Olivier Debré

French, 1920-1999 Biography

Olivier Debré was one of the best known French abstract painters of the post-war era in Europe. He was born in 1920 into a prosperous intellectual and professional family. His grandfather was the Chief Rabbi, Simon Debré, while his father, Robert, was a well known pediatrician. His brother Michel was a great statesman and served as the Prime Minister of France under the administration of former President Charles de Gaulle. The family enjoyed an ancestral home that overlooked the Loire River. Debré exhibited an interest in both art and architecture by the age of nine when he was still quite young and perhaps in response to his grief over the death of his mother.

In 1939, Debré studied briefly in Paris with Le Corbusier, the French-Swiss architect who was one of the pioneers of Modern Architecture, or what is referred to as the International Style. He enrolled in the Faculty of Letters at the Sorbonne in Paris. He also attended the École Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in 1938, where he studied painting. During World War II, Debré was a part of the French Resistance forces and received the Croix de Guerre, an award for individuals who distinguish themselves by acts of heroism involving combat with enemy forces. In spite of the Nazi occupation of Paris, Debré was able to show some of his paintings during 1940-1941. In 1942, he became a part of the circle of artists surrounding Picasso, who encouraged Debré to move towards abstraction. After the war ended, Debré became a part of the new generation of painters belonging to the School of Paris which included Pierre Soulages, Nicolas de Stael, Serge Poliakoff and Maria Elena Vieira da Silva.

In the 1940s Debré’s pictures reflected the horrors of war. These themes proved to be unpopular. Then in the 1950s and 1960s, following Picasso’s advice, Debré began to create abstract representations of the human figure painted in tall, narrow formats that were vibrantly colored, immobile verticals. He referred to these works as “signes-personnages” (figurative signs) and “signes-paysages” (landscape signs). The paint was applied to the canvas in massive applications of color that reinforced the artist’s sense of solitude. These pictures seemed to bear little connection to anything remotely human. Instead they were celebrations of color, and Debré proved to be a master colorist.

At the same time, Debré developed a parallel fascination with the concept of space. By the end of the 1960s, Debré had further developed his “signes-paysages” series, which had become more fluid in their representation of space and also more joyful in their radiance and emotion. He often worked on these monochromatic canvases outdoors. Debré used this approach in his monumental works and large-scale commissions, for which he is best known, such as the ornamental paintings for the French Pavilions at the Montreal World’s Fair in Montreal in 1967 and at the Osaka World’s Fair of 1970, as well as the stage curtains for the Hong Kong Opera, the Shanghai Opera, the Comédie Française and the Théâtre des Abbesses in Paris. He also designed a postage stamp and a stained glass window, as well as wrote essays on his vision of changing forms and architecture for a contemporary city.

Debré died in Paris on June 2, 1999.

Croix de Guerre

Galerie Aubry, Morges, Swirzerland, 1941
Knoedler Gallery, New York, New York
French Pavilion at the Montreal Exposition, Canada, 1967
French Pavilion at the Osaka Exposition, Canada, 1970
Retrospective, Jeu de Paume, Paris, France, 1995
Olivier Debré Retrospective, Art Museum, Reykjavik, Iceland, 1996
Olivier Debré Retrospective, Museum of Fine Arts, Mexico/Modern Art Museum, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1997
Olivier Debré Retrospective, History Museum, Beijing/ Modern Art Museum, Hong-Kong, China, 1998
Olivier Debré, oeuvres de la dation, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France, June-September 2003
Olivier Debré, un abstrait lyrique, retrospective of the artist, Musée d’Ixelles, Belgium, February-May 2011
Les Sujets de l’abstraction, Peinture non-figurative de la Seconde École de Paris (1946-1962), Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Musée Rath, Geneva, Switzerland, May-August 2011

Centre Pompidou, Paris, France
Channel Tunnel Entrance Sculpture
Chelsea Art Museum, New York, New York
College de Royan, 1965
Comedie Francaise, Paris, France, 1987
École Polytechnique, Palaiseau, France, 1976
Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Geneva, Switzerland
French Embassy Art Collection, French Embassy, Washington, D.C., 1982-1983
Hong Kong Opera House, China
Musée d’Histoire et d’Art de Luxembourg
Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Shanghai Opera House, China
Taipei Fine Art Museum, Taiwan
Theatre des Abbesses, Paris, France