© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

On Chess: The role of chess in the creation of the op art movement

A perplexus chess set and board created by Victor Vaserly, edition 210/1500, collection of Dr. Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield
Michael DeFilippo
A perplexus chess set and board created by Victor Vaserly is on display at the World Chess Hall of Fame.

When Victor Vasarely, the father of op art, first began to experiment with optical illusions, he needed a canvas on which to put down his thoughts. That canvas had to be square. His two other choices were round, which was totally impractical, or rectangular, which would beg the question: Which way to hang the finished work? So he chose the shape of a chessboard, the square.

Vaserely then had to draw something that could be thought of as optical art. What was on his mind was to create an optical illusion done in such a way that it would be thought of as art. Again, he had three choices: straight lines, curved lines or haphazardly drawn lines. It is almost impossible to create an optical illusion with squiggly lines. And it is very difficult to do so with curved lines. It would take him a few years to achieve that. So, young Vasarely had to start with straight lines, just like the virtual lines we see on a chessboard.

Drawing only vertical or horizontal lines will not easily create an optical illusion, but combining horizontal lines crossed by some vertical lines, will set the stage for a creative process. The chessboard is a logical place to start and that’s exactly what Vasarely did. Or, to be more historically accurate, what Vasarely must have done.

Vasarely was born in 1906 in Hungary and later studied medicine. He dropped out of school to become an artist and moved to Paris in 1930. He worked as a graphic designer at an advertising agency. It took him a while to find his path and develop a style that would one day be called op art, but surely it all started with a chessboard lying on a table in his studio.

Poster by Victor Vaserely from the 1976 Chess Olympiad for Men and Women in Haifa, Israel. The poster is based on the original art made in 1935.
Credit Michael DeFilippo
Poster by Victor Vaserely from the 1976 Chess Olympiad for Men and Women in Haifa, Israel. The poster is based on the original art made in 1935.

It was in 1935 when Victor Vasarely produced his first version of an optical illusion, which he called Chess Boards, in French L’Echequier. A couple of years later he created his iconic Zebras (with curved lines, no less), a work that passed into art history as the first op art image,

To create a simple illusion of movement he placed the canvas at an angle, he folded it, and he replicated it as if it were coming into and leaving the canvas. A few chess pieces were enlarged and reproduced haphazardly, but all this had one unmistakably obvious background: an infinite chessboard. All this did not fit in a square however, so he stretched it into a vertical rectangle.

He moved on to produce a quasi infinite number of images, each with that special quality that makes two people see two different versions at the same time. He also invented the plastic alphabet by combining the square, the circle and the triangle in various colors. By assigning one shape and color to each letter of the alphabet you can write your name and at the same time create a work of art.

Next time you look at a chessboard, think of how it was probably the starting point of an entirely new art form. 

Works by Victor Vasarely are on display at the World Chess Hall of Fame in the Central West End in an exhibition entitled, Victor Vasarely: Calculated Compositions. Paul Firos will be giving a talk on the Vasarely works on Thursday, February 8 at 6:30 PM in the gallery. Free admission.


Paul Firos is a founder of the Museum Herakleidon and a collector of artwork by Victor Vasarely.