Issue Number: 114
As Damien Hirst fills Tate Modern with his emblems of mortality in his first major retrospective, Simon Wilson asks, is his art skulduggery or genius?
Damien Hirst in front of 'The Incredible Journey' (2008). Photo Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images. Damien Hirst is a distinguished member of what might be called the British Artists Awkward Squad – a line of persistently rebellious, not to say rebarbative, but nonetheless highly original artists, that runs from William Hogarth through William Blake, Henry Fuseli, John Martin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Aubrey Beardsley, Stanley Spencer, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Gilbert & George to the current rich crop, which also includes the Chapman Brothers and the reclusive Sarah Lucas.
All these artists were outsiders, either by nature or because they came from working-class, immigrant, refugee or simply déclassé backgrounds (for example, Hogarth’s schoolteacher father spent years in Fleet Prison for debt) and all of them persisted or persist in dwelling on the darker aspects of human nature, on the world, the flesh and the devil, as it were, to provocative effect.
So successfully has Hirst maintained his outsider status (while nevertheless making piles of money) that only now, 17 years after winning the Turner Prize in 1995, has he been given a major Tate exhibition. His great achievement has been to reinvent for our time the meditations on mortality, and on the body, that run centrally through western art from the earliest images of the Crucifixion to the elaborately symbolic vanitas pictures of the seventeenth century and the modern explorations of Picasso, Freud and Bacon. In a recent interview Hirst reiterated in strikingly poetic terms the importance to him of the theme of death: ‘All art is about making sense of the world we live in, and this world has darkness at the end of it,’ he said, adding a quote from Samuel Beckett: ‘Death has not required us to keep a day free.’
Hirst’s work is much more varied than his popular association with the preserved animal pieces might suggest. In particular and in apparent stark contrast to these, he has from very early on created abstract paintings composed solely of coloured dots on a white ground. There are now around 1,500 of them, with the collective title of The Pharmaceutical Paintings (more commonly known as the Spot Paintings). Each is titled after a prescription drug and is thus another aspect of Hirst’s exploration of mortality – the way in which we use medical drugs to try to stave off the inevitable. The spots might be pills.
That Hirst has created his work on an almost industrial scale and by almost industrial means, may bother some people. I would remind them of the meteoric career of Sir Joshua Reynolds PPRA. He was able continually to raise his prices, and to meet demand he set up a studio system described in the catalogue of the RA’s 1986 Reynolds exhibition as an ‘assembly line’. Physically, many of his paintings are largely the work of his assistants. But as his rival Gainsborough said in exasperation, ‘Damn him how various he is!’, meaning how inventive. The main point of a great Reynolds is the idea, the concept, the invention, rather than the execution. Ditto Hirst.
Hirst reminds me more and more of Turner too – also from a working-class background and notoriously grumpy (on both counts hence never PRA) who was simultaneously admired by certain rich cognoscenti, derided by critics and public and indeed RA colleagues, and hugely commercially successful – largely incidentally from reproductive prints ie not made by him. Hirst and Turner are also the only two British artists who have bought back key works sold earlier in their career – a fantastically shrewd move.
Not the least striking aspect of Hirst’s inventiveness is his zoomorphism. That doyen of art critics, Richard Dorment, long ago pointed out the human/animal ambiguity of the title of Hirst’s key early work Mother and Child, Divided (1993). This cow and her calf, both literally and metaphorically divided, are the victims of our human rage for cheap meat and milk. But they also remind us that we too are simply animals, just with bigger brains.
The climax of the Tate show, which features around 70 works, is Hirst’s diamond-encrusted platinum skull, For the Love of God (2007, left) installed in solitary splendour in the Turbine Hall. The title comes from Hirst’s mother; it’s what she used to say to him when he came out with yet another crazy idea. As much as any of his works the skull has drawn cries of ‘It’s not art’. Whatever else it may be, it is undeniably a fabulous decorative object. Indeed the artist approached it in this way: ‘I started thinking about decoration and death. Decorating something you don’t understand is a great way of coming to terms with it.’ Hirst’s skull powerfully puts into question the often dubious division between what we call art, and decoration. So which is it? Oscar Wilde defined art as being ‘quite useless’. In the light of that, I leave it to the reader to decide.
We should celebrate whatever chance combination of genes and environment, of nature and nurture, gave us this compelling, oddball artist, this latest manifestation of that Awkward Squad that for over two centuries has provided an essential seasoning in the rich and varied, but sometimes bland, broth that is British art.