Olivier Debré

1920 (Paris) - 1999 (Paris)

Portrait de l'artiste peintre Olivier Debré


Olivier Debré is a French abstract painter born in Paris in 1920. He is one of the main representatives of lyrical abstraction, along with Hans Hartung, Pierre Soulages, Georges Mathieu and Jean Miotte. It was following a visit to Pablo Picasso’s studio in 1941 that Olivier Debré, an honoured artist and member of the Académie française, switched from figurative painting to abstraction. The influence of André Lanskoy awakened his strong taste for colour. In 1945, he began to produce works in gouache and ink influenced by Japanese calligraphy. In 1960, Debré began to use the intense, vivid colours that would come to define his style – a change of direction partly linked to his encounters with painters such as Mark Rothko and Jules Olitski.

Debré’s ambition was to express the emotions he felt about natural phenomena such as storms, typhoons and rivers (particularly the Loire) by using strong accents of colour on fluid, vibrant backgrounds – he described his work as “fervent abstraction”.

“I really tried to find how within a sign and without using conventions, I could express something without using illustration either.” Olivier Debré

After the majestic Signes-figures of the 1950s using a muted palette and material, the Signes-paysages of the 1960s appear, where the material stretches and becomes fluid, allowing light and transparency to emerge.

As a painter of immense spaces, Olivier Debré’s work has taken concrete form in large theatre sets: curtains for the Comédie Française (1987), the Hong Kong Opera (1989) commissioned by the Louis Vuitton Foundation, and the new Shanghai Opera.

Debré has been the subject of several major exhibitions during his lifetime: in 1967, he represented France at the World Exhibition in Montreal, in 1977, the National Museum of Wales devoted a retrospective to him and in 1995, a new retrospective was presented at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. In the 1980s he also worked for the theatre, receiving commissions from the Hong Kong Opera and the Shanghai Opera, as well as creating sets for the ballet Signs, choreographed by Carolyn Carlson.

“When I paint on the floor, there is a physical grip that is sensual, almost sexual. Olivier Debré

The painter’s work has also been the subject of a fantastic contemporary ballet: Signs, directed by the choreographer Carolyn Carlson. A unique show combining painting, music and dance, presented at the Opéra Bastille in Paris in 1997 and revived in July 2013.

Olivier Debré’s works are collected all over the world, in the greatest international museums such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of History and Art in Luxembourg, the Phillips Collection in Washington, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, as well as in private collections and famous foundations such as the Gandur Foundation for Art in Geneva.