A Review of Victor Vasarely: Sharing Forms at Centre Pompidou, Paris
One can’t help but fall for Paris when illuminated by the winter sun. Wandering Jardin Luxembourg, imagining Montmartre during La Belle Époque or watching the sun set from Centre Pompidou. When walking out of the latter it occurred to me that Hungarian-French artist Victor Vasarely embodies much of Paris and its architecture at golden hour; the shapes, abstraction and energy.
Sharing Forms is the first major retrospective devoted to Victor Vasarely. In true Parisian style, this elegantly curated exhibition continued to allure and deceive with its colourful inversions of the avant-garde. Tangerine, blush pink, egg yolk yellow; it was easy to get lost in the kaleidoscopic colour, but impossible to leave the exhibition without seeing how Vasarely worked to involve his art in unexpected aspects of life.
Vasarely is considered to be a founder of the Op Art movement, and his influences include Constructivism and Bauhaus as well as the work of Wassily Kandinsky. He was also involved in the Research Art Group: a collaborative artistic organisation in Paris that set to engage the human eye in their work. While American artist Frank Stella reportedly found Vasarely's work "dreary" I found it both uplifting and satisfying.
By inviting viewers on a retrospective, thought-provoking journey through Vasarely's oeuvre, the curator Michel Gauthier proved how this artist evolved across a range of different mediums in his career. The first room focused on the legacy of the Avant-Garde, and we learn that Vasarely worked in advertising whilst settling in paris. The graphic studies exemplified the importance of modernist legacy at the awakening of his visual language. Monochrome compositions like Zebres (1938) or Les Catcheurs (1944) feel almost minimal in comparison to the luminous, cosmic visions in the last room. There is a tenderness and playfulness to these works, the lovingly intertwined zebras and the aggressive wrestlers like inverted Moomin.
Geometries of the Real, the subject of the second room, was characterised by large, bright and mechanistic canvases - already a world away from the anthropomorphic zebras. The breaks and fragments in paintings like Nives II (1949-58) conjure images of decomposition and dissemblance; a common feature of post-war art. The artist spent time in Gordes, where he was fascinated by the destabilising vision caused by the angular geometry of the village and the paradoxes between light and shade.
Vasarely drives motion into his paintings. Tired of the inertia of abstract forms and set to challenge this. He began to imbue his work with energy and particles, his canvases soon throbbing with movement and three-dimensionality. This is an artist who was bridging the gap between art and reality creating a visual language for things that surround us in our everyday; color, light, dark, shadow, space, gravity and movement.
What seems at first to be a naff, modern indoor playground, is in fact the room focusing on Vasarely's universal instrument, the "plastic unit": a background square of a given color containing a geometric form of a different color. In the center of the room is a phallic sculpture with rectangular tubes. These neon tubes are made of Vasarely's 'plastic blocks' the whole form resembling something made with children's building blocks. For someone with dyspraxia, this myriad of shapes and colours slightly thew me. It reminded me as an artist, rather than a scientist, of the interactive play areas I used to cherish at the Science Museum on visits with school or my father. But this was far worse, because you couldn't touch the toys.
My faith was quickly restored. A long glass cabinet containing excerpts from fashion magazines using or inspired by Vasarely's patterns. Blonde bombshells with Shrimpton-Bardot-Birkin-esque fringes, posed daintily in front of Vasarely's hallmark prints. As a fan of Mad Men, and French New Wave cinema I was entranced. Across the exhibition, Vasarely is being shown as a true Modernist, pursuing the ideal of socialising art. Visual culture at the time is utilising the beauty of his patterns. Vasarely went on to pursue architecture, executing murals at Montparnasse, the VIP dining room of the Deutsche Bundesbank in Frankfurt and the Architectonic Centre in Aix-en-Provence. He was certainly a dreamer with an artistic vision that simply wouldn't settle for just the canvas, he wanted his art to be a way of life.
Inspiring as it was anarchic Centre Pompidou's retrospective of Victor Vasarely was as engaging as it was challenging. Be careful visiting on a weekend, because the queues can be interminable and I missed my sundown Aperol. Although the tangerine sunset from the roof made it feel like I’d had one.
Written by Isabel Carr, a Contributor to Arteviste