Damien Hirst: 'Anyone can be Rembrandt'

Damien Hirst stares into his portrait of a skull. This is the new Damien Hirst—Hirst the solitary painter rather than Hirst the art world’s flamboyant marketing magician. He has painted these pictures with his own hands, rather than employed minions to produce work under his name, as he has done in the past.

But, he says, this is also the old Hirst.
After all, as with most artists, he started out painting rather than conceptualising and mass-producing. “I gave up painting by 16,” he says. “I secretly thought I would have been Rembrandt by then.”

I give him a look. But Rembrandt was a genius? He shakes his head. “No, I don’t believe in genius. I believe in freedom. I think anyone can do it. Anyone can be like Rembrandt.”

Hirst is a master of the potty soundbite. I wait for a smile or wink, but it doesn’t come. Instead, he gets into his philosophical stride. “Picasso, Michelangelo, possibly, might be verging on genius, but I don’t think a painter like Rembrandt is a genius. It’s about freedom and guts. It’s about looking. It can be learned. That’s the great thing about art. Anybody can do it if you just believe. With practice, you can make great paintings.”

How far away does Hirst think he is from producing a Rembrandt? “A long way. But then again, there’s no need for that sort of thing today.” He has a touch of the used-car salesman about him—the chutzpah, the patter, the self-belief.

It’s mid-October and Hirst is giving me a guided tour of his exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London. Being Hirst, it’s bound to be controversial. For starters, he’s paid £250 000 (more than R3-million) of his own money to have his work hung here against the same striped blue silk wallpaper beloved by Marie Antoinette. What’s more, he’s pitting himself against the likes of Rembrandt and Titian hanging in neighbouring rooms. And then there are the paintings themselves. For two years he has painted alone in the garden shed at his home in Devon, southwest England.

He didn’t show them to anybody, didn’t think they were any good, discarded them one by one, until he finally came up with some he liked. But as he leads me round the exhibition, I’m not quite sure how to react. He’s right when he says he’s a long way from Rembrandt. Perhaps a little further than he thinks. I say they’re spooky—it’s the best I can come up with by way of a compliment.

At times they seem more like illustrated CVs than paintings. All the traditional Hirst signifiers are there—skulls and sharks, dots and butterflies, crude nods to his hero, Francis Bacon, by way of spidery white lines, and the usual references to death and decay.

There’s certainly no mistaking who these paintings are by.

Hirst has been battling with painting for years. He’s always wanted to do it, but could never quite face up to it or get down to it. “The spot paintings and spin paintings were trying to find mechanical ways to make paintings,” he says. “And I just got to a point where I thought I can’t avoid it any longer.” Technically, they might have been paintings, but he felt he wasn’t getting down and dirty with his oils and his soul, like a true artist should.

Hirst remains the figurehead of Britart, the movement of British artists whose work was bought and championed by Charles Saatchi in the 1990s.

In 1992 he first came to prominence at a Young British Artists show at Saatchi’s old gallery on Boundary Road in St John’s Wood, north London. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Something Living, a shark in formaldehyde in a vitrine, became Britart’s signature image.

Hirst was the star of Saatchi’s Sensation show at the Royal Academy in London in 1997, an event that was more of a coronation than an exhibition for the new generation of British artists. Post-Sensation, Hirst and his contemporaries (the Chapman brothers, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn, Marcus Harvey) became the new punk establishment. Britart was bursting with enfants terribles and Hirst seemed the most terrible of them all. It wasn’t simply the pickled cows and sharks; it was the swagger, the swearing, the rock ‘n roll attitude. He even wore tinted glasses like Bono.

He became as well known for his partying and his pill-popping as he did for his art. Then he discovered cocaine and became even louder. A night out for the Britpack was not really a night out until Hirst had taken down his trousers and waggled his willy in public.

The funny thing is Hirst was never meant to be the poster boy for the movement. He had always thought of himself as the backroom boy—more an enabler than an artist. In 1988, while a student at Goldsmiths college in London, he curated an exhibition of his contemporaries’ work, called Freeze.

Another irony is that the young Hirst was rather conventional—not nearly as wild as he wanted to be. He was born into a working-class family and grew up in Leeds, in the north of England. His parents divorced when he was 12 and his mother, Mary, who worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau, brought him up with a fierce sense of the right and proper. The true punk at his school was Marcus Harvey, who went on to create the scandal of Sensation with his portrait of the British child killer Myra Hindley. Hirst adored Harvey, who was two years older. “I wanted to be like him. He was just mental. He wore a kilt and had a tiny blue Hitler moustache on his chest. I remember being incredibly jealous because my mum would cut up anything I went out in that was bad. She’d just say: ‘Get back in the house.’” Today she lives next door to Hirst and his family in Devon.

In the late 1990s he became Britain’s own mini-Warhol, embracing celebrity, mass manufacture—and money. No British artist seemed so obsessed by the relationship between money, art and value. For Hirst, concept was all. If he’d had the idea (even if others claimed to have had it before, as they often did), that was enough. He loved the notion that he could attach his name to work he had not laid a finger on, claim it as his own and make millions. It was funny, ludicrous and hugely profitable.

Things reached their apotheosis (or nadir, depending on your perspective) in 2007, with For the Love of God, a human skull, recreated in platinum and adorned with 8601 diamonds, that cost an estimated £14-million (R173-million) to produce.

