Created in 1976 by the father of Op Art, the Fondation Vasarely has been eroded for decades by a family dispute. But a major restoration programme is well underway and this visionary centre remains a key destination for anyone interested in modern art.
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Strikingly located, the Fondation Vasarely sits on a large grassy mound just outside Aix. It's a short drive from Paul Cézanne's family home at Jas de Bouffan, one of the elements that attracted Vasarely to the site, and commands open views over the city and surrounding countryside, including Cézanne's beloved Mont Sainte Victoire.
The Fondation's dramatic façade, covered with anodised aluminium plates, looks rather like a set of child's building blocks.
It's decorated with geometrical motifs: a circle and square pattern in alternating sequences of black and white. At the front and slightly to the left of the main entrance, a large pond reflects the façade, compounding the trompe l'oeil effect.
Designed by Vasarely in collaboration with the architects Jean Sonnier, Dominique Ronsseray and Claude Pradel-Lebar, the huge, 5,000 square metre / 16,400 square foot structure consists of 16 interlocking hexagonal modules.
Inside the Fondation Vasarely, each module has several entrances and exits. You're not directed through the seven display rooms in any particular sequence (unless you decide to take the audio headphone tour) so that, as you wander through the honeycomb structure at random, you have the pleasurable sense of losing yourself in a labyrinth.
Anyone expecting a neat, conventional display of Vasarely's framed silk-screen prints will be astonished at the scale of the pieces on display here, each one covering most of a wall.
Standing inside the modules and surrounded by them, you feel sucked right into the heart of Vasarely's distinctive, dizzy, geometric designs.
Executed in metal, tapestry, ceramic, enamel or glass, some of them are explosions of colour. Others are a crisp, palate-cleansing black and white, illuminated by natural light shining through the windows behind them and the glass roof.
Vasarely's mission was to make art for everyone, not just the privileged, educated few and his bold yet complex shapes are instantly accessible (their influences can be detected in the work of many subsequent painters such as Frank Stella and Bridget Riley).
Way ahead of his time, the Hungarian-born artist (pictured below) did not intend the Fondation Vasarely as a personal shrine, but described it variously as a "laboratory of ideas", a "centre architectonique" and, even more grandly, a "polychromatic city of happiness".
Focussing on new technologies such as computer-generated art, the Fondation today continues in the spirit of that philosophy with workshops for children (held every Wednesday, by reservation), guest exhibitions, symposia for visiting artists and all sorts of other special events.
Don't forget to visit the upper floor where there is a temporary exhibition space and two large vents which look down on the ground floor rooms and offer yet another perspective on them.
In line with Vasarely's democratic ethos, the museum shop sells an affordable selection of books, posters, postcards and other souvenirs as well as high-quality signed limited editions.
The Fondation Vasarely was conceived as a showcase for the artist's vast personal archive, which included thousands of prints, oil paintings and architectural studies.
Today, just 42 pieces remain, plus two sculptures in the grounds. But, along with the temporary exhibitions, they make for a satisfying and memorable visit.
When we toured the Foundation in late December 2011, the artist's grandson, Pierre Vasarely greeted us wrapped up in a scarf, sweater and jacket. The museum's heating and air conditioning had, he explained, been out of order for some 20 years and the premises can get equally hot in mid-summer, despite its high ceilings.
There were signs everywhere of water seepage and an overall impression of neglect and underfunding. Some artworks were damaged. Pierre Vasarely had been battling hard to reverse this decline (his email confirming our appointment was datelined 3.00am).
He has a long way to go but, encouragingly, funding has been pledged from a range of sources for a huge renovation project. Work began on this in early 2013, and eventually the museum will have new wiring, air-conditioning / heating and a roof that doesn't leak. The Fondation Vasarely has also been named an "Historic Monument", with all the cultural prestige that this brings.
Update: We've been back to the Fondation Vasarely several times since that first visit to see how things are progressing. In September 2014 protective canvas sheets were being fitted on the roof to stopped the leakage.
But there was a super show celebrating the Venezuelan modernist Carlos Cruz-Diez, an artist whose work has strong affinities to that of Vasarely.
In June 2016 we caught L'Art Pour Tous, the excellent exhibition making the 40th anniversary of the Fondation and the 110th anniversary of Vasarely's birth.
Over in the rooms housing the permanent collection, two parties of excited schoolchildren were discovering his colourful world. And, in another part of the building, teams of workman could be heard in full swing: the restoration continues. The Fondation Vasarely remains strongly recommended!
So it seems as if it might finally be possible to turn the page of L'affaire Vasarely, as it's been known for years in the French press. The story is incredibly complex and seems to have begun over two decades ago while one Charles Debbasch was the President of the Fondation.
Debbasch was to become the object of a very long court case and when Pierre's stepmother, Michèle Taburno, took over in the mid 1990s, a poisonous rift opened up within the family.
Over the years hundreds of artworks disappeared from the Fondation Vasarely and from the Musée Didactique, its sister-museum which Vasarely had set up in 1970 at the Château de Gordes in Vaucluse.
Virtually emptied of its contents, the Musée Didactique closed down in 1996; a handful of remaining artworks remain on display in the Château today.
After Victor Vasarely's death in 1997, many pieces went to his two sons, André and Jean-Pierre (also known as the artist Yvaral), Taburno's husband and Pierre's father, as part of what they claimed as their inheritance.
Others eventually found their way to America along with Taburno, who moved to Chicago and subsequently Puerto Rico after Jean-Pierre's death.
After that l'affaire Vasarely continued to fester, with a suite of court hearings. Pierre Vasarely (pictured above) joined the board of the Fondation in 2006 and became its President in 2009.
Named in his grandfather's will as sole holder of the moral rights over the work, his authority has been reconfirmed by Aix and Paris court rulings. There is also a legal campaign to have all the missing artworks returned (don't expect this to happen any time soon, though).
If you read French, you can find more than you ever need to know about the sorry saga from Pierre Vasarely's website, as well as the personal website for Michèle Taburno, which also features screen scans of some of the toxic alleged correspondence between family members.
Pierre's indomitable stepmother has declared her intent to fight on: "I'm prepared to enter into a pact with the devil in person," Taburno told the newspaper La Provence in September 2011.
She also maintains what she claims is the artist's official website. Its epigraph, with no apparent intended irony, is a quote from Victor Vasarely: "The art of tomorrow will be a collective treasure, or it will not be art at all."
Where: Fondation Vasarely, 1 avenue Marcel Pagnol, 13090 Aix en Provence. Tel: (+33) 4 42 20 01 09 Website for the Fondation Vasarely