| Until 26 September 2021 | Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art |
This summer, London’s Estorick Collection presents an exhibition by French post-war painter Olivier Debré (1920-1999). The show has been selected by Michael Estorick, Chair of the Estorick Foundation, and son of Eric and Salome Estorick – their renowned collection of Modern Italian Art is housed in the museum. The exhibition brings together some 30 oils and works on paper, including 16 of Debré’s large scale paintings. Here, Michael Estorick offers an appreciation of the artist.
I first met Olivier Debré in 1976 in Pembrokeshire, known as Little England beyond Wales – though when it came to contemporary art it was certainly Great Wales beyond Little England – where he was preparing for his retrospective at the National Museum Cardiff. We were both staying with Arthur and Bim Giardelli, whose house, the Golden Plover, had been over the years a school, art gallery, brothel, pub; everything, I think, save a chapel. Arthur and Bim were both greatly gifted artists who spent their summers in Venice painting watercolours and the rest of the year making fabric collages, in Bim’s case, and relief constructions in Arthur’s, when he was not lecturing on art history for the University of Wales. Arthur had been given his first London show by my father, Eric Estorick, in the 1960s, and had later recorded and transcribed my father’s unpublished memoirs.
Apart from a small show of his prints at the French Institute in 1991, the 1977 Debré retrospective at the National Museum of Wales is until now the only exhibition of the painter’s work in these islands. This is as shameful as it is inexplicable, since Olivier Debré is one of the greatest artists of the post-war period, admired and collected in Scandinavia, America, the Far East, Europe and not surprisingly France, where his sculpture greets travellers as they enter the Channel Tunnel. Yet in the UK he remains almost completely unknown, even to eminent art historians.
I have loved Debré’s work, as I did the man, for over 40 years, and to be able to finally exhibit his extraordinary paintings at the Estorick is an honour and a privilege made possible by the enthusiasm of his daughter Sylvie and his dealer Patrick Bongers, as well as the Olivier Debré Contemporary Art Centre in Tours. I only hope his work will be as great a revelation to London’s culture-starved public in 2021 as it was to me in Cardiff in 1977. The sheer scale of his oeuvre, as well as that of his many enormous paintings, is astonishing: 3000 canvases, as well as prints, pen and ink drawings and sculpture. At the 1995 retrospective of his work at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris, Debré wandered about chatting with and photographing the visitors with all the excitement of a child let out of school early.
What is it about his painting, which is so mesmerising? I am convinced it is his passion married to a total engagement with the natural world, communicated directly through paintings which are abstract – in that they refer entirely to themselves – but figurative inasmuch as their titles open a door through which the viewer can feel what Debré himself experienced in nature. Many are simply ravishing, and I hope visitors to this exhibition will be as astonished as I was when I first witnessed his work as a 25 year old. On my many stays at the Golden Plover over the following three decades I would sit for hours staring at Debré’s painting of St David’s Cathedral, painted on that initial visit in 1976 – an experience I have never enjoyed with any work by another artist.