Optical illusion initiator

Meeting with Expert

Optical illusion initiator

Marta Smolińska


What happens to our perception when we look at Victor Vasarely's (1906–1997) black and white works, for example, Tance from 1957, Lang from 1979, or the vertical diptych Novae Kat from 1959–73? We see the moiré effect (also called moiré fringes). It is produced by the overlapping of at least two grids of lines which are deformed or turned by a certain angle with respect to each other. The potential of moiré fringes is so big that they can provide a basis for highly dramatic demonstrations of the dynamic of seemingly simple black and white, linear and formal structures. Vasarely was a master of activating the viewers' perception gymnastics, through black and white as well as colorful compositions.


Vasarely's works are iconic representatives of the geometric abstract movement called op art. Vasarely was born in Hungary, and in 1930 he emigrated to Paris, the capital of art at that time. Seven years later, he painted Zebra which was considered to be a precursor to op art artworks. The term op art is well-known not only by modern art lovers but also by people interested in fashion and design. After all, Vasarely first worked as an advertising graphic designer. In the history of art, op art is the name for so-called optical painting developed in the 1960s in the United States and in Europe, with centers in Paris, Padua, and Milan.


The term op art itself, though, did not enter art through Vasarely. It first appeared in relation to an exhibition of Julian Stańczak – an American artist with Polish roots – organized in 1964, in Martha Jackson Gallery, in New York. It was later popularized in, among other publications, Jon Borgzinner's article from October 23, 1964, published in the Time magazine. The author titled it “Op Art: Pictures that Attack the Eye." The abbreviation in the title, coupled with battle scene imagery, caught on and spread immediately. In the equally popular Life magazine, the text “Op Art: A Dizzying Fascinating Style of Painting" was published. In it, Vasarely presented a new style of painting – fascinating, bewildering, dizzying; it could even induce vertigo. To this day, Vasarely's works have that effect on viewers.

The exhibition Le Mouvement, organized in Denise René's gallery in Paris, in April 1955, was crucial in the process of the crystallization of the op art movement. Its creators integrated aspects of movement and temporar - iness with the artwork, which could be seen as a farewell to two-dimensional works as they did not align with the dynamically developing reality. Among the participants of the exhibition, there were Marcel Duchamp, Jean Tinguely, and Vasarely (who was later called the father of op art). The apogee of the development of op art in the United States – and perhaps in the whole world – was marked by the famous The Responsive Eye exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It took place in 1965. Its curator was William C. Seitz. It was later shown in the Baltimore Mu - seum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, and Pasadena Art Museum. Off course, Vasarely took part in it.


According to the theoreticians of that movement, in a good pop art image, there is a contrast between the physical state of the matter and psychological activity. A work of art should act as a revelation and activate a vision. Thus, the eye must receive impulses of invisible energy from the work in order to trigger experiences and sensations which the viewer would never have or feel in contact with reality. That unique phenomenon may occur not only in contact with harmony and the rhythm of forms and colors but also through eye irritation, for example, with the use of a sharp, perhaps clashing color contrast and of the grating effect of composition instability. The goal is to engage the physical and psychological space of the viewer's senses in the greatest possible degree as the viewer not only observes the image but also moves in front of it and is aware of the presence of their own body. Vasarely postulated constant transcendence of cognition through an active eye stimulated by images generating the effects of multidimensionality and of breaking the two-dimensionality of the plane.


Thus, he negated the traditional methods of constructing a static image because he was convinced that a moder work of art should correlate with the instability of reality. Op art artists saw the concept of inspiration as anachronistic as they viewed themselves as light operators and engineers who applied the newest scientific discoveries to art which reflected the newest, progressive technologies and the pulse of the time. Also, Vasarely had a group of assistants to whom he delegated, engineer-like, the im - plementation of some of his ideas. The artist dreamed of social art which would be understood by everyone and constitute a plastic aspect of community life. He wanted the op art artworks to speak clearly and directly to all people. The texture was to remain perfectly smooth, independent from individual factors and artistic expression.


The so-called new recipient of that art would actively engage in the process of perception, not only with the eyes, but also the brain and the whole body which should move along the plane of the image and register the changing visual effects especially palpable in the case of large-format works – their surface appears to undulate, bulge, and sink, all the time having an intense impact on the viewer's sense of balance. It is not always possible to distinguish the figure from the background because the contours merge imperceptibly amidst optical quivering motion. One can never get bored of those images as their surface seems to be ‘alive' – pulsating, trembling, rippling, changing with the light and with the position of the audience. As we watch Onnca or Zig Zag (both from 1986), our hand and sense of touch are seduced by the tension between the concave and convex elements – we itch to check if they are, indeed, two-dimensional. They are – the third dimension is masterfully ‘activated' by the artist who transforms the flat plane through visual games of optical instability to create the illusion of depth.

However, visual effects were not the end goal of Vasarely – he believed that geometry can represent the laws of nature and cosmos. It was his deep conviction that the optical structures he painted were a microscale reflection of the macrocosm as well as the essence of everything. He also believed, in alignment with the zeitgeist and post-war optimism, that art which represents the nature of the universe and remains in touch with technical development can change the world and society for the better. He considered himself to be a carrier of progress, and the role of painting to be the integration of art with everyday life. He claimed that there could be harmony between man, art, and the world. Therefore, op art was to draw primarily on the physiological aspects of vision and to remain independent from the viewers' knowledge and cultural sophistication.


The backdrop for Vasarely's images, then, is a beautiful utopia: the democratization of the language of art by making it universal and understandable for everyone as well as representative of the nature of the world. That is why the artist focused on geometry and tried to activate so-called pure vision. For that purpose, he created unité plastique – a kind of an alphabet or a geometric basic module based on color and form, to be combined freely in order to achieve the effect of plastic unity. As he composed the structures of his works from those modules, Vasarely always aimed for the effect of a plane which keeps moving, seemingly dematerialized and ambiguous to the eye. Plastic unity – the pivotal idea of his art in the 1950s – was to consist of two contrasting forms integrated with the use of color. While the differences between the two forms could still be recognized, colors made the combination look indivisible. The starting point for that concept were black and white compositions. The infinite number of variants of plastic unity was, however, only opened by the introduction of color.

Also, Vasarely defined images as screens, which correlates with the current understanding of digital imagery in which the unity effect is achieved, among other things, thanks to the optical vibration of pixels. In the 1960s, Vasarely read many scientific and popular science publications about wave mechanism, relatively theory, cybernetics, and astrophysics. He would remember, in particular, that matter could be conceived of as a deformation of space. Theoretical physics was a new source of quasi-poetic inspiration for Vasarely, and he translated it to the quivering language of optical illusion. Art served as a sensory instrument which made great scientific discoveries palpable and noticeable. According to Vasarely, the idea of plastic unity had a lot in common with science. The titles of particular works often sounded mysterious because Hungarian words were transcribed phonetically in French. The titles also refer to names of stars, galaxies, and constellations.


Vasarely is both a fan of scientific discovery and technical progress and a poetic dreamer with the desire to convey the principles governing the micro- and macrocosm through the concept of plastic unity. Paradoxically, then, in the era of omnipresent digital media, Vasarely's images have an even greater impact on viewers because they are backed by solid painterly materiality and by illusion games which are only possible on the plane of a painting.