Olivier Debré

1920 - 1999

After secondary school, Debré took a degree in literature in 1938 and entered the architecture section of the École des Beaux-Arts. He had been painting since childhood and this seemed to him to be the best means by which to express himself.

He painted his first paintings in an impressionist vein, possibly influenced by his grandfather the painter Debat-Ponsan, showing these works in 1941 at the Galerie Aubry in rue de Seine: landscapes of the Touraine and the banks of the Seine. He attended the Grande Chaumière and met there Othon Friesz and Dunoyer de Segonzac and, a little later, Georges Braque. Georges Aubry showed Debré’s paintings to Picasso. Debré already wished to go beyond a simple transcription of his emotions. He began to consider creating an autonomous language. His first cubist paintings, derived from ‘synthetic’ cubism, were exhibited at Aubry’s gallery in 1943. For several months Debré visited Picasso in his studio on quai des Grands-Augustins and showed the master his work. Debré rapidly became convinced that the sign was central to everything else. Fascinated by the famous elder artist’s painting, he emulated Picasso’s expressionism retaining only the structure of the forms without any actual representation. He soon realised, however, that this means of expression still contained identification. This constituted the starting point of what still today remains Debré’s plastic quest: a belief that the sign should express his feelings, without representation or awareness, conveying fervour intact. Around 1944 to 1945 he began to think about the ‘problème du sourire’ (‘problem of the smile’), as he described it (in 1978, he made a video, L’alphabet du sourire, a list that can be compared to Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical studies), which then led him to consider at great length the signification of the sign, its role in plastic expression and its relation to writing. The sign which reflects facial expression is derived from thought. Through this projection, he succeeded in restoring reality to unreality. He believed that it was important to take painting as far as possible in the direction of abstraction and therefore to cut oneself off from reality: to accomplish this there was only one solution, namely writing, which is an ‘insensitive’ formulation. Debré consulted the Phoenicians and interviewed Hebrew scribes whose writing corresponded to his approach of starting from the concept to arrive at representation. Writing from right to left, they bring the gesture towards themselves, and are therefore external to the world, a perfect definition of abstraction; cut off from their bodies, they remain in the world of the intellect. Painting is the exact opposite to this, defined as it is by the unavoidable involvement of the senses: a line, however abstract it is intended to be, involves sensitivity, through the gesture, which remains connected to the body. It is this physical sensitivity which becomes a representation of the world. For Debré, abstraction as such does not exist in painting. He needed to become aware of his signs, whose signification varies according to their form and their relation to space: this is the picture plane. “With non-imitative signs the artist, like the spectator, approaches the subject by what could be called the immediate ‘data’ of unconsciousness. It is one of the means of expression in this painting that has lost its external signification of representation” (Debré, Pierre Courthion. Le Musée de Poche, 1967). The conscious similarity which exists between the work of certain abstract painters such as Mathieu and Degottex and Far Eastern calligraphy no longer needs to be demonstrated. The artist brings these signs to life through organised distortion. Having entered the world of the sign, Debré sought its signification, unlike Mathieu and Etiemble, who sought non-signification. Debré provides a signification and acknowledges an area of sensitivity, hence his definition of the ‘painter of reality’. In 1947 he painted huge paintings: abstract landscapes derived from a description of reality. Debré continued analysing the relation to the sign. If we wish to live within the concept of reality, in general harmony with things and in complete fusion with the world, the phenomenon becomes inversed: man is no longer inside the sign but outside it, and we move from the word of Israel to the image, the formulation of attitude and Greek philosophy. This is an image of man in which there is complete harmony between the individual and the world. Writing becomes an action that is lived carnally; the act of writing is now performed from left to right, and the earlier relationship between form and signification no longer exists.

In order to counterbalance his temperament which encouraged him to make gestures, Debré analysed reality. This reference to nature is present in all his work, as is demonstrated by their titles, which evoke the inspiration essential to his painting. Beginning with Signe de ferveur noir, (1944–1945, priv. coll.), painted directly from the tube, he attempts to transcend his expressive motivation through colour and integrating the line in the background. To distance himself from a treatment of space that is still too realistic and marked by the influence of cubism, Debré (and he was not the only artist at this period to do so) employs texture, form and colour to restrict the illusion of a third dimension. Worked by the knife, the canvas takes on an irregular surface, in which the composition manipulates depth. There is a profound existential desire to manifest man’s presence. For Gindertaël this was “a materialisation of man’s experience of his environment and his space, without ever being able to attain an absolute identification with either the limits of the universe or its principle. In this way painting revived prolongs, in our time, its ‘natural’ immemorial path and rediscovers its fundamental purpose” (XXe Siècle, June 1960). Debré managed to convey this symbolically in his early work, up until Signes personnages, Signes musiciens in 1950 to 1951, which mark his search for ‘signe de l’homme’ (‘sign of man’) as a significant sign of ‘his’ reality. Proof of this is furnished by the hundreds of drawings he made between 1951 and 1953 which, although full of life and truth, are nevertheless difficult to immediately identify. Of what Debré called ‘le signe du réel’ (‘sign of the real’), he only retained a few elements, to which he nevertheless gave strength and truth. This accounts for the specific position which he occupied within the young generation of post-war abstract artists. Preoccupied by his research, he did not realise that de Stael was painting in exactly the same direction, to the extent that one might mistakenly say that Debré copied rather than the opposite. In fact Debré’s investigation was different and the similarity between the two artists’ work is not a fundamental one.

