Obituary: Olivier Debre

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ARTISTS OFTEN spring from very humble origins. But even those rare fortunates born with a silver spoon in the mouth are not spared their less favoured brothers' terrifying sufferings, the despair and the loneliness all serious artists must endure in trying to find their own voice, their own style, their own place as exceptional human beings struggling to survive in ordinary everyday life.

Olivier Debre may be said to have been born with a silver brush in his hand. He bore a famous name, that of a dynasty belonging to the haute bourgeoisie of France. He was the grandson of the Chief Rabbi, Simon Debre. His father, Robert Debre, was a renowned paediatrician, Membre de l'Institut, who is remembered in the children's hospital that was named after him. Robert had married into an artistic family of liberal intellectuals. His wife was a musician as well as a doctor, and her brother was a painter.

Olivier's elder brother Michel became a great statesman, an intimate of President Charles de Gaulle, and Prime Minister of France from 1959 to 1962. He was also a writer and scholar, and a member of the Academie Francaise. They possessed a fine ancestral home in Touraine, "Les Maderes", an 18th- century house overlooking the river Loire. It is a region submerged in the plenitude of ever-changing light that aureoles the banks of the Loire, and became the inspiration for many of Olivier's immense, emotional, evocative translations into paint of his most profound sensations in the presence of nature.

When he was nine, Olivier's mother died, and it was in order to sublimate his grief that, encouraged by his father and uncle, he started to draw and paint. The boy was given the best of classic French education at the Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris, and at the Faculty of Letters in the Sorbonne.

At first, inspired by Le Corbusier, whom he got to know well, he wanted to be an architect, but at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts, which he entered in 1938, he eventually changed to the painting course. His knowledge of architecture was to support him in later ventures.

During the Nazi occupation he entered the Resistance with his father and brother Michel. He was wounded while defending a barricade on the Place de la Republique during the liberation of Paris in 1944. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

He had made the acquaintance of Picasso, who had visited his first exhibition at the Galerie Aubry in 1941 and told him, "You paint like an old man already", and advised him to move towards abstraction.

His meetings with Picasso and his totally original art were major factors in his early development. He was "dumbstruck" by the revelation of the master's work, and he was to declare, in 1970, "The intellectual structure of his researches and his genius in finding rather than seeking subjects fascinated me. It allowed me to recreate, employing a more abstract analysis, a whole new world of sensations." This liberation led him along paths far from groups and theorisers in quest of a painting "that reveals the essence of the world without describing it, using signs of my own invention".

But, in the mid-Forties, his themes inevitably reflected the barbarism and ugliness of war, with titles like The Assassin and Death, the Smile of the Nazi and the 8m-long, black-and-white Death in Dachau. He used ordinary "poor" materials: ink, gouache, with aluminium, sand, ash and gravel applied in apparently random streaks and stains in order to "make visible the unbearable". But in the post-war euphoria of Paris, people did not want to behold the unbearable misery of war. So he began to follow Picasso's advice, often visiting his atelier in the rue des Grands Augustins to show him his latest canvases and to listen to his wonderful conversation.

The first results were Debre's signes-personnages series of the Fifties and Sixties, totally abstract representations of the human figure that seem to reflect Debre's own sense of solitary detachment. They are painted in tall, narrow formats. In one of the most famous, the figure is reduced to a mere stalk, with a blurred hanging head resembling a sunflower, all in monochrome yellow. In these works, the paint is laid on like plaster in massive slabs of colour, reminiscent of Nicolas de Stael.

Unlike Giacometti's sculptures and paintings of the human figure, Debre's beings have no representational force at all, and have no human or humanist connotations. They are simply gorgeously coloured verticals, impressively immobile, icons of utter solitude. At this point, his work displayed something like the abstract aesthetics of Gerard Schneider, Andre Lanskoy or Hans Hartung.

Olivier Debre was a great traveller in search of landscapes where, like Picasso he might "find" the secret of life and reveal its profound realism in paint, with emotion always, without description. He visited the Far East, Scandinavia and the Americas. But his greatest works are without doubt those that depict his emotions on his home ground.

In the Sixties, he developed a much more fluid concept of space in his signes-paysages series, meditative and almost joyfully elegiac transpositions of the Loire's spacious radiance into long, horizontal canvases imbued with personal sensations, reactions and impressions of extreme subtlety, a kind of psychic apprehension of natural things, often in monochrome colour whose surface he liked to expose to accidental touches: he usually worked on them out of doors, and would sometimes leave them there all night to accumulate stray raindrops, dust, dew, petals, or the inspired degradations of bird droppings, that produced natural stains and striations. These huge luminous works are the epiphany of his art.

Debre began exhibiting in galleries all over Europe and in New York, where Knoedler put him under contract and his painting career finally took off. He became much in demand for public works. He created an important "statement" for the French pavilion at the Montreal Expo of 1967, a vast canyon entitled Signe de l'homme. He carried out similar spectacular commissions for the College de Royan (1965), the new Ecole Polytechnique (1976) and the new chancellery of the French embassy in Washington (1982-83), during which time he fell in love with the Americans, whom he preferred to the French.

But he remained loyal to his roots. He painted the curtain for the Comedie- Francaise (1987), followed by curtains for the opera houses of Hong Kong and Shanghai. He collaborated with the choreographer Carolyn Carlson and designed for her a curtain in the new theatre Les Abbesses in Montmartre. But he was difficult to get on with, and began complaining that the curtain there was never lowered to the public view, and threatened legal action against the theatre and Carlson for "suppression" of his work.

At the Osaka Expo, which I covered for a Japanese newspaper in 1970, I was enchanted by Debre's grand ceramic composition on the Pavilion de l'Europe. He was also responsible for the vibrant decoration of the Hebrew Institute in Jerusalem (1984).

It was Debre who created the monumental sculpture we see in front of the parking lot at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel. Following the examples of non-figurative giants like Pierre Soulages and Jean Bazaine in their remarkable works in stained glass, Debre composed the windows for a small church at Jocelyn in Brittany, and returned to his architectural studies to construct a church near Compiegne, and a residence for artists in the Rue Albert, Paris, just a few steps from the street named after Jean Fautrier, a painter he revered.

In 1995, he had a truly magnificent retrospective in Paris at the Jeu de Paume, where his gigantic spreads of pensive, articulate colour found their ideal frame, along with other large-scale artists like Pierre Alechinsky, Jean-Michel Atlan and Simon Hantal.

Olivier Debre, painter: born Paris 14 April 1920; married (one son, one daughter); died Paris 1 June 1999.