How Victor Vasarely’s Zebra changed the way we see art

Victor Vasarely: Vega. Victor Vasarely: Vega. Sold for €16,576 via Artcurial (October 2010).

Widely accepted as a pioneer and “grandfather” of the Op Art movement, Victor Vasarely (1906-1997) not only championed a new approach to art, but also changed the way we view it by introducing illusions of depth, motion, and three-dimensionality into his visually arresting pieces. Most notably Victor Vasarely’s Zebra laid the groundwork for future Op Artists, which included his son, Jean-Pierre Vasarely, professionally known as Yvaral.

Victor Vasarely (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Victor Vasarely’s work tested the human eye like no other artist before him. His carefully calibrated patterns of bright squares and luminous circles gave his paintings a visual and kinetic life, as if his pioneering geometric designs had a pulsing energy all of their own.

Rippling with energy and movement, Vasarely’s groundbreaking art reached a height of popularity in the late sixties and seventies when his work aligned with a youth culture fixated on the future and space travel that was determined to distance itself from their comparatively conservative parents. 

This futuristic wonder of Vasarely’s paintings was often imitated as his work grew in popularity. Even if you aren’t aware of his work, you might be familiar with the famous Renault car badge that he redesigned, or David Bowie’s Space Oddity album artwork, which he was also commissioned to design.  

Born in 1906 in what is now Hungary, Vasarely abandoned medicine to learn traditional academic painting, and later studied at Sándor Bortnyik’s private art school, which was widely recognized as Budapest’s centre of Bauhaus studies at the time. Vasarely left Hungary and settled in Paris in 1930 with his wife and fellow student Claire Spinner and their two sons Andre and Jean-Pierre – more on him later.

Victor Vasarely’s Zebra

It proved to be a productive move; in Paris Vasarely developed his style of geometric abstract art over the next three decades, working in various materials while using a minimal number of forms and colours. His 1937 work, entitled Zebra, is considered by some to be one of the earliest examples of Op Art. Victor Vasarely’s Zebra set him on an artistic path towards fame and a new visual identity.

The hypnotic intertwined zebras provided a window into the style that would follow for Vasarely. This painting showcases the feeling of movement and energy that was to become his trademark in a series of studies devoted to the muscular movement and mesmerising markings of the animals. 

Weaving before the audience’s eyes, the zebras are a tangle of black and white strobes; this was a central feature of Vasarely’s work over the coming decades, as he largely abandoned organic forms in favour of geometric patterns that enhanced that feeling of movement and life, even when there was no trace of organic life within his paintings.

Victor Vasarely Self Portrait in studio circa 1941.

Victor Vasarely: Self Portrait in Studio circa 1941. Sold for €288 via Matsart Auctioneers & Appraisers (September 2020).

This style of carefully controlled chaos was mirrored in Chess Board (1935), but it would take a number of years before Vasarely settled on this style following a period that he dubbed Les Fausses routes – the Wrong Track. During this time he painted Self Portrait in Studio (1941) and The Blind Man (1946), which were more figurative works that show the young artist dabbling in surrealism and constructivism in search of a style suited to him.

Monochromatic Masters

He hit his stride though with a series of monochromatic works that were more in accord with his better-known contemporaries, such as Arshile Gorky and Piet Mondrian. Hommage à Malévitch (1954-58) showcases this re-discovery of his style, while Vega (1956) brilliantly expresses that geometric kinetic energy, with the image seemingly pulsing and warping with black and white life.

This approach to art formed part of what Vasarely believed were the archetypal gestures of a universal language, which was fully in harmony with the new scientific discoveries of his age. Vibrant color, which he had used relatively sparingly in the years since depicting his first zebra, begin to seep back into the artist’s work, reflecting the arrival of color television and further new scientific discoveries. 

Polychromatic Masters

Works like Zoeld (1968), Szem (1970) and Kezdi (1989) followed and all showcase this dalliance with color, with the layered colored lines helping once again to create a sense of movement and voids in space. His work inspired a generation of artists such as Bridget Riley, Jesus Rafael Soto, as well as his own son, Jean-Pierre, who followed his father into the family business in the fields of op-art and kinetic art from 1954 onwards.

Family Business

Similar to his father, Yvaral’s optical paintings explored the illusion of movement and the swelling, warping patterns on this canvas are typical of his approach. They both wanted to create a visual language and there’s definitely a shared visual and family identity to the work, particularly the monochromatic pieces such as Acceleration Optique and Composition (below).

This shared visual identity is evident in Yvaral’s Ambiguous Structure No.92 from 1969, which continued where his father’s work left off with a burst of blue, light grey-blue, grey, red and orange geometrical shapes combined to produce a three-dimensional effect. In this instance, the structure appears to originate in the centre and radiate outwards to the four corners, ensuring that there’s a familiar, family-inspired energy to the painting. 

Although less well known than his father, Yvaral participated in a number exhibitions, including the seminal Op Art exhibition The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1965. He didn’t reach his father’s level of success, but it would be nearly impossible to surpass the reputation of a pioneer. Besides, together, Victor and Jean-Pierre have ensured their own place in the pantheon of art; but perhaps more impressively they have collectively changed the way we all now view art.