In 2018/19, the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, known for its collection of masterpieces created over 700 years of European art history, has highlighted the modernist era with a large retrospective on Victor Vasarely (*1906 in Pécs, Hungary, †1997 in Annet-sur-Marne, France). Vasarely’s oeuvre forms a link between works of modernism and contemporary trends, spanning a period of more than six decades starting between the world wars and ending at the avant-garde of postmodernism. Vasarely was an advertising designer, an artist, inventor, chief proponent of European Op Art, and a central figure of French post-war art with Hungarian roots. Today, he is arguably the “most famous unknown” European artist of the post-war era. Vasarely and his convoluted, oscillating, hypnotical images, objects and sculptures are emblematic for the multifaceted, vibrant modernist trends of the 1960s and 1970s, positioned between the avant-garde and popular culture.
Art experts and the public have had the opportunity to view 120 works by Vasarely in Frankfurt spanning more than sixty years, which illustrate how he successively dissolved the boundary between high and low art, and popular and modernist forms. Not only did the exhibition reveal a completely different and profoundly complex artist, but more significantly, it presented a new history of the “modernist project” which extended throughout the entire 20th century.
On the basis of Vasarely’s central works, the Frankfurt exhibition sheds light on the roots and evolution of this preeminent oeuvre of the 20th century. The combination of figurative and abstract elements in his early graphic works, for example, reveal how strongly the Russian and German avant-gardists of the 1910s and 20s influenced the Op Art artist Vasarely. At the same time, his entwined tigers and abstract movement studies of these early years exhibit a fundamental ambivalence which permeates his works throughout; he playfully sets stringent geometric forms in motion, the rigid framework of modernism begins to swing, and the initially stable, reposing compositions are suddenly thrown off kilter.
What may seem to be an exercise in sensory confusion, as a playful deceit of perception, is actually one of the most thoroughly conducted investigations and continued developments of the modernist project. Vasarely uses the easy consumable Op Art foil to dynamise the static pictorial concept of early modernism. In this way, the exhibition contradicted the conventional habit of reducing Vasarely to his sensually confounding Op Art, and presented him as one of the central figures of modern and post-modern painting.
Organised in cooperation with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the exhibition “Victor Vasarely − In the Labyrinth of Modernism” presented a broad overview of Vasarely’s oeuvre thanks to numerous loans from European and American collections. These have been supplemented by pieces owned by the Centre Pompidou and loans provided by Michele Vasarely, whose extensive collection has not been publicly displayed in Europe for two decades.
Curators: Martin Engler, Jana Baumann