Olivier Debré (1920-1999)


Born in 1920 in Paris, Olivier Debré was introduced to painting and sculpture at a very young age. He was especially encouraged by his grandfather Édouard Debat-Ponson (1847-1913), who was a painter of Impressionist landscapes. In 1938 Debré studied architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in the studio of both his uncle Jacques Debat-Ponson as well as in that of Le Corbusier. Supported by gallerist Georges Aubry, Debré exhibited several canvases that were seen by Dunoyer de Segonzac and Picasso, who he met in 1941. The young artist who, in 1937, was shocked at the sight of Guernica at the Spanish Pavilion at the International Exhibition, made frequent visits to Picasso’s studio at 7 rue des Grands-Augustins during the winter of 1942-1943.

These recurring visits to Picasso’s studio proved to be decisive in Debré’s artistic direction. Debré abandoned figuration for abstraction, henceforth seeking to express his emotions without recourse to the representation of the physical world. His life-long artistic quest was to demonstrate that a pictorial sign is the transcription of his emotion, and thus the vehicle of pure fervor. Debré believed that his artistic gestures were driven by his own emotions, and that therefore, pure detached abstraction in painting cannot exist.

Debré led a profound reflection on the meaning and role of the sign in painting: he reflected on the ‘smile problem’, and questioned Phoenician and Hebrew Scriptures; however, he felt his explorations still remained too linked to thought and intelligence. For what Debré actually sought, through non-imitative signs, is that which Pierre Courthion calls ‘the immediate data of unconsciousness’ (first monograph on Debré, 1967). ‘I truly sought how, through the core of a sign, I could express something without it passing through representation or convention.’

First influenced by synthetic Cubist forms in 1942-1943, Debré moved to non-figuration with Signe de ferveur noir (Sign of Black Fervor), 1944-1945, and then created a colourful expressionist painting that earned him his first solo exhibition at Gallery Bing in 1949: he thus aroused the interest of other artists such as Gérard Schneider, Michel Atlan, Hartung and Soulages.

In the 1950s, he developed the series Signes-Personnages (Signs-People), impressive because of their verticality, in a palette of dull colours and thick impasto, modeled in large flat areas with a knife, resembling the works of Nicolas de Staël of the same period.

Debré rediscovered landscape painting in 1953, and from 1960 created the series Signes-Paysages (Signs-Landscapes). In this original style, the composition became much more fluid and spread out, forming undulations of large monochrome fields containing thick coloured concretions that create the sense of space. Debré’s creation of such expansive plains through a play with the transparency of colour reflects both his spontaneous practice and execution, as well as his major preoccupation: ‘to make a fervent abstraction’, that is to say, to restore to the sign the immediate emotion born from the contemplation of a landscape. Indeed, the painter often worked outside in order to become one with nature, his senses in permanent need of reality, which is reflected even in the titles of his paintings: Vue de Tolède (rose) (1958), Jérusalem (1972), Maduraï rose (1974), Rose de Mexique Teotihuacan (1998). ‘I want to create an abstracted suggestion of Courbet.’ ‘When I paint on the ground, there is a physical adherence that is sensual, almost sexual.’

(Martine Heudron)


Selected to represent France at the 1967 International Exhibition, Montreal, Debré exhibited his monumental Signe de l’Homme. Then in the 1970s, he made multiple trips to discover new landscapes, mostly in Norway. His vast coloured spaces that beg comparison with Rothko’s Colour Field painting earned Debré multiple public theatre commissions: the Comédie Française 1987, the Opera of Hong Kong 1989, and the new Opera of Shanghai 1998.


In 1997, choreographer Carolyn Carlson celebrated Debré’s work with a contemporary ballet called Signes, presented at the Opéra Bastille in Paris (performed again in 2013). In Tours, the Centre de Création Contemporaine Olivier Debré, inaugurated in March 2017, celebrates this major 20th century artist while fostering a dialogue around his oeuvre, which was inspired both by the landscapes of the Loire as well as by contemporary creation.


Olivier Debré is represented throughout the world, notably in the collections: Centre Pompidou; Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris; Museum of Modern Art, Denmark; Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.; Fine Arts Museum, Taipei; and National Museum of Modern Art, New Delhi.

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