contemporary, painting

Damien Hirst at the Wallace Collection

October 15, 2009

Published on Culture 24

No Love Lost, Blue Paintings by Damien Hirst, The Wallace Collection, London, until January 24 2009.

How often does middle-aged famous millionaire Damien Hirst really think about death? Well, by the evidence of his new show it is the only thing on his mind.

Much has been made of his decision to return to painting. In fact he returns time and again to a single painting, the still life momento mori. In other words, he now paints skulls – lots of them.

You might imagine he also paints fruit, flowers, dead pheasants and the like, but no. Seasonal produce isn’t dark enough for the former YBA, although he does throw in ashtrays, shark jaws and iguanas.

Some paintings do feature a lonely two-dimensional lemon. This may be included for the sake of its colour, or its art historical significance, or simply because it goes well with tequila. It’s not clear.

Nevertheless, colour is the second most obsessive aspect here. Brooding blues and silvery blacks dominate most compositions and, despite a nod to Picasso in the show’s subtitle, Francis Bacon is the real influence at work.

Hirst credits Bacon with inspiring his colour scheme and has also taken on his rough edges. Two of the most theatrical pieces are even monumental triptychs.

But whereas Bacon painted suffering flesh, Hirst has stuck with comedy bones. There is very little pain in this vision of mortality. The works resemble X-rays or kids’ book illustrations. Some of the skulls almost grin.

As well they might, because the new show is bang on brand. Trademark skulls and shark jaws aside, there are plenty of spots and butterflies too. That could be why the 25 paintings have already sold for a reported £50m.

But it is not about the money. Hirst’s move to painting is a gesture towards art history and the artist’s own connections to the past. Look, he has written a guide to 26 other pieces in the Wallace Collection.

It reads like the script for some yoof TV, so not much angst there either. If Hirst thinks about anything 24/7 it is more likely to be art rather than death, and his own chances of immortality.

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