Abstract impression of a French artist

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 May, 1998, 12:00am

The show Beyond Image at the Museum of Art shows the large-format work of a man who is apparently one of France's best-known abstract artists.

It is intended to encourage a spiritual response, yet the first reaction of many in Hong Kong is likely to be 'Olivier who?'.

The show looks good - most of the canvases are very large and very bright. But in many ways it seems strange to hold such a show in the space that previously has held shows of Chagal, Miro and Zao Wou-ki.

The catalogue includes statements that Olivier Debre is 'by no means unfamiliar' to Hong Kong on the strength of the yellow and red stage curtain at the Cultural Centre. But that is not the variety of 'well-known' that will have audiences flocking.

This French May show is a retrospective - a looking back - without there having been much looking forward. And there is, or certainly should be, a fear that Hong Kong museum-goers will have difficulty finding a context for this show.

Debre, 77, has, it seems, only recently been rediscovered by his own country. A show - the same collection we see here - at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 1995 revived interest in an artist whom critics agreed had not been taken into account as fully as he deserved.

The works are organised chronologically from his post-war nihilism to his present interest in bright large-format abstractions.

Son of a doctor and a musician, and brother of a politician who was influential in the De Gaulle inner circle, Debre had always wanted to paint. The only time he has ever taken a break from art was when he studied architecture at the Sorbonne in 1939.

The first pieces from the war time are small, dark and somehow horrified, homages to Picasso, whom Debre knew and visited.

'I tried to capture Picasso, without his figures but with his fervour,' Debre explained.

Later he wanted to express his feelings about the war, which he had first seen as an artist and then, after being wounded in the lungs and foot, as a hospital patient.

'Before the war there were pictures; afterwards there was only sand with my fingers,' he said, showing designs on paper, made with glue, sand and his hands.

'Now many people do this, but then it was only me. I just wanted to show the brief presence of a human being on the landscape.' Now that kind of work is generally understood, but at the time it was dismissed as 'betise'.

'The reaction was bad: everyone said it was stupid.' In Debre I sensed a bitterness that some of his ideas were also taken up by others - who made them famous. His The Dead Man and His Soul, from 1946, for example, shows raised silver blobs made of aluminium powder but looking like poisonous mercury.

'I was thinking about how to explain atomic bombs, when the body has disappeared and only the soul is left. Many years later I saw that Jackson Pollock also used aluminium. But I did this separately.' For a while he experimented with reducing images to signs.

'This one is my wife and baby daughter,' he said.

We stood back and looked at D and S - which to me looked rather like an aerial view of fields.

That it could resemble anything is not important to Debre, the important thing is the intensity of a feeling one day in a studio 50 years ago.

One way to look at his earlier work is to think of an impressionist painting and then to focus on a square of sky, or field or face, where there is little differentiation of colour, but which - the artist hopes - contains the essence of the whole painting.

In this section are near monochrome oils, sliced on with a knife. The appeal is perhaps like that of celadon. At first it seems uninteresting but once you have seen the depth you have seen it for ever.

'I have tried to catch the light. If you like it's abstract impressionism.' Another piece is titled Yellow Figure, in which, Debre said, he wanted to show the sense he had when he was with a particular young woman.

Was he in love with her? 'Always.' By the 1960s he had almost finished with knives and tried to use only brushes, with strong colours to show space and void.

It is interesting how myths build up. An abstract artist only has to celebrate open spaces and suddenly critics are overwhelmed by the 'Zen-like' quality.

The Straits Times even reported the romanticised view that Debre 'would take in the landscape, and then close his eyes and meditate. After that he paints.' Debre, however, insisted he did not meditate. He also would not discuss religion.

'What does it matter for art if you are Catholic-spiritual or Buddhist-spiritual? Painting itself is spiritual: it can't be anything else.' He usually paints in his garden in the Loire Valley.

'It is not a big landscape, there is no infinite view, but there is a quality of space and of light that helps me work.' Sometimes however he searches for that infinite horizon, loads the huge canvas on the roof of his car and heads off to the fields.

His canvases are sometimes on the ground, sometimes propped against a tree.

We stood for a while in front of one particularly hefty purple splodge at the top of Ochre with Purple Patch. How did he do this: standing and forcing the paint upwards against gravity, or with the canvas on the ground, pushing the lump of paint to the side like a reluctant croquet ball? He practised the stroke in the air for a while, then decided the canvas must have been upright.

'I don't quite remember this particular one. When I paint it all happens very quickly.' Over the past years he has travelled a great deal. There are pieces done in Norway (small and dark), in India (pink and festive), and in Italy (stylish and turquoise).

However, although he has come to Hong Kong many times, there is no made-in-Hong Kong work in the exhibition. He seemed cross when he realised this, and looked around, as if hoping to find one at the last minute.

He hopes the work will find a context in Hong Kong through a shared interest in 'the void'.

Which is quite possible. And this exhibition could indeed strike some chords.

But there is nothing like a show like this to highlight how the Museum's curators should stop concentrating on free shows from foreign consulates and start putting more effort into thoughtful exhibitions that will excite and inspire Hong Kong people and put Western art into a proper context.

And then we might be more ready for retrospectives like this one.

Beyond Image, Museum of Art, Tsim Sha Tsui. Ends June 7