Mixed media artwork

Intergenerational perspectives

8 September 2022

Examining the visual power of optical perception

The works of father-and-son artists Victor Vasarely and Yvaral.

Included in the exhibition Light & Darkness are two works with several linear connections: both are multiples, are monochromatic, were made in the mid-1960s, and play with visual perception. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the works were made by father and son, Victor Vasarely (1908–97) and Yvaral, born Jean-Pierre Vasarely (1934–2002). 

Victor Vasarely, a pioneer of optical art affectionally referred to as the ‘father of op art,’ was a major influence on generations of artists. He briefly studied medicine, before studying art at the Podolini-Volkmann Academy and at the Muhely Academy of Sandor Bortnyik, the ‘Bauhaus of Budapest’ from 1928–29. As an émigré from Hungary, he moved to Paris in 1930 where he made his first optical works.

Vasarely’s son, Jean-Pierre Vasarely adopted the pseudonym Yvaral (an anagram of several letters of his surname) to distinguish himself from his father while also paying homage to him. Yvaral studied graphic arts at the Ecole des Arts Appliques in Paris. From 1955, he began to experiment with abstract constructions and movement. In 1960, he co-founded with other artists the influential Paris-based experimental Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV).

In their respective careers, Vasarely and Yvaral were both part of the Parisian avant-garde, experimenting with optical techniques and drawing on a variety of sources from art as well as from psychology, technology, astronomy, and perceptual sciences. Both artists took their work into the public realm and were committed to the democratisation of art via public art and affordable multiples.

Vasarely experimented with linear perspective and manipulated colours to create abstract compositions that appear to be three-dimensional. He understood how the placement of 3D shapes on the picture plane, along with changes in colour, affected how the brain processes information, causing optical illusions. Coining his work ‘kineticism,’ he said in 1977 that:

the kineticism is what happens in the mind of the spectator when his eye is obliged to organise a perspective field such as it is necessarily unstable.

Vasarely’s Laika (1964), commissioned for the major contemporary art exhibition documenta (held every five years in Kassel, Germany), is a porcelain relief consisting of a stark white surface with a grid of black ellipses in two different orientations and sizes. The smaller horizontal ellipses are concave, while the larger ellipses are convex. The grid is not symmetrical, with larger ellipses situated to the right of the centre. In the top third of the work, a large white convex circle appears. Vasarely lines up this circle with the larger ellipses and, although separated by one line of horizontal ellipses, they appear to be in communication with each other.

The work is a homage: Laika was a stray dog taken from the streets of Moscow, who became the first animal to orbit the earth. In a mission that was a precursor to human space flight, Laika was the only occupant of Russia’s Sputnik 2, a one-way trip which was launched into space on 3 November 1957. Laika completed almost four orbits before succumbing to stress and overheating.

The porcelain relief, when understood as a memorial, is a sensitive tribute. The palette of black and white, paired with the use of a clean laboratory-like material that is hard yet fragile, suggests space flight. The white circle evokes the moon, and the interaction with the ellipses below suggests gravity, as they appear to pull the circle towards them.

Yvaral’s Interference avec le cercle ‘A’ [Interference with circle ‘A’] (1966) is a three-dimensional, sculptural relief, consisting of taut black string lines, attached to a matt blackboard, edged with a simple black frame. Numerous strings made from black rubber and synthetic polymer rise above the surface of a board, attached to a central black wooden pole, into which the lines feed. The black string lines correspond with thin, white-painted lines on the baseboard, which fan out from the centre of the work to the edge of the frame, creating a circle. When viewed from the side, the work coheres into a three-dimensional shape: a transparent cone. When seen from the front, the cone shape disappears and in its place the circle evolves into a dial, revealing a figure-of-eight pattern which moves as the viewer moves. The ‘interference’ of the circle is further intensified by the disappearance and reappearance of the white lines as they intersect with the black.

In this work, Yvaral experiments with the moire effect, a pattern created by superimposing multiple lines to interfere with visual perception. Yvaral’s work involves the spectator, whose physical movement animates the work, though the work itself remains static and has no moveable parts.

Vasarely and Yvaral were often included in the same exhibitions, including the ground-breaking op art show, The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1965. Both the works discussed are on display in the exhibition Light & Darkness: Late Modernism and the Power Collection until November 2022.

Katrina Liberiou is Assistant Curator, University Art Collection, Chau Chak Wing Museum.

This article was first published in issue 28 of Muse Magazine, April 2022.