I experienced my very first Damien Hirst retrospective in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples on a dull, rainy day in late autumn of 2004. The light was grey. The pieces were installed in a sequence of severe galleries along the open courtyard, and the tour ended in a high stately hall with – memorably – the huge sculpture ‘Hymn’, a perplexing, painted-bronze male torso, partly exposed to show the organs inside. The work's impressive position presented it, colossal and commanding, like an ancient god in the apse of a temple. Its colours, the gaudy hues used in Victorian decoration, made the quaint realism of ‘Hymn’ discreetly artificial. I also remember the rigour of that installation, and how well it worked with the austere architecture of the granite building. Here, I began to see the art of Damien Hirst in a new light. Many of his gallery shows presented, as would be expected, works that were recently made, and similar in vein, and the result was surprising and often spectacular. But the retrospective exhibition revealed his works as they had settled in time. Seeing a selection of pieces from different periods displayed together, I began to notice, more than before, the strong symphonic unity that binds them. Together they made, strangely maybe, a much less spectacular impression than when they first appeared. To me, they seemed content, thoughtful and gratified. In a poem about what men require from women (and vice versa), William Blake suggested: the lineaments of gratified desire, a tender concept that was once was quoted by the sculptor Carl Andre to express what an artist requires of his art.
In 1991, Hirst made that first notorious piece with the big shark floating in a glass tank: ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. This work was seminal because it established a new form of presentation that allowed the artist to give shape to complex thoughts that lurked in his head – thoughts about life and death that may have been abstruse, as they often are, but became clear when they found a concrete form (the tank and the shark) that made them complete and finished. The creation of this piece produced an incredibly effective form, as in the early Renaissance, the formulation of central perspective created for painters the constructed space in which they could compose their narratives. In art, this is what it comes down to: means and constructions that give shape to imagination. When it suited Hirst's artistic and expressive needs, other tanks followed, and some of them are in this exhibition. They are each as unique and original as Mondrian's pictures with their rectangular shapes of red, yellow and blue in a grid of black lines that, to a lazy eye, look more or less the same.
And there is something else to keep in mind: the piece with the shark is not an illustration of the enigmatic proposition inherent in its obscure title; the piece itself is the imagination and the enigma. I cannot describe its precise meaning or emotion, but when I look at it, my responses are crystal clear, and it perplexes and absorbs me by the relentless clarity of what it suggests and evokes, as did that other famous tank with the black-faced floating lamb, ‘Away from the Flock’ (1994). The constructions are obviously different in size, but otherwise they are much the same. The tank is an abstract utilitarian device, employed to create a well-defined space in which the artist can organise a mise en scene of sorts – it is as neutral as the blank canvas on which the painter begins work. Hirst’s tanks, however, stand on the floor (like a rectangular Donald Judd structure) and they are transparent; you can walk around them. The animal inside often floats at the viewer's eye level; it comes very close. Moreover, it is not a depiction but the real thing. The powerful realism of the works is unavoidable and occasionally aggressive. Some time ago, these animals were alive and now they are dead. But it’s somehow easy to imagine how they were in life, and that's when the train of thought gets going inside my head. What Hirst presents is a radical new form of realism. It is no longer illusionistic (as in realist painting), nor suggestive (as in collage, or the Surrealist tradition of the object trouve), but hard and utterly concrete and therefore, in its visual impact, startlingly powerful.
The dark emotions such works evoke are very human: fear of death (the great unknown we move toward), fear of loneliness and abandonment, and even the wish to avoid death altogether. In the modern world, these emotions are, in many ways, more confused because we have, even at the other side beyond death, the promise of enormous advances in medical science and technology. In the old, noble tradition of art, death was mostly portrayed as a moment of majesty and glory. Warriors gave their life for their Fatherland, and martyred saints died horribly in defence of their faith. After their death, however, we often commemorated their heroic or saintly lives as great moral examples – in exalted odes, resonant requiem masses and opulent sepulchral monuments. Later, private grief, personally experienced, entered the repertoire of art. Romantic painting and poetry abound with remorseful graveyard scenes, and people mourning the passing away of their loved ones. Here, for instance, is the supreme master of poetic grief, Lord Tennyson in a fragment from ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’, a long, profoundly moving, poem reflecting on his private feelings of loss, and of grief itself. It is a masterpiece of English verse:
Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.
The seasons bring the flower again,
And bring the firstling to the flock;
And in the dusk of thee, the clock
Beats out the little lives of men.
