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.
Olivier Debré, one of the best known and most important abstract painters of the postwar era in France, continued his love affair with landscape painting in Gris Bleu Pale from 1979. Beginning in the 1960's Olivier Debré focused his attention on landscapes and with an abstract expressionist interpretation of them. He traveled widely in search of new landscapes whose contemplation and representation would arouse emotion. As he once explained at the time of his last major retrospective in 1995 at the Jeu de Paume on the Place de la Concorde:
"For me, painting and emotion are inseparable. I can only paint with feeling."
Interestingly, Debré had made a trip to the United States where he met Rothko, Olitiski and Kline. Clearly their works had an effect on his development.
A consummate and inveterate traveler, Debré returned to his beloved Loire Valley where he created quiet meditative canvases that joyfully transformed the Loire's spacious scenery into abstract canvases deeply imbued with his personal emotions, impressions, and sentiments. Debré often worked in monochrome colors as in our example where he has employed an overall "pale grey blue" palette. He often worked on his canvases out of doors where they were subject to such "accidental touches" as raindrops, dust, dew, flower petals, bird droppings and insects. The resulting stains and striations became a deliberate part of his canvases. The Loire Valley with its fabulously verdant hillsides dotted with wineries and chateaus nestled under endlessly blue skies must have inspired Debré to paint our Gris Bleu Pale. The broad and brilliant application of blue-gray paint is clearly the result of Debré taking in the sensation of this natural sky color and desiring to give the viewer a similar experience that celebrates the exhilaration this color in nature brings. The paint has been applied in broad brush vertical applications, which he was known to use a broad brush tool, affording an appreciation of nature in its shapes and colors that is both joyful and sublime in its execution. Gris Bleu Pale stands as a jewel-like example of the pure manifestation of the profound realism that Debré found in his personal depiction of nature and the emotions such representations evoked.
Private Collection, Paris