Postwar Abstraction in Europe


  • Postwar Abstraction in Europe aims to explore the psychology of visual perception.
  • Artists featured within this theme are Lucio Fontana, and Victor Vasarely
  • Adriana Varejão is presented as a comparative artist. Her work is featured in theme 9.

The surface of an artwork was all important in this period where artists were moving art beyond a narrative told in paint.  In Europe artists were playing with colour, or the lack of it, and surface- what lay in front, and on the other side of the surface,  exploring the psychology of visual perception. Postwar abstract art often played with the eye. Artists challenged the very nature of what art is.

Lucio Fontana, for example, pierced the canvas to break the illusion of dimension in painting, and to reveal actual space. Many artists from this time questioned similar issues in their own distinctive styles.

Victor Vasarely’s Op Art was based on an exploration of formal elements, notably the use of geometric forms and the representation of depth in two dimensions.

In 1944 Jean Tinguely began to animate his work by incorporating motorised elements.

The artists included in this theme knew one another, held joint exhibitions, collaborated on publications and collected each other’s work. This was made possible by the increased ease of travel (often by car) and communication in postwar Europe.



Lucio Fontana Concetto spaziale, Attese (Spatial Concepts) 1965

Lucio FONTANA - Concetto spaziale, Attese 1965

Argentinian/Italian 1899–1968
Concetto spaziale, Attese (Spatial Concepts) 1965
water-based paint on canvas, white
130 x 97 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
Gift, Fondazione Lucio Fontana
© Courtesy of Fondazione Lucio Fontana

Lucio Fontana worked as a painter and sculptor. He experimented with stone, metals, ceramics and neon. As a painter he attempted to go beyond the confines of the two dimensional surface. He aimed to achieve an expression of a fourth dimension. He wanted to fuse the categories of architecture, sculpture and painting to create a groundbreaking new artistic expression.

Materials and Techniques

From 1947 on, Fontana’s experiments were often entitled Concetti spaziali (Spatial Concepts). The artist’s sculptures brought colour, considered to be under the dominion of painting, into the realm of the three-dimensional. In his early painting series Buchi (Holes) he dared to puncture the surface of his canvases, breaking the membrane of two dimensionality in order to highlight the space behind and around the stretched canvas.

Starting in 1958, Fontana further reduced his paintings by creating matte, monochrome (one colour) surfaces, focusing the viewer’s attention on the slices that broke the taunt skin of the canvas as it was pulled over the stretcher. Paintings such as Concetto spaziale, Attese, 1965, have precise cuts that express the idea that the painting is a three-dimensional object, not solely a surface.



Victor Vasarely Cheyt-M 1970

Victor VASARELY - Cheyt-M 1970

Hungarian/French 1908–97
Cheyt-M 1970
tempera on canvas
271.8 x 269.9 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
© Victor Vasarely/ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia

Victor Vasarely was interested in the exploration of formal elements, particularly the use of geometric forms and the representation of depth in two dimensions. He also believed that commercial artists were more honourable and socially relevant than the individual artist seeking self-expression. As a young artist he moved to Paris in 1930, earning a successful living in advertising and design.

Sources of Inspiration

In the early 1950s Vasarely made several series of abstract paintings filled with large geometric shapes inspired by tiles, natural forms and landscape elements. By the mid 1950s, he had rejected natural sources for his inspiration in favour of pure abstractions that drew on geometry, colour contrasts, mathematical systems and Gestalt psychology. Gestalt psychology considered ways that a viewers mind perceives visual information.

Vasarely pioneered the idea of ‘kinetic art’ (moving art). Vasarely did not intend the term to be interpreted literally (his work did not actually move). Instead he tried to create a sense of movement through the use of optical illusions. He generated the sensation of a moving image on a flat surface. For this reason, he came to be known as a leader of Op Art in Europe.

Vasarely also interpreted ‘kinetic’ in social terms:

"by the word “movement” I understood the development of a dynamic, community art, essentially social and continually renewed in its functions."

Vasarely saw Cheyt-M, 1970, as a major work in his series. He described it in this mathematical way:

"a cellular structure which sustains six equilateral triangles, which gives us three identical lozenges, and finally a hexagon forming a cube"

His work plays optical games with the mind and the eye. These works give illusion of depth where in fact there is none.



Adriana Varejão Folds 2 2003

Adriana VAREJ√O - Folds 2 2003

Brazilian 1964–
Folds 2 2003
oil on canvas over aluminium, mounted to wood with oil-painted polyurethane
240.7 x 230.2 x 40 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Purchased with funds contributed by the International Director’s Council and Executive Committee Members: Ruth Baum, Edythe Broad, Elaine Terner Cooper, Dimitris Daskalopoulos, Harry David, Gail May Engelberg, Shirley Fiterman, Nicki Harris, Dakis Joannou, Rachel Lehmann, Linda Macklowe, Peter Norton, Tonino Perna, Elizabeth Richebourg Rea, Mortimer D. A. Sackler, Simonetta Seragnoli, David Teiger, and Elliot K. Wolk         
© Adriana Varejão, courtesy of Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York

Adriana Varejão was born in Brazil in 1964, only one year before Lucio Fontana made Concetto spaziale (Spatial Concepts), Attese 1965. Varejão’s work proposes the rupture of a flat surface and appears to draw on Fontana as one of her influences. Fontana actually slashed into the canvas with a knife to rupture its taut surface thus transforming his art from painting into a three dimensional sculpture. Varejão’s painting creates the illusion that she has slashed the surface and that meat has oozed out towards us from the back of the canvas.

Sources of Inspiration

The squares in Varejão’s painting resemble the decorative Portuguese tiles (or azulejos) that formed the interior surfaces of Brazilian convents and other colonial buildings in the 1700s. Europeans first colonised Brazil in 1500, and it remained a Portuguese colony until the nineteenth century. The sugarcane industry was made profitable only by the forced labour of African slaves. Brazil’s indigenous people were banished or assimilated into the Brazilian population.

Varejão’s work is made after 1970 but it responds to the ugly truth about Brazil’s history of colonialism, slavery and racism. Varejão’s paintings go beyond Fontana’s simple slash to reveal the meaty body of the canvas, as if metaphorically cutting through the falsehoods of history.



Middle Years

2.1 Playing with the Picture Plane: A Practical Activity

2.2 Homage to the Hexagon

Senior Years – VCE Art & VCE Studio Arts

2.3 Spatial Concepts

2.4 Lucio Fontana and Adriana Varejao

2.5 Beyond the Surface