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Hungarian Roots: Victor Vasarely, “Grandfather” Of The Op-Art Movement


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.

Zebra, 1937

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.


Tigres, 1938

Settling in Paris, he worked as a graphic artist and as a creative consultant at the advertising agencies Havas, Draeger and Devambez (1930–1935). His interactions with other artists during this time were limited. He thought of opening an institution modeled after Sándor Bortnyik’s Műhely and developed some teaching material for it. Having lived mostly in cheap hotels, he settled in 1942/1944 in Saint-Céré in the Lot département. After the Second World War, he opened an atelier inArcueil, a suburb about 10 kilometers from the centre of Paris (in the Val-de-Marne département of the Île-de-France). In 1961, he finally settled in Annet-sur-Marne (in the Seine-et-Marne département).
Harlequin, 1936

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.


Biadan, 1959

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:

Tim Howard, goalkeeper for English club Everton and US national team

Rachel Weisz, English film and theatre actress and former fashion model

Alanis Morissette, Canadian alternative rock singer-songwriter and actress

Gene Simmons, musician, songwriter, guitarist and co-lead singer of rock band KISS

Béla Lugosi, Hungarian-American actor, famous for portraying Count Dracula in 1931

Kesha, US singer, songwriter and rapper

Louis C. K., world-famous US comedian

Adrien Brody, Oscar-winning American actor

Joaquin Phoenix, Grammy and Golden Globe-winning US actor

Don Shula, Legendary American football coach

Drew Barrymore, US actress, model and producer

Paul Simon, American songwriter, singer and guitarist

Uri Geller, Israeli illusionist and self-proclaimed “psychic”

Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson, American actress

Hungarian Roots: Andy Vajna, Hungarian-American Film Producer Of The “Terminator” Series

Joe Eszterhas, Top Hollywood Screenwriter

Edward Teller, “Father of the Hydrogen Bomb”

Harry Houdini, Hungarian-Americal magician, illusionist, escapologist and stunt performer

Peter Falk, world-famous American actor known as lieutenant Culumbo

William Fox, the man who forgot to sleep and founded 20th Century Fox

Tommy Ramone, drummer of cultic punk rock band “The Ramones’

George Pataki, former three-term governor of New York

Michael “Flea” Balzary, founding member and bassist of rock band Red Hot Chilli Peppers

The greatest war photographer in the world, Robert Capa