Victor Vasarely - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London Friday, April 16, 2021 | Phillips

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  • 'Movement does not rely on composition nor a specific subject, but on the apprehension of the act of looking, which by itself is considered as the only creator.'
    —Victor Vasarely
    Autoportrait, 1944 is a compelling figurative work by Victor Vasarely. It was exhibited in Vasarely’s largest retrospective, In the labyrinth of modernismat, at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt in 2019. Only two other self portraits by the artist exist and are drawings, making the present work the only figurative painting of the artist. It reflects an artistic output nourished by multiple influences and tendencies. These varied inspirations are beautifully echoed throughout, displaying obvious references to Cubism in its structural composition as well as German expressionism in the tonalities used. Based on previous self-portrait drawings, the idea of depicting himself through a broken mirror can be dated back to 1942. This painting reflects the artist’s inner turmoil affected by the Second World War, whilst also undergoing a crisis of artistic identity. During this period, Vasarely made a living as an advertising graphic designer. For the artist, the stipulations of the work forced him to mute his personality, finding his creativity and artistic expression dulled. In 1939, he was on the verge of putting his artistic self behind him. However, following the advice of an amateur who suggested that he should study the history of art before rejecting it, the artist discovered avant-garde masters such as Cézanne who had defied accepted academic principles. He later realised that works of art did not have to require a particular knowledge to be appreciated; it should be a moment of aesthetic emotion.


    Vasarely was a virtuoso in translating various artistic currents into his own pictorial language. He was fascinated with optical illusions which would come to be known as ‘Op-art,’ a term coined in 1964.i This work was a direct reference to the portraits of Cubist masters, namely Braque and Picasso. Unlike his predecessors, Vasarely did not adopt the technique of depicting various viewpoints within one image, but instead, created the illusion of seeing the eyes and mouth repeatedly through the broken mirror’s reflection. Vasarely created networks of hatched lines, which by radiating across the surface of the canvas, recalled the Futurist way of painting. The dynamic Futurist manner of composing in frames and sections which had fascinated him since his early youth.ii


    The contrasting colours in Autoportrait suggest German expressionist influence - deep purples and emerald greens alongside subtle areas of beige, adorned with tinges of yellow. By juxtaposing these vibrant tones Vasarely fragments the composition into illusionary parts. He thus uses colour as a tool for three dimensionality, imbuing the image with a hypnotising sense of depth, paying an ode to the masterpieces of Cézanne, the Fauves and the German Expressionists. Through the disruption of visual perception, he emphasises contemplation as having its own aesthetic value, challenging the viewer’s traditional relationship with space and movement. Deeply moving, Autoportrait epitomises the sensitive nature of Vasarely’s artistic renderings, unveiling the often overlooked emotional facet of his work.


    i  ‘Op Art: Pictures that attack the eye’, Time Magazine, 23 October 1964, p.42

    ii Marcel Joray, ed., Vasarely Plastic Arts of the 20th Century, Neuchatel, 1965, p.74

    • Provenance

      Private Collection, France
      Damien Boquet Art, Paris
      Private Collection, Switzerland

    • Exhibited

      Frankfurt, Städel Museum, Victor Vasarely: In the Labyrinth of Modernisme, 27 September 2018 - 13 January 2019, p. 232 (illustrated, p. 43)

    • Literature

      Marcel Joray, Vasarely. Arts plastiques du XXe siècle, Neuchâtel, 1965, no. 7, p. 192 (illustrated, erroneously dated 1945, p. 7)
      Werner Spies, Victor Vasarely, Paris, 1971, no. 22, p. 31 (illustrated)



signed 'VASARELY' lower right
oil on canvas
120 x 80 cm (47 1/4 x 31 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1944, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by Pierre Vasarely and dated 5 October 2017.

The authenticity of the present work has been confirmed by Pierre Vasarely, President of the Fondation Vasarely, universal legatee and the moral right holder of Victor Vasarely. This work will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné de l’Oeuvre Peint de Victor Vasarely, which is currently being compiled by the Fondation Vasarely, Aix-en-Provence.

Full Cataloguing

£180,000 - 250,000 ‡ ♠

Sold for £296,100

Contact Specialist


Tamila Kerimova
Specialist, Director, Head of Day Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

+ 44 20 7318 4065



20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale

London Auction 16 April 2021