Victor Vasarely, a major figure of twentieth-century geometric abstraction, won international acclaim in Paris in the 1950s and 1960s as one of the inventors of kinetic art. (The word ‘kinetic’ comes from the Greek kinetikos, meaning ’to move’ or ’set in motion’, referring to a motoric movement, it was first used in the nineteenth century.)
Victor Vasarely: Self-portrait, 1941
Vasarely’s first kinetic works were displayed in 1955 at the exhibition Le Mouvement (The Movement) in the Galerie Denise René in Paris along with works by Yaacov Agam, Pol Bury, Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Jacobsen, Jean Tinguely and Jesús Rafael Soto. The two huge parallel glass plates spaced were suspended by Vasarely in the interior of the exhibition, and the barely perceptible swaying of the plates, each printed with geometric patterns, created a vibrant multiplicity of images. Together with his deep kinetic works, Vasarely published his Notes for a manifesto in the exhibition catalogue, outlining his principles of ‘integrating art in the community’ leading the viewer out of the classical environment of the museum to the public spaces, which assume constant motion; and calling for the multiplication of contemporary art to make it possible for everyone to have one or two original masterpieces in their homes. His consistent and coherent œuvre had made him one of the leading figures in international Op art in the midsixties. His utopian concept of the Polychromatic City of Happiness had a profound influence on contemporary architecture.
Vasarely was born in 1906 in Pécs, in Austria–Hungary. He spent his childhood in Pöstyén (today Piešťany, Slovakia) and later in Budapest. Between 1929 and 1930, he studied at the Műhely (Workshop), Sándor Bortnyik’s school of advertising design based on concepts of the Bauhaus. The education he explored here became the basis of his experimental art and his interdisciplinary attitude in artistic research. In the autumn of 1930, he held his first solo exhibition (with Klára Spinner, a fellow student, whom he married in 1931), and moved to Paris, however, in 1933 he participated in a group exhibition in the Ernst Museum, Budapest. He only returned to Hungary thirty-five years later, at the peak of his fame. He held a retrospective exhibition in the Műcsarnok (Kunsthalle, Budapest) in 1969. (Opening of Victor Vasarely’s show in the Műcsarnok, 1969. Photo: MTI) In the following years, two Vasarely Museums were established in Hungary through the artist’s donations to the city of Pécs, his place of birth and to the capital of Hungary, Budapest.
The foundation of the Vasarely Museum in Budapest
It was 24 September 1981 when Victor Vasarely signed his letter of donation in his home in Annet-sur-Marne, in order to establish the Vasarely Museum that was to be set up in the Zichy Palace in Óbuda.
‘I, the undersigned Victor Vasarely, artist-painter, residing at 83Rue aux Reliques–77410 ANNET-SUR-MARNE (France), have taken the decision to make a very important and inalienable donation to the city of Budapest, capital of Hungary, the country of my birth.
I certify that none of these works will ever be repatriated to France.
They are paintings destined for a museum in the Zichy Palace, as well as graphic, decorative, advertising and architectural creations and editions completing the “Art” section.
The entire donation to the Zichy Palace–Budapest III (Főtér Óbuda) is listed on six sheets duly signed, attached (titles, dimensions, dates and values).
The Ambassador of Hungary in Paris, France, Mr. József Bényi, took the responsibility for the insurance and shipping of the ensemble.
In Annet-sur-Marne, September 24, 1981.’
The artworks were first displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, in the autumn of 1982, then in the spring of 1983 when the artist himself held a presentation about the exhibition concept of the future Vasarely Museum.
Exhibition space in 1987 in Hall 1 on the ground floor of the Vasarely Museum
A new museum in the Zichy Palace, Óbuda
The new Vasarely Museum was built between 1985 and 1987 in the Danube bank wing of the Zichy Palace, favourably located at a traffic hub. Situated in the vicinity of the Óbuda housing estate (1968–1975), it became part of the urban planning project implemented in Budapest’s third district. The architects (Péter Molnár, János Kóris and Eszter Budaházi) integrated old and new functions of the seventeenth-eighteenth-century palace. The original vaulted ceilings of the old passage on the ground floor were preserved in the new building, and the main exhibition hall on the first floor with its overhead lighting corresponded to a traditional studio space. The architects were awarded the Niveau Prize of the Ministry of Building and Urban Development for this project in 1987.
While the Vasarely Museum was located in the south-eastern wing of the Zichy Palace, the central building had been home to the Kassák Museum since 1976, committed to preserve and research the material and intellectual legacy of Lajos Kassák (1887–1967), a constructivist pioneer of Hungarian avant-garde. The co-presence with Kassák was of significant importance for Vasarely, who staged two exhibitions of Lajos Kassák at the Galerie Denise René in Paris (in 1960 and in 1963) and published the album Kassák–Vasarely in 1961, in collaboration with Denise René.
The Vasarely Museum’s main entrance from the garden, 8 May 1987
The inauguration ceremony on 8 May 1987 was attended by Victor Vasarely and his wife, eleven years after the celebration of the contribution of Victor and Claire Vasarely (Klára Spinner Vásárhelyi, 1909–1991, a painter and designer) and their son Yvaral (Jean-Pierre Vásárhelyi, 1934–2002, a painter, kinetic and computer artist) to the opening of the first Vasarely Museum in Pécs (14 June 1976).
In accordance with Vasarely’s wishes, the Vasarely Museum Budapest has remained open to the public since 1987, with the only interruption of a one-year-long renovation between 2016 and 2017, developed by Gábor Szenderffy (architecture design) and Anikó Natta (interior design). During the period of reconstruction, many of the artworks were on display at several international Vasarely exhibitions celebrating the 110th anniversary of his birth, among others, in Fondation Vasarely (Aix-en-Provence), Musée Vouland (Avignon), Gordes Castle, Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Madrid), Städel Museum (Frankfurt am Main) and Centre Pompidou (Paris).
(Text by Györgyi Imre)