Debré seldom exhibited. After his beginnings at the Salon des Surindépendants in 1948, he showed at the Salon d’Automne for the first time in 1949, becoming a member in 1966 as well as a member of the Comité Français des Arts Plastiques, and of the Salon de Mai, to which he remained loyal (he was still a member of the Committee in 1990).

In 1949 Debré’s first solo exhibition was held at the Galerie Bing, showing expressive, non-geometric, extremely colourful abstract works. He met Schneider, Deyrolle, Dewasne, Atlan, Soulages and Hartung.

Around 1950 Debré began using subdued colours. Concert champêtre (1952, priv. coll.), shown that year at the Salon d’Automne, stands out as a work of transition. The symbolic becomes increasingly interiorised, replaced by an architectural approach to the picture, with a simpler style of execution marked by a considerable freedom of action and the frequent use of rich impasto. In 1952 Poliakoff visited Debré and suggested he interest himself in the work of two painters: Poliakoff himself and Sam Francis. The Signes personnages were to be a part of his work for nearly 20 years, with a peak from 1953 to 1959.

In 1953 Debré had his second solo exhibition at the Galerie Facchetti. The works of this period illustrate what has been already discussed, and which was related in an interview the artist granted to the author: the union between man and his natural environment and the consenting relationship between man and nature. The vertical frame imposes a standing position for these ‘figures’. The impasto of the forms and colours, which gives the painting a distinctive relief, contrasts with the lines of force in the drawing and signs. In 1953 a switch to landscape occurred (with mostly views of ports) with the introduction of individual space.

At the same time there were also still lives (1954–1955), illustrating an ‘enclosed space’. In both cases, the format was horizontal.

In 1956 Debré had a solo exhibition at the Galerie Michel Warren in Paris. This new gallery corresponded with a freer use of colour, which Debré granted a degree of autonomy on the canvas. The series Blanche foreshadowed what we may refer to as the ‘monochromes’. Debré’s approach was in no way deliberate and was sometimes still closely affected by his personal emotions, which he controlled with the intellect. He was a part of nature, as nature itself was a part of him. He needed this identification with perceptible reality. He used the knife to work successive layers of coloured impasto with slight relief, transparency, lines and scrapings. This led, after 1960, to what Debré called ‘fervent abstraction’.

His recent work was twice exhibited in the USA with considerable success: in 1958 at the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington and in 1959 at the Knoedler Gallery in New York with a text by Pierre Courthion.

In Paris in 1960 Debré exhibited at the Galerie Knoedler with a text by Dora Vallier (published in Cahiers d’Art, June). The lyrical transposition of his feelings about nature was accompanied by lighter texture and a more fluid spontaneity. In the organisation of space, the role previously played by impasto is now occupied by transparent colour, applied by the brush which now replaces the knife, the palette lightened by the addition of white.

The first attempts to de-centre the composition appear in 1963, and then become predominant, with the colour attraction placed in a corner. In 1962 solo exhibitions were held in Milan at the Galleria Pagani del Grattacielo, in Lucerne at the Galerie Ronca Hans and in Geneva at the Musée de l’Athénée (text by Pierre Courthion).

In 1963 the Galerie Knoedler showed Debré’s work in the Paris gallery, with a text by Francis Ponge translated by Annette Michelson for the exhibition at the New York gallery a few months later.

With this return to nature, Debré confided: “I want to do abstract Courbet.” In 1962 he began to paint huge canvases (exhibited at the Palais Galliera in 1968, along with sculptures by Gilioli, with a text by Marie-Claude Dane). This was the beginning of his second major period, which continued to this day. He painted mostly out of doors, integrated in the landscape, attempting to transmit the emotion he felt. Abandoning his research into texture, he spread extremely liquid colour on the canvas. From now on he replaced the enclosed cubist spaces of his earlier work by open spaces. The sign derived from objectivity is abandoned. Debré approaches the dialectic of his work through favouring emotion. The canvas becomes the sign. Painting the instantaneous, the impression and the fleeting moment, the act of painting becomes a projection of the body, emphasising the importance of gesture and speed.

Debré endeavours to eliminate the distance which separates perception from transcription. The gesture becomes the painting, expressing an instant (Olivier Debré, L’espace et le comportement, l’Œil, November 1973).

With its desire to investigate, Debré’s work offers us a field of vision constantly renewed by what he is attempting to achieve: a combination of emotion and analysis to give life to what he calls ‘mental matter’. He said: “At a given moment, something freezes in the matter, it is the reality of the emotion and it is inside me… There is a kind of over-lapping between the mental atmosphere and the real atmosphere… We are always both in ourselves and outside ourselves… I paint in the emotion of a reality that generates me.”