Again, Hirst’s timing was perfect, the symbolism acute—after two decades in which art had become the supreme commodity, money was now also the subject of art. There was nothing left to say. The work sold for an estimated $100-million (about R740-million), although it later emerged the consortium that had bought it included Hirst and his dealer’s gallery, White Cube.

Earlier this year he ditched the gallery system altogether and sold a load of work at a massive Sotheby’s auction that raised a reported £111-million (about R1,37-billion). He seems to be trying to create a new business model for the art world.

It was after the diamond skull that Hirst retreated to his shed. And it was after the auction that he realised paintings would be the next thing he exhibited. “The auction was definitely the end of something. A brutal change for me—go out with a bang.” He admits, reluctantly, that Britart is a product of Thatcherism, but insists he has no politics and says he has never voted in his life.

On the question of money becoming all-consuming (that the sole measure of a piece of art is in its price tag), he says: “My business manager always says you’ve got to make sure you’re using the cash to chase the art, not the art to chase the cash.” Hirst would argue that his diamond skull is an example of cash chasing the art.

Has he ever sold out? “I think I’ve got very close. There was a point I could have just churned out the spot and spin paintings forever and laughed all the way to the bank.”

Hirst was recently estimated to be worth £200-million (almost R2,5-billion). What does he do with all his money? Well, there’s his rapidly growing art collection, his many houses, his cars, his office. “I’ve got a lot of projects and there’s lots for charity as well.” Hirst tells me which charities he supports, but he’s hardly gushing about it. I can’t help sensing he prefers the bad boy image and isn’t overly keen to destroy it with heartwarming tales of do-gooding. But a number of his friends tell me of the times he has helped out when they’ve been in trouble.

He’s more likely to tell you about the horrible things he’s done. His friends confirm this side to him, too. Although he doesn’t reckon he sold out, he did come close to destroying himself with drink and drugs, notably cocaine. He got clean only three years ago and says for a long time he was insufferable. “The problem is, at the time I thought I was cool, but now I look back and think I was a twat.”

How did Hirst manage to straighten himself out? “I just got sick of myself.” What did his partner, Maia, make of him throughout this period? “We were both battered.” Was she as bad as him? “Yeah. If we hadn’t been, I don’t think we’d have stayed together.”

Hirst and Maia have three sons. The oldest, Connor, is 14, Cassius is nine and Cyrus is four. Hirst worries that their lifestyle affected Connor badly. “He’s a bit quieter than the other two and sometimes I think it’s because of that.”

A few weeks later we meet up again at Hirst’s London offices, which double up as a beautiful, if unofficial, modern art gallery—a Jeff Koons silver sculpture on the ground floor, Warhol’s electric chair upstairs, Hirsts galore. He is wearing different blue-tinted specs (he has about 50 pairs), the customary hoodie and trainers and is explaining why he wasn’t cut out to be a curator. “Dealing with the ego of artists is mental.” Who’s got the biggest ego among his British peers? “Er, me? You need a big ego to be an artist. I suppose you need a big ego to deal with the shit reviews I’ve been having for this show.”

The Wallace show has received a real mauling; I’ve rarely read such scathing reviews. The paintings are described as “embarrassing”, “shockingly bad” and Hirst is labelled “a jumped-up pretender”.

Did the reviews surprise him? “Well, I kind of expected them,” he says, “but I suppose secretly you do hope they won’t be as crap. The worst thing is, I’ve had phone calls from people who’ve treated it as a death—phoning up and asking: ‘Are you okay?’”

Some critics have suggested that the exhibition is a joke, that he has deliberately produced bad paintings, knowing that they’ll still sell for huge sums. “Maybe it is ... who knows? There’s an element of that in everything I do. Someone once said to me: ‘You could sign a dog shit and sell it’, and I said: ‘Why would I?’ And then you think, if you did, it would be art.”

He says there’s nothing more boring than an artist wanting to be taken seriously. It’s true there is a playfulness to most of Hirst’s work, but the bottom line is the paintings are for real; he wants them to be taken seriously. “I didn’t think, right, I’m going to make paintings now and I don’t give a fuck what they look like because we’re going to make loads of money. That’s not what they’re about. They’ve got to be good.”

Many of those who were most damning about this show loved his earlier work, particularly the dissected cows and pickled sharks. The concept was so fresh, the lines so clean, the appearance so startling. I ask where he got the ideas from. “School. Even then I was doing that sort of stuff in art with frogs. And there were skulls and pine cones and bits of bone. It was like a nature table with things in formaldehyde. So we’d always draw from that.”

But this is all in the past, he says. The future, for him, is painting. He shows me the work that will form his next exhibition, Nothing Matters, opening later this month at the White Cube. There are more skulls and sharks and dots, but the colours are brighter—reds and greens. He’s also introduced a few new motifs: deck chairs, windows, splattered crows.

Has he learned anything from reviews? “No,” he says. “I like what Warhol said—you don’t read them, you weigh them.” Perhaps he couldn’t win, he says. “It’s the hallowed area of painting.”

Hirst has never been one for regrets and he chucks a final Warhol quote at me to prove the point. “Warhol said a brilliant thing. He said if anybody slags anything off, make more.”—®

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