Discovering one of the world’s most important contemporary artists and one of the founders of the Young British Artists (YBAs) movement: the enfant terrible, Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst was born in Bristol in south-west England on June 7th, 1965. He grew up with his mother in the heart of West Yorkshire in Leeds after his father, a mechanic, decided to leave his family when Damien was only 11 years old.
His mother was a devote Catholic and raised him following with religion. However, he managed to use this upbringing by turning it into an opportunity. He fell in love with those more macabre aspects of which Catholic iconography is full: blood, ossuaries, crucifixions, etc. When he could, he also spent his time studying the books that illustrated the pathologies of the human body. He had a real obsession with these representations and decided to start drawing the human body in the most tragic situations.
As a boy, he was intuitive, fast, creative and rather scandalous. He was only 18 when he imposed his poetics of death with a self-timer that portrays him with the head of a corpse.
At the end of high school, he decided that art would be his life. He managed to get into Goldsmiths College, allowing him to move from Leeds to London. The city had fully become one of the international capitals of contemporary art, despite England itself at the end of the 1980s having gone through a financial crisis and the art market was, of course, one of the first to pay the costs.
However, Hirst did not want to stay still and, while still a student, he decided to organize the exhibition “Freeze” in an abandoned port area, involving a group of classmates from Goldsmiths College.
“Freeze” marked the birth of a new artistic current that the world would later know as Young British Artists (YBAs), headed by Hirst and financially supported, for many years, by Charles Saatchi, with whom Hirst would form an important partnership. Inventor and founder of the most important and largest advertising agencies on the planet, Saatchi is above all a collector capable of creating new trends, and by entering the contemporary art scene, also turning it on its head.
The main theme, although not exclusive to Damien’s work, is the exploration of the cycle of life or – better still – that of death, a theme as ancient as it is universal that the artist leads us to reconsider, with originality, irony and disarming lucidity. In order to do this, he uses heterogeneous materials that are unrelated to traditional artistic canons: food, decaying animals, drugs, cigarettes, waste objects, and life preserved in formalin.
Then, in 1991, he breathed life to one of the most iconic representations in the history of contemporary art: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
Through this work, a tiger shark, over four meters in length, is suspended in a formaldehyde tank. The artist challenges us to reflect on death through the paradox of a sensation. Death and life touch each other in the sterile void of a crystal case. Yet, as the title suggests, as living beings we cannot grasp the true meaning of death. The other aspect is that the work is in any case destined to disappear – the liquid only slows down the decomposition process, an allusion to the futile human effort to stop the inevitability of decay.
In other words, the shark represents a macabre memento mori. This work was exhibited for the first time in 1992, sold in 2005 for 12 million dollars, and despite protests of the animal rights activists, the name of Hirst went around the world.
In 1993, he arrived at the Venice Biennale where he exhibited Mother and Child, a piece made up of the two halves of a cow and a calf, separated for eternity, kept at a painful distance from each other, and with which he won the coveted Turner Prize in 1995.
These mortal bodies represent both the potential of life in their parent-child connection, but also the inevitability of death. In creating this visceral and moving work, Hirst, through a profound meditation on maternal suffering, revolutionized the traditional iconography of motherhood.
He creates beautiful cases of medicines, with colored pills that look like jewels, and that are nothing more than the representation of the extreme attempt to delay death, a ferocious criticism of the artificiality that is typical of our times.
In 2007, in an extreme attempt to defy death, he covered a human skull cast in platinum with over eight thousand diamonds. Inspired by Aztec funeral masks, the work combines the symbol of death, the skull, with the diamond, a symbol of durability and eternity. He would call the opera For the Love of God, stemming from his mother’s exclamation when she saw it for the first time. This was another celebration of the ancient theme of vanitas.
Immediately after the sinking of his 2017 mega-show of mermaids and barnacle-encrusted monsters, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”, Hirst began to confront a radically different theme: cherry blossoms.
His latest oil paintings, “Cherry Blossoms”, will be exhibited at the Fondation Cartier in Paris in the spring of 2021. Referring to both impressionism and pointillism, as well as action painting, the series revisits the traditional theme of landscape painting with playful irony. Damien Hirst says: “Cherry blossoms are about beauty and life and death. … They’re about desire and how we process things around us and what we turn them into, but also about the insane visual transience of beauty… It’s been so good to make them, to be completely lost in colour and paint in my studio. They’re garish and messy and fragile and about me moving away from..” and so the enfant terrible of contemporary art, clever and irreverent, unsettling and ironic, the highest paid in the world, tries to challenge us again.
Maria Laura Sultana