One day in the summer of 2006 I found myself in London with a late flight to catch and a hangover to recover from and a big empty day ahead with no plans. I went through all the options, as you do – shopping, for example, or going on line, or staying in bed all day, or even walking along the Mall and sitting in St James’s Park with a newspaper over my face. All ideas seemed weary, stale and unprofitable until I looked up what was on, stopped feeling sorry for myself and went to the Gagosian Gallery in Britannia Street to look at work by Damien Hirst and Francis Bacon.
If anything, I thought it would be worth a laugh. It would be fun to see one of the iconic figures of modern art having to outstare a callow Young British Artist. Hirst’s work in the gallery included two large glass boxes in one of which there was a cow’s severed head, and in which real live flies thrived and died; three pharmacy cupboards full of medicine boxes; and a few bits and pieces of paintings, some with butterflies. Bacon’s work included masterpieces.
I had fun being all snooty, looking the Bacons with the deepest pleasure and intensity, and pretending that the Hirst pieces in the next room didn’t really exist. What a silly, silly boy I said to myself as I finally deigned to walk around his installation with my nose held high.
But then I found myself staring into the boxes with the flies in them, watching flies gorge on sugar and then in a flick get electrocuted and die. These flies were so busy one minute, so happy buzzing around and then they were just lying there dead. Hirst was their creator. It was all intriguing. It must feel like this for God watching us – oddly amusing, time-consuming, but never dull, just sometimes sad and then maybe funny.
And then I looked over at Hirst’s butterflies; the bright blue ones stood out against a brownish background. Slowly I realized that there was an optical illusion involved - that if you looked for long enough, more butterflies began to appear and flutter about. It was lovely. And suddenly I understood that, instead of being a cruel installation artists who likes killing things, Damien Hirst is a big softie, who likes showing how simply life begins and ends, how fleeting it is, how oddly beautiful. For about half an hour that day I came to feel fondly towards these sweet, almost warm-hearted (and very expensive) parables of life and death made by him.
Damien Hirst’s show at the Wallace Collection consists of twenty-five blue paintings that he himself has made. Previously, his spin paintings were made by machines, and other work has been made with the help of assistants. He has returned to the business of art as a strange, solitary activity. He is the lone cave man drawing rather the hunter out having fun. No more formaldehyde, no more skulls encrusted with jewels. (Two years ago, a platinum cast of an eighteenth century skull covered with eight thousand diamonds sold for fifty million pounds; it was called ‘For the Love of God’.)
‘It feels very odd to be painting on my own,’ he has said, suggesting that ‘art shows are going to get better now the focus shifts away from money.’ His paintings, he thought, ‘seem like they can work in this market. Who knows?’