In our weekly series, we write about celebrities – artists, actors, musicians, sport stars and scientists – who have some Hungarian origin, yet only few would consider them as “par excellence Hungarians”. In many cases even the persons concerned know/knew only very little about their Hungarian roots, while others are/were proud of their “Magyar” background despite lacking the ability to speak the language of their parents or grandparents. Our twenty-fifth target is:
Victor Vasarely, Hungarian-French painter known to the world as the grandfather of the “op-art” movement
Vasarely, whose 1930s work Zebra is considered by some to be one of the earliest examples of op-art – the type of visual art that uses optical illusions – was born in Pécs, southern Hungary, as Győző Vásárhelyi as the unlawful child of Győző Vásárhelyi Sr., a waiter, and Anna Csiszár.
Having grown up in Pöstyén (now Piešťany, Slovakia) and Budapest, in 1925 he took up medical studies at the capital’s university of medicine while working in a factory producing laboratory equipment. In 1927, he abandoned medicine to learn traditional academic painting at the private Podolini-Volkmann Academy. In 1928/1929, he enrolled at noted Hungarian painter and graphic designer Sándor Bortnyik’s private art school called Műhely (lit. “Workshop”, in existence until 1938), then widely recognized as Budapest’s centre of Bauhaus studies. It was here he got to know his wife-to-be, fellow graphic designer Klára Spinner (1908-1990) – the couple went on to have two sons, André, and Jean-Pierre. At the school, he became immensed into leading figures of 20th-century modern art, making him an example in the abstract arts by the time he emigrated to France in 1930.
Vasarely eventually went on to produce art and sculpture using optical illusion. Over the next three decades, he developed his style of geometric abstract art, working in various materials but using a minimal number of forms and colours.
Already during his lifetime, a number of museums were dedicated to hosting his works, including two in France (oner of which is now closed), the Vasarely Museum in Pécs, Hungary (1976) and the Vasarely Museum in Budapest’s District III (1987), with over 400 works.
He died aged 90 in Paris on 15 March 1997.
Previously on Hungarian Roots: