Damien Hirst

Published:  Esquire Art 2007 – 2010

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?’
Some of the new paintings seem very beautiful when you see them in reproduction, wavering between an ethereal, almost pre-Raphaelite beauty, all soft and sad, and images that openly play with work by Bacon and Giacometti, using a central image, such as a skull, or a bone, and allowing it to float as though in haunted air. Others play with the skull as an image in art history; they allow it to breathe again, as it were, bathed in Hirst’s sense of pity, irony and showmanship.
Because Hirst doesn’t have Bacon’s brutality and sense of man as meat (Hirst’s animals are always just animals), or Giacometti’s sense of human identity as fragile, almost tragic, then Hirst’s paintings in reproduction look sadly lovely, almost tasteful. It is smart of him (I suppose he must have read ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ by Walter Benjamin when he was small) to know what reproductions of his work will look like. His problem is a simple one: he can’t paint. He can make images but he just can’t use paint at all. When you see his paintings on the wall, you realize that he is all balls but no dick. It might be argued that the fact he cannot paint is deliberate; but it cannot be argued for long. He tries to paint, but it is sad and embarrassing, he can’t. He should stick to the flies.