Damien Hirst Gets Re-Schooled in Painting

Damien Hirst’s upcoming show of figurative paintings, compiled over the past three years, signifies a new turn for the provocative British artist.

“It felt awful for two years. The paintings were embarrassing and I didn’t want anyone to come in.” So says Damien Hirst, reputedly the world’s richest living artist and he of the formaldehyde creatures and skeletons and spiral splashes. The paintings of which he speaks, figurative meditations painted by Hirst’s own hand, will be on display starting October 14th at the Wallace Collection in London.


What to expect from Damien Hirst’s change of heart? One short year ago, the artist bypassed his own galleries–in an unprecedented move–and sold an entire collection direct-to-auction via Sotheby’s. The net earnings, £111 million (roughly $198 million), smashed records for a one-artist auction and for Hirst’s individual sales. All this only hours after the collapse of investment firm Lehman Brothers.







That occasion is unlikely to repeat itself. The art world is whispering that Hirst’s new body of work, title “No Love Lost, Blue Paintings,” aims to appeal to the Francis Bacon market, a British figurative painter (d. 1992) known for his dark, tactile imagery. While Hirst’s previous paintings have sold well in the past, the dots and tie-dyes of yesteryear were contracted, Duchampian pieces a la Warhol–conceptual pieces that had more to do with Hirst’s mind than with his hand.


Damien Hirst, Requiem, White Flowers and Butterflies, 2008

The subjects are typical Hirstian motifs, though now they’re rendered in two dimensions instead of three. In place of his famous diamond-encrusted skeleton head is a 2D vision a la still life.


Damien Hirst, Skull with Ashtray and Lemon, 2006/07


No matter what the financial success of the Wallace Collection show, Hirst’s commercial clout won’t be fading anytime soon. Bloomberg reports an increase in auction house estimates similar to reserve prices offered one year ago, showing confidence returning to the market after contemporary-art prices dropped as much as 30 to 50 percent in 2009. Bloomberg quotes New York-based art dealer Tony Shafrazi as saying, “If it sells within the estimate, it’s good,” adding, “What might be over is the particular frenzy that was there when two or three people were so excited they were willing to go all the way to get his work.” Although he hasn’t seen many Hirsts offered privately in New York in recent months, the artist’s market is “far from being dead.”

But collectors aren’t critics. Hirst is under no illusion that the new paintings will be a critical smash. “Oh, they’re going to hate them. Hate them,” he says to the BBC. “People are not shocked by animals in formaldehyde anymore, but they’re shocked that you’re picking up a brush and a canvas and going backwards.”