of light, all technically resolved. In 1951, at the time of the explosion of my Noir-Blanc (Black-White) kinetic period, the importance of these studies was revealed to me. Although they are figurative, they constituted decisive discoveries for my future fundamental abstract, ‘linear’ and ‘corpuscular’ studies.” Several of these drawings are now part of the collection of the Vasarely Museum Budapest. In all likelihood, the series was synthesising various parts of Bortnyik’s course.
In 1935 Vasarely made advertising supplements for medical publications [BN2] in the publishing house of Roger Bessard, with whom he became business associates and thus consolidated his financial position.
In 1939 Vasarely met Denise René (born Denise Bleibtreu, 1913–2012), whom he convinced to convert his family-run salon into an art gallery with a novel approach. Looking back, gallerist Denise René said: “Vasarely earned a good living, drawing advertisements for large pharmaceutical companies. This, of course, came to an end with the occupation. This was when he suggested opening a decoration studio under 124 La Boétie. The techniques used here were inspired by Hungarian folk art: Vasarely would coat an object with oil paint, and then sprinkle it with a fine layer of glass beads. He used the technique to decorate luxury items, and the boxes of such very elegant brands of chocolate as the Boissier and the Marquise de Sévigné. Maloudji, Fabien Lorris and many artists in hiding owed their survival to being able to work at the studio.”
The Galerie Denise René opened in 1944. Its first exhibition was Les dessins et composition de Vasarely (Vasarely’s drawings and graphic compositions). Surrealism influenced his works, and even caught the attention of André Breton. As Denise René recalled: “André Breton was even convinced we had found a Surrealist painter; it was mostly the trompe l’œils that made him think so, which abounded in Vasarely’s graphic innovations. Breton invited me and Vasarely to visit him in rue Fontaine. Éluard and Breton both came to see the exhibition, though on different days because Éluard had broken with Breton and Surrealism.” Vasarely had a painterly turn. Shortly, he made experimentations in gesture painting. (Victor Vasarely, Jazz, 1942, inv. V. 195) Later, despite his artistic discoveries, he described his earliest period as Les Fausses Routes (Wrong Roads).
Vasarely for a hardline geometric abstract art
In 1946 Vasarely and Galerie Denise René turned to geometric abstract art and took part in the first exhibition of Salon des Réalités Nouvelles – Salon of New Realities– in Paris, which was an association of a group of artists focusing on abstract art. The gallery soon became a gathering place of artists durs (’hards’), and one of the most influential galleries in the international art scene.
Vasarely’s early geometric abstract research was inspired by purely abstract elements in nature and urban spaces. In 1947 he spent the summer on a small island off the coast of Brittany, called Belle-Île-en-Mer. He observed the polished stones in the sand, examined the prismatic behaviour of the sea, as well as the refraction and reflection of light, the effect of creating space by shifting the viewer’s point of vision on a flat surface and the contrast of light and shadow that generates a vibration in the sight. The Belles-Isle Period (1947–1954) was characterised by his optical experiments.
During the summers Vasarely spent in Gordes (La Vaucluse), he created drawings, collages and paintings inspired by the geometric structure of the architectural volume of the medieval stone houses. He also studied the natural geometry of the crystal structure of the stones, and named this part of his œuvre the Crystal Period (1948–1960). In Gordes, he observed an optical phenomenon of mirroring and reflections in the double window houses, reminding him of his childhood, the countryside cottage in Pécs, Hungary, from which his deep kinetic objects would later derive. (Victor Vasarely, Lom-Lan 2, 1953, inv. V. 204.)
He moved to Arcueil in 1936. In the mornings he arrived in Paris by train and boarded the metro at the Denfert–Rochereau station, where his attention was captured by the grid of fine cracks on the old tiles in the corridors. He made parallels between the constructions and the nature-structured pattern of the cracked glazed surfaces in his images. The Denfert Period (1938–1951–1958) received its name from the same metro station.
Vasarely’s clear geometric painting made him a star of the Klar Form exhibitions organised in 1951 by the Galerie Denise René in five venues.
Vasarely, the kinetic and op artist
In his Black and White Period (1951–1963), Vasarely introduced as new method, the variation of the image scale. He enlarged his sketches, projecting them on the surface of three-dimensional objects. He observed the way of light, the positive-negative contrast, and the distortion optics. As pre-kinetic works, he created his Photographisms, Vonal Period and Phantom Series (1954). (Naissance–R, Naissance–R/1, Naissance–R/2, Naissance–R, 1951, inv. V. 151–154)
By leaving the drawing desk and adopting the scale of architectural space, he created novel and monumental spectacles.
In 1955, Le Mouvement (The Movement), the first international kinetic art exhibition, displayed at the Galerie Denise René, was organised by Victor Vasarely. He won international acclaim with his huge deep relief glass installations and his Notes for a manifesto, best known Le Manifeste Jaune (The Yellow Manifesto), published in the one yellow sheet exhibition catalogue. In this manifesto, he first expressed his ideas about the interactive plastic work and the relation between art and architecture: “Motion [develops] in an architectural synthesis, where a spatial and monumental plastic work is conceived such that metamorphoses operate there through the displacement of the spectator’s point of view.”