Among the group exhibitions in which Debré participated, we should mention: the Salon d’Octobre organised by Charles Estienne in 1952 and 1953. In 1950 he exhibited with Prassinos at the Perspectives Gallery in New York. In 1955 he participated in a group exhibition for the Prix Lissone. 1957 Galerie Michel Warren with Jacques Germain. 1959 Painters of Today, Palazzo delle Arti, Turin. 1961 invited to the Marzotto Prize; Dessins contemporains, Galerie Denise René. 1964 Premier Prix Biennale de Menton and exhibition of the winners of the Biennale, Galerie Synthèse, Paris. 1964, 2nd Festival des Arts Plastiques on the Côte d’Azur; Pour une nouvelle conception du paysage, Galerie l’Atelier, Toulouse. 1965 Promesses tenues, Musée Galliera. 1966 Dix ans d’art vivant, Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Participated in the Salon Comparaisons from 1954 to 1957 and from 1962 to 1965; in Réalités Nouvelles from 1957 to 1964. Invited to participate in L’École de Paris, Galerie Charpentier in 1960 and 1963.

Debré has since figured in many group events and regularly shows his work both in France and abroad.

He had solo exhibitions in Japan from 1966 onwards and in Oslo from 1968.

His first retrospective was held at the Musée de Bordeaux in 1968. Catalogue, text by P. Courthion.

1969 Debré, Rétrospective. Musée de Brest. Catalogue, preface by René Le Bihan, texts by R.V. Gindertaël, Georges Badin, Robert Marteau.

1973 Debré, Rétrospective. Musée de Saint-Etienne. Catalogue published in 1975, numerous texts by F. Ponge, Marcel Pleynet, André Pacquement and Daniel Abadie.

1975–1976 Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, catalogue text by Jacques Lassaigne, De la peinture au dessin, 1962–1975.

1977 Retrospectives. National Museum of Wales, Cardiff; 1978 Museum of Modern Art Aalborg, Denmark and Lyngby Kunstforening, Copenhagen; 1979 Maison de la Culture de Montbéliard; 1980 Fondation du Château-de-Jau.

1980–1981 Musées de Tours, Sainte-Croix in Poitiers and Strasbourg, Catalogue by S. Guillot de Sudmirant, J.M. Réol and N. Lehni, text by E. Jabès.

1986 Musée de Metz, Catalogue by Bernard Noël.

1988 Musée Ingres, Montauban. Catalogue.

1990 Dessins 1945–1960. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Saint-Denis. Catalogue by Bernard Noël. Adam Biro.

The painting of large works drawn from his sense of space led to the realisation of monumental works: 1965 for the Collège de Royan, and 1966 for the French Pavilion at the Montreal Exhibition. It is not possible to mention most of these works here, as they go beyond the scope of the period under study. Among the most recent, we should however mention the two stage curtains for the Comédie Française in Paris (1987) and the stage curtain for the Hong Kong Opera inaugurated in 1989.

Debré made tapestry cartoons and sculpture. He also made prints and lithographs, techniques which he had practised throughout his life as an artist.

Debré’s work is held in many museum collections both in France and abroad. Paris: Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou and Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris – Le Havre – Tours – Strasbourg – Saint-Etienne – Nantes – Antibes – Marseille – Bordeaux – Lyons – Dunkerque – Colmar – Grenoble – Toulouse – Perpignan – Sables-d’Olonne – Brest – Evreux – Caen – Liège – Montreal – Rio de Janeiro – Jerusalem – New Delhi – Copenhagen – Oslo – Aalborg – Cardiff – Lausanne – Boston – Washington – St Louis – Houston.

In Paris Debré has shown at the Galerie Daniel Gervis since 1972, the Galerie Ariel since 1973, the Galerie Daniel Templon since 1979 and Leif Stalhe in Paris and Stockholm since 1985.

Debré’s painting has attracted many critics and writers. A complete biography is to be found in the important monograph by Bernard Noël: Olivier Debré, Flammarion, 1984.

  • Guy Weelen: La Jeune École de Paris, Le Musée de Poche, 1958

  • Jean Grenier: Entretiens avec dix-sept peintres non-figuratifs. Calmann Lévy, 1963.

  • Pierre Courthion: Debré, Le Musée de Poche, G. Fall, 1967.

  • Pierre Courthion: Olivier Debré ou la peinture signifiante, XXe siècle, March 1974.

  • Daniel Abadie: Olivier Debré mais à dessein. Cahiers théoriques de l’Abbaye Sainte-Croix, May 1974 during the exhibition of drawings at the Musée des Sables-d’Olonne.

  • Gérard Xuriguera: Les Années 50. Arted, 1984.

  • Pierre Cabanne: Olivier Debré. Cercle d’Art, Paris, 1991.

Excerpt from L’École de Paris 1945–1965: Dictionnaire des peintres
Ides et Calendes Editions, courtesy of Lydia Harambourg