October 16, 2009 10:35 pm

Damien Hirst, Wallace Collection, London

Damien Hirst's ‘Requiem: White Roses and Butterflies’ (2008)

‘Requiem: White Roses and Butterflies’ (2008)

Every clown wants to play Hamlet; Hamlet rarely aspires to act the clown. But Damien Hirst confounds most expectations. He began his career with grandly tragic works – “A Thousand Years”, the installation of breeding, dying flies around a cow’s head, and his shark in formaldehyde “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” – which revolutionised art-making in the 1990s. Ever since, he has played for laughs. Last autumn’s auction Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, with its gold-plated calf and winged piglet, was a circus. His £50m diamond skull “For the Love of God” was a brilliant farce. Workshop-produced spin, spot and butterfly paintings were comic interludes, the funniest jokes being how quickly they flew off the walls.

It is anybody’s guess whether Hirst’s latest move, 25 paintings made with his own hand and now installed at the Wallace Collection, is a return to Hamlet or a double-bluff as clown. “Am I a sculptor who wants to be a painter, or a cynical artist who thinks painting is now reduced to nothing more than a logo?” Hirst asked a couple of years ago when he began the series.

Damien Hirst's ‘Skull with Ashtray and Lemon’

‘Skull with Ashtray and Lemon’

No Love Lost, Blue Paintings deals exclusively in his familiar currency: skulls, sharks, ashtrays, butterflies are the images; death and transience the themes. “Skull with Ashtray and Lemon”, “Two Skulls”, “Iguana with Skull and Shark’s Jaw” and the other similarly titled works here carry, like everything Hirst makes, a sense of inevitability. Unlike his great works, they are also predictable. All look like trademarks made for the export market: they have already sold to Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk, who displayed them in Kiev earlier this year.

As clearly, they are a sculptor’s paintings. Luminous skulls and sharks’ mouths float in space, on a dense blue-black ground that is the painterly equivalent of the formaldehyde solution surrounding dead animals in Hirst’s “Natural History” series. Across the surfaces Hirst superimposes a myriad of lines, irregular though suggestive of a grid; they cage and encase his objects, just as his vitrines do. Apart from a few livid yellow lemons, which appear incongruously as if pasted on like collage, we see everything through this network of lines and blue-black sheen – the typical Hirst distancing effect.

Other, deliberate self-references abound: dots layered in imperfect patterns are hand-made antidotes to the high gloss order of the spot paintings; faintly outlined glasses of water, cigarettes, occasional plants, imply the cycle of life and death, recalling that the “Natural History” series injected narrative into minimalism.

Hirst is not the first artist to be arrested by his own youthful success, but the chief problem of the “Blue Paintings” is not self-parody. It is that they are so devastatingly, overwhelmingly, indebted to Francis Bacon that they fail to come alive as independent works. The restricted Prussian blue and white tonality throughout is that of Bacon’s early paintings. The crisscrossing lines anchoring objects are a variation of the frames with which Bacon fixed his subjects in empty space. The format of the two major pieces, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth” and “Men Shall Know Nothing”, replicates Bacon’s triptychs. In the quartet of other large paintings, the pairs “Birth of Medusa” and “Guardian”, a deep red figure looms out of a black forest: a composition following Bacon’s luxuriant Popes emerging from darkness.

Hirst makes no secret of Bacon’s influence: in the catalogue he recalls trying painting decades ago, “then when I saw Bacon’s paintings, I thought ‘f*** it’; I gave up really, because I just thought that was what I wanted to do.” What he did then was to translate Bacon’s meditations on mortality into a spectacular new sculptural language. His predatory, trapped, open-mouthed sharks rework Bacon’s predatory, trapped, screaming popes, mediated through minimalism’s cubes and boxes and Jeff Koons’ pop vitrines. His slaughtered calves and sheep imprisoned in tanks – “Mother and Child Divided”, “Away from the Flock” – evoke Bacon’s human flesh as dead meat, imprisoned in pictorial space-frames.

The “Natural History” works have an exhilarated despair, a vitality crossed with vulnerability, a brutality of fact, that marked Hirst immediately as Bacon’s heir. The pieces here do not: neither eloquent nor commanding in their manipulation of paint, they merely go backwards, spelling out a derivation. A natural minimalist, Hirst is strongest when his work is most pared-down – best here is the triptych depicting skulls, knife, glass of water, iguana, “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth”, whose anxious diagrammatic lines echo the drawings of another sculptor of life’s fleetingness, Giacometti. The worst are small cluttered canvases such as the final “Skull”, further hampered by its hideous wooden frame.

What is it all for? The Wallace setting emphasises Old Master vanitas resonance – the works hang in two long, blue-silk-lined rooms, open so that the most luminous canvas, “Floating Skull”, looks straight down to Poussin’s “Dance to the Music of Time”.

Hirst must have known such juxtapositions would do him no favours. “I wanted to be stopped and no one stopped me. I wanted to find out where the boundaries were. So I’ve found that there aren’t any,” he said back in 1995. Last year, sidestepping his gallery White Cube for Sothebys, he took financial brinkmanship to the edge, and won. This show, replacing a white-walled contemporary gallery with an art-historical context challenging to even the greatest living painters, is his next gamble.

Or is it another joke, with Hirst – who paid for the Wallace installation – briefly buying himself a slot in painting’s history? Hirst’s other ancestor, of course, is Warhol. Both are simultaneously iconic and ironic, both made fame an art form. As he did so, Hirst created and sold a brand of chilly, impersonal conceptual art with such dazzle that his peers among UK artists still struggle to escape his stranglehold: so few of them became painters that there is almost a lost generation here.

But Hirst is now middle-aged, last year’s auction drew a symbolic line under his “Natural History” series, and the cohort of emerging artists born in the 1970s and 1980s, and freer of his influence, includes many exciting painters. “I don’t like conceptual art in the end,” Hirst says in the catalogue here. “I’ve always thought that being a painter was better than being an artist or a sculptor. I always thought painting was the best thing to do.” His sense of zeitgeist is unfaltering, but so is his grasp of the market. That is why the Blue Paintings cannot escape, if indeed they want to, from their creator’s cold, calculating Midas touch.

‘No Love Lost, Blue Paintings’ by Damien Hirst, Wallace Collection, London, to January 24; www.wallacecollection.org

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