For a purely pictorial representation – the Gestalt Period
In the early 1960s, Vasarely’s creative methods were informed by the latest scientific advances in physics, cybernetics and the Gestalt theory. (Gestalt is a German word referring to the “unified shape” or “image” that is perceived.) The Gestalt theory of perception was based on the principle that we see things globally, interpreting pictorial structures – the whole of the image – as a new associative unit, even if we completely ignore the constituent parts of the composition. This viewer’s experience of seeing “in a larger unit”, together with the possibility of consciously (mis)leading the eye, was treated by Victor Vasarely as a methodological resource. However, he also asserted that the elements of a pictorial structure could only be grouped together in the sense of Gestalt theory if the composition was dominated by ”pure plasticity”, with all additional elements left out, such as symbols, random traits, and personal gestures. Only in this way could pure “visual thought” take form.
Vasarely explored this kind of perception in his Gestalt Period (1960s–1970s). He first presented his technical invention to the public in 1963, at a solo exhibition L’Unité Plastique, held at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais du Louvre, Paris. In his Plastic Alphabet, Vasarely summarised the experiences of his Gestalt Period by using the form and colour permutations of his “plastic units”. This gave his op art works their infinitely rich variety. Vasarely became known at this time as a representative of op art and a designer. (Victor Vasarely, STRI-OET, 1979, inv. V. 236.)
The term op art was first used by a critic at the New York magazine Time in 1964 as a name given to the non-figurative, abstract art trend exploiting optical illusion. The exhibition The Responsive Eye, organised in 1965 by William C. Seitz in the Museum of Modern Art in New York displayed works by one hundred artists and art groups dealing with optical perception. The director of the show only focused on facts perceptible by the eye: “Such subjective experiences, brought about by simultaneous contrast, afterimages, illusions and other optical devices are entirely real to the eye, although each observer will respond to them somewhat differently.” The collage Orion Noir (1963) from the collection of Vasarely Museum Budapest is a variant of the artist’s Orion MC (1963), which he exhibited at the op art show in New York.
The Polychromatic City
In 1952, Vasarely began working on the use of binary combinations of form and colour, for which he coined the term “plastic unit” (l’unité plastique). With the help of these modules of two geometric figures in contrasting colours, Vasarely could create public works on a large scale, such as building decorations and enormous murals, and it also opened up the way for the industrial production of his art. For this reason, the artist patented his invention in 1959.
He created his first “architectural integration” (a work conceived as an architectural setting) for the campus of the Central University of Venezuela, in Caracas in 1954 at the invitation of the architect, Carlos Raúl Villanueva: two ceramic murals titled Sophia and Tribute to Malevich, and a kinetic metal mural titled Positive–Negative. These works were installed by the artist’s drawings and the instructions sent by telex.
The collection of the Vasarely Museum Budapest preserves several sketches made for the Caracas campus along with other architectural integration projects. (Victor Vasarely, Architectural Integrations, 1954–1966)
The pinnacle of Vasarely’s architectural work was the Vasarely Foundation – Architectonic Centre in Aix-en-Provence, opened in 1976, for which he designed the building and its interior.
In his book Plasti-Cité (1970), Vasarely outlined the principles of “integrating art into the community”, while in Cité Polychrome du Bonheur (Polychromatic City of Happiness, 1983), he set out his utopian vision of the “polychromatic city” as a setting for multiplication and endless variations.
Vasarely identified himself as a designer-artist, and his method at an architectural scale as Planetary Folklore, and he believed he was building art that would shape the society of the future. As a designer, he also published the puzzle series Planetary Folklore. Participations No. 2 (1971), allowing customers to create their own Vasarely works.
Vasarely donated several of his works to public buildings in Hungary, including a relief at Budapest Déli Railway Station in 1978, and a sculpture after the building’s reconstruction in 1986.
Since its foundation, the primary mission of the Vasarely Museum is the preservation, research and publication of the collection established by Victor Vasarely.
The Vasarely Foundation, registered in 1990, also regarded its mission to document and exhibit the work of Hungarian émigré artists who left for the West.
Since 2006, the Vasarely Museum provides two exhibition halls for the OSAS, a privately established society, with the objective to maintain the continuity of the geometric-concrete art.
In 2012, the museum celebrated the 25th anniversary of its opening with the exhibition titled The Adventure of Victor Vasarely, Denise René and Geometric Abstract Art in Hungary, a show also hosted by the Janus Pannonius Museum in Pécs.
Between 2010 and 2014, the Parallel Exhibitions series took place at the museum’s Chamber Hall.
Since 2018, thematic exhibitions have been held at the museum.
(Text by Györgyi Imre)