Olivier Debré French, 1920-1999


Olivier Debré was one of the best known French abstract painters of the postwar era in Europe. He was born in 1920 into a prosperous intellectual and professional family. His grandfather was the Chief Rabbi Simon Debre 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. Debre 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 Debre 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 1940-1. 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 1940's Debré's pictures reflected the horrors of war. These themes proved to be unpopular. Then in the 1950's and 1960's, following Picasso's advice, Debre 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 1960's 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 out-of-doors. 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.


Galerie Aubry, 1941

Knoedler Gallery, New York

French Pavilion at the Montreal Exposition, 1967, Signe de L'Homme

French Pavilion at the Osaka Exposition, 1970

Jeu de Paume, Paris, 1995 (retrospective)

Olivier Debré Retrospective, Art Museum, Reykjavik, 1996

Olivier Debré Retrospective, Museum of Fine Arts, Mexico/Modern Art Museum, Rio de Janeiro, 1997

Olivier Debré Retrospective, History Museum, Beijing/ Modern Art Museum, Hong Kong, 1998

Olivier Debré, œuvres de la dation, Centre Pompidou, Paris 25/06/2003-15/09/2003

Olivier Debré, un abstrait lyrique, retrospective of the artist, Musée d'Ixelles (Belgium) 24/02/2011-15/05/2011

Les Sujets de l'abstraction, Peinture non-figurative de la Seconde École de Paris (1946-1962), Fondation Gandur pour l'Art, Musée Rath, Geneva, 06/05/2011 14/08/2011

Signes, ballet directed by the choreographer Carolyn Carlson, with music by René Aubry; stage sets and costumes by Olivier Debré, Opéra Bastille in Paris, July 2013


Museums and Public Collections

Centre Pompidou, Paris

Channel Tunnel Entrance Sculpture

Chelsea Art Museum

College de Royan, 1965

Comedie Francaise, 1987

École Polytechnique, 1976

Fondation Gandur pour l'Art, Geneva

French Embassy Art Collection

French Embassy, Washington, D.C., 1982-3

Hong Kong Opera House

Musée d'Histoire et d'Art de Luxembourg

Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Shanghai Opera House

Taipei Fine Art Museum

Theatre des Abbesses, Paris

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