Having made squillions over a 20-year career getting other people to make his art, Damien Hirst says he finally decided to try his own hand at painting as a way of confronting his mortality.
While the man himself has survived this brush with death, his reputation is looking as pasty as one of his woefully executed skulls.
Having become famous through trading in shock, the now-ageing founder of the Young British Artists movement has revealed to the world that whatever his strengths might be as a conceptual artist, he’s an absolute shocker as a painter. His latest exhibition is called No Love Lost, which is unintentionally apt given that it’s provoked a near unanimous outpouring of bile from London’s critics.
“Amateurish and adolescent,” cried The Guardian’s Adrian Searle.
“Dreadful … Francis Bacon meets Adrian Mole,” declared Rachel Campbell-Johnson of The Times.
“Weak” and “extremely boring” opined The Independent’s Tom Lubbock.
“(The pictures) simply don’t pass muster,” huffed Sarah Crompton of The Daily Telegraph.
Not taking their word for it, this correspondent went along to make his own assessment and can fully concur with all of the above, however there is so much more to lampoon about this show than just the pictures. But to deal with them first: if they were the work of an art student you would have to wonder about the student’s chances of making it to graduation.
As many people have pointed out, the paintings are heavily derivative of Francis Bacon (right down to the gold frames) but without an ounce of his finesse or sense of drama and emotional punch. While the overall format, scale and palette (yawning expanses of Prussian blue) amount to a poor take on Bacon, there is also lots of self-important quoting of Hirst’s earlier work. There are plenty of big dots, although not in the pretty colours of before (this is about death, remember), there’s a shark’s jaw, in oil instead of formaldehyde, and (just so there’s absolutely no doubt this is about death) he’s brought back the skull — over and over again — although, instead of the diamond-encrusted version that he allegedly sold for 50 million quid two years ago, these skulls are chalky white, which would be closer to what real skulls look like if Damien wasn’t so rubbish with the brush.
But whatever shortcomings he has as a painter, he makes up for with chutzpah, which has made his sudden fall from favour all the more spectacular.
Hirst decided to show these pictures in the smartest of digs: the Wallace Collection, a museum in central London that is home to an intimidating array of masterpieces by famous dead guys — Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin, Titian and Velázquez to name a few.
Believing this was the company he was worthy of keeping, Hirst spent £250,000 of his own money renovating and wallpapering two of the Wallace’s exhibition spaces especially for his exhibition. The refurbishment included £60,000 worth of blue silk wallpaper commissioned from the Prelle of Lyon, said to have been Marie Antoinette’s favourite silk weavers.
Britain might be suffering its worst economic crisis since the IMF had to step in three decades ago but Damien’s not feeling it.
Remember, this is the bloke who managed to offload more than a £100 million of his work at Sotheby’s last year just as Lehman Bros was imploding.
That’s why he could afford to use a suite at Claridge’s as a studio to paint the pictures. And for someone whose early conceptual work poked fun at the preciousness of high art, Hirst is extremely precious about his own pictures. In addition to the gold frames, the canvasses are mounted behind protective glass while many of the old masters hanging in the adjoining exhibition spaces have no such protection. As the Evening Standard reported, on the opening night of the exhibition guests were not allowed to take their champagne anywhere near Hirst’s pictures. Instead drinks were served in the great gallery next door, which contains the Wallace’s most prized paintings.
This is a vanity show that has now turned into a bonfire, with some critics saying Hirst’s comeuppance marks a pivotal moment in the history of art. That is probably overstating it, but it is the first time there’s been such a strong consensus among the cognoscenti against Hirst’s work. In a moment of faint self-deprecation earlier this week, Hirst was unwittingly prophetic about the critical reaction: “I find it very hard to think that somebody would be in awe of me.”
Spot on, Damo.