Important Art by Victor Vasarely
In this early work, created while Vasarely was a graphic designer in Paris, two zebras twine around each other against a black background. Their limbs overlap, creating a subtle chequerboard pattern and suggesting spatial depth as well as generating a sense of intimacy, energy, and sexual play. There are no outlines to the two forms, which are instead defined by undulating black and white stripes, their curves suggesting the volumes of the animals' bodies. In its use of such optical trickery, Zebra is often considered one of the earliest works of Op Art.
This painting is typical of Vasarely's early work in using abstract visual effects in pictorial representation - zebras and tigers were common subject-matter for this reason, because of the abstract patterning on their bodes - and in recreating three-dimensional space in two dimensions without resorting to vanishing-point perspective. Despite his status as a commercial artist, Vasarely had been exposed to the avant-garde ideas of the Bauhaus at the Mühely art-school in Budapest in the late 1920s, and there is an obvious Constructivist influence on this work, with its reduction of representative elements to an absolute, iconic minimum. Indeed, in producing works like Zebra, Vasarely was following in the footpaths of pioneering Hungarian Constructivists and avant-gardists at the same time, we can sense the first stirrings of Vasarely's movement towards purely abstract, optically arresting effects. Vasarely returned to the Zebra as a visual motif throughout his career, notably creating a sculpture based on this early work in 1965.
Sophia consists of a grid-like pattern of black lines set against a white background, creating subtle various illusions of movement and three-dimensionality. This work was produced at the end of a period when Vasarely's art had made several decisive leaps forward, leading him from the figurative style of his first serious attempts at painting in the early 1940s towards a form of geometric, monochrome abstraction that still relied on subtle representational effects. A triptych version of Sophia was installed as a wall-mural at the University of Caracas, Venezuela, in 1954.
Across three vital phases of creative development during 1947-51 - sometimes referred to as the Denfert, Belle-Isle, and Gordes-Crystal periods - Vasarely gradually refined the techniques of abstraction and optical illusion that would define his mature work. He was initially inspired by the finely cracked white tiles at the Denfert-Rocherau station of the Paris Subway, producing various paintings which recreated the curious interplay of broken lines and planes on the concourse walls. Then, during a series of vacations in the south of France, in the Belle Isle and Gordes-Crystal regions, he became fascinated by the geometrical patterns of the French coastline, and by the cubistic structures of rural hill towns. Over the same period, Vasarely became more and more interested in the Concrete artist Josef Albers's studies of the psychological effects of color, and in the abstract visual forms of the Suprematist and Constructivist painter Kasimir Malevich, whose famous Black Square (1915) had reduced the picture plane to the simplest possible expression of figure and ground. These influences are channeled into works such as Sophia, which express both Vasarely's fascination with the black-and-white color-palette - which he took to express contemporary scientific concepts such as binary coding - and his increasing interest in creating optical suggestions of vibration and movement.
Like lots of Vasarely's late-1940s and early-1950s work, this piece can partly be interpreted as a celebration of nature, as the geometrical forms expressed by the lines allude to water droplets. At the same time, they might seem to depict the curves of a female body, perhaps that of the woman referred to in the title. In this sense, though works such as Sophia represent a breakthrough for Vasarely, they also indicate the scope of developments still to come, as they remain loosely reliant on representational suggestion. Indeed, in inviting and exploiting the viewer's tendency to find figurative forms in abstract shapes, Vasarely was partly expressing an interest in Gestalt psychology, which was particularly strong at this point.
Vega III features an early example of one of Vasarely's most iconic visual effects, with the distinctive chequerboard pattern distorted in certain areas to create illusions of concave and convex shapes within the picture surface. The suggestions of depth and movement generated by stretching a linear grid in this way represent a vital moment both in the development of Vasarely's style and in the story of late-20th-century art, establishing one of the key technical effects of Op Art.
In generating impressions of movement within a static, two-dimensional artwork, Vasarely was ingeniously advancing the principles of Kinetic Art as laid down by artists such as Alexander Calder and Naum Gabo. From Calder's rotating mobiles to Gabo's revolving or vibrating sculptures, Kinetic Art had generally involved the literal creation of motion, with the aim of using art to depict the element of time as well as the element of space. Creating a Kinetic work which didn't need to move at all was a clever development of these principles.
Vega III can also be seen as a visual enactment of the ideas outlined in Vasarely's Yellow Manifesto, published in 1955 to coincide with the influential Op Art exhibition Mouvement, held at the Gallery Denise René in Paris. Vasarely's manifesto called for a new "visual kinetics", an art inspired by Constructivism and the Bauhaus which would use optical illusions to focus the viewer's attention on the act of viewing itself. Since the Renaissance, the instinctive, physiological processes of visual perception had been exploited by painters, and the Yellow Manifesto called for a fresh recognition and utilization of the techniques used to achieve this.
Works such as Vega III turn the viewer from a passive spectator into an active agent in the creation of the artwork, contributing to the visual appearance of the painting by their movement around it. As the art historian József Sárkány, the viewer's movements "always give rise to new paintings". In making the act of visual engagement vital to the final realization of the artwork, Vasarely expressed a quintessential mid-20th-century concern with blurring the boundaries between observer and participant.