Vega by Victor VasarelyCreated in 1976 by the father of Op Art, the Fondation Vasarely was eroded for decades by a family dispute. But, thanks to a major restoration programme, this visionary centre is now 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 things 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, 5000 square metre / 16400 square foot structure consists of interlocking hexagonal modules.

The Fondation Victor Vasarely, Aix en ProvenceInside the Fondation Vasarely, each module has several entrances and exits. You're not directed through the seven main display rooms in any particular sequence (unless you decide to take the audio headphone tour).

It means 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 42 large-scale 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.

They are executed in a wide range of media: metal, tapestry, ceramic, enamel or glass. Some 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".

Victor VasarelyFocussing on new technologies such as computer-generated art, the Fondation today continues in the spirit of that philosophy. It holds workshops for children (every Wednesday, by reservation), guest exhibitions, symposia for visiting artists and all sorts of other special events.

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.

But many of these disappeared in the course of the 1990s and the building itself went into terrible decline.

Inside the Fondation Victor Vasarely, Aix en ProvenceWe first toured the Foundation in late December 2011, at a low point in its history. Pierre Vasarely, the artist's grandson and the President of the Foundation, greeted us wrapped up in a scarf, sweater and winter 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 catastrophic underfunding. Some artworks were damaged.

Pierre Vasarely had been battling hard and working all hours to reverse this decline. His email confirming our appointment was datelined 3.00am.

But an awful lot has changed since then, and all of it for the better. Funding was secured for a huge renovation project and now the building has new wiring, air-conditioning / heating and a roof that doesn't leak.

The Fondation Vasarely has also been named a national "Historic Monument", with all the cultural prestige (and access to more funding) that this brings.

We've been back to the Fondation Vasarely quite a few times since that first visit. In 2014, protective canvas sheets were being fitted on the roof.

But there was a super show celebrating the Venezuelan modernist Carlos Cruz-Diez, whose work has strong affinities to that of Vasarely.

Artwork, Fondation Victor Vasarely, Aix en ProvenceIn 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.

Two parties of excited schoolchildren were discovering his colourful world while, in another part of the building, noisy teams of workman could be heard in full swing.

By late 2018, work on the building itself had been completed. And there was more fantastic news: three new rooms opened on the upper floor.

They display around 200 smaller pieces on permanent loan from galleries and private collectors and trace Vasarely's entire career from the 1930s to the 1990s.

These include some surprising revelations from his early work in advertising and some rare figurative work. The next task is to restore those 42 large-scale artworks on the ground floor.

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 later became the object of a very long court case and Pierre's stepmother, Michèle Taburno, took over in the mid 1990s. After that, 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.

Pierre VasarelyAfter 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, 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, but don't expect this to happen any time soon.

Anyone who can read French, can find more than they 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 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

 

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