This is a touching scene of remembrance and contemplation among the headstones in the churchyard. There, traditionally watching over the dead, is the yew – legendary evergreen tree that can grow so old, it may outlive time and death. Its memories are timeless and it reminds the living that the dead are somehow still with us. Elaborate graves are often adorned with a guardian angel in plaintive, leaning posture – in shape and sentiment not unlike ‘Damien Hirst's sculpture ‘The Anatomy of an Angel’, and also carved in white graveyard marble. But in Hirst's version, just as in ‘Hymn, the skin is partly removed to lay bare segments of the organs. In other areas, flesh has been cut away to show the angel's-skull, her thigh-bone and the brittle bones of her feet. The anatomical dissection has been performed with great refinement and even elegance: note, for instance, the delicate curving line of the incision that lays bare the belly and the breast. Even with this gentle quality, though, the sculpture suits entirely the manner Hirst has chosen to deal with the various aspects of death and dead bodies. No longer is death, as in the poetic imagination of Tennyson, a form of eternal sleep. Death is a physical event, a failure of the body. Though an angel may be a figure of religious imagination or belief, she has, in Hirst’s perception, a body too, and he shows her with the real physical machinery of which she is composed.
We may still grieve for the dead in our time-honoured ways, but in the contemporary world our obsession with death – and especially with not dying at all – has changed completely. That is the ultimate consequence of the spectacular progress of medical science and pharmaceutical research. As this has mostly taken place in Western social democracies that are supposed to care for the entire well-being of every citizen, the idea is emerging that ill health, and maybe even death, are somehow unjust. The reality of death is inconceivable in the mind of the living: the first shark already said so. Of course, this is also a fallacy, but read the papers, watch television: staying healthy and not dying have become an overriding passion in contemporary society – as general and powerful a preoccupation as, in Victorian times, the people's deep yearning to save their immortal souls. The compulsive concern for health – physical health – and the prevention of illness is a unique contemporary issue, consuming vast amounts of public money and attention. Health and wellness have become a new religion, the cherished subject of hospital soaps and reality television. That is the contemporary reality in which Damien Hirst began making his art.
Before Hirst made the first shark, a grim canto about fathomless death, he produced a series of shelved cabinets neatly stacked with pharmaceutical products in their original packages. While these were ordinary in appearance, their stacking was deftly artistic, alternating the size and colour of the objects so the arrangements were lively and seductive. From my youth, I remember old, forbidding pharmacies with rows of dark wooden drawers and stuffy chemical smells. These are long gone; by contrast, in Hirst’s ‘Medicine Cabinets’, the pills and potions are compellingly displayed like sweet candy.
In poetry, the delicate order of metre and rhyme reinforces the message the poet seeks to convey. Their formal order makes the words precious, and takes them out of the ordinary. The melodious repetition of rhyme makes poems, like songs, more memorable. Because of the rhythmic formality in the arrangement of objects in Hirst's cabinets, something similar occurs. Consider, for example, a work fittingly titled ‘Still’, a wide glass-fronted cabinet. On its glass shelves, an array of surgical instruments and utensils is displayed. The arrangement of objects is meticulously designed for visual effect: the cabinet has become a three-dimensional still life. It has been taken out of the hectic and nervous goings-on in a working hospital, and is now a soundless still image for us to look at. At first, intrigued by seeing something so unfamiliar in art, you hardly notice the aesthetic construction of the display: the heavier objects, the gleaming metal ones, are on the lower shelf, densely grouped. On the higher shelves, the arrangement becomes gradually looser and less dense: mingled with the metal items, utensils of shiny glass begin to appear. Towards the top, smaller things are more lightly displayed, and there are also a few containers made of light blue plastic, a delicate pictorial touch of colour within the cool, immaculate gleam of stainless steel and glass.
The formal artistry of the arranged objects in ‘Still’ is an essential component of the work's calculated expression of reflection. The measuredness of its composition, its meditative stillness, makes us look at it in a certain way – unhurried and at leisure; as a result, we perceive the work as a very thoughtful proposition. Included in this exhibition is a sculpture of a great white shark titled ‘We Are Immortal’. With its straight back, bulging belly, and jaws opened wide, the fearsome beast indeed looks defiant. But what interests me here is the tank in which the shark makes its confident appearance: a rectangular steel frame, lacquered white, with single glass sheets on all sides. Sometimes, as with the first shark, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’, the long side of the tank is divided into three segments, which gives the structure a particular formality: its length is three times its height and width. This tank had a narrow look; the shark seemed caged in. The tank of ‘We Are Immortal’ is not quite as long (only a little over five metres), but it is higher and broader than the earlier model; the shark has a wider space to float in, which makes him look more energetic. Maybe the differences between these two tanks are of a technical nature, but this is how they are presented, and I cannot ignore what I see. For instance, the tank for the other shark in the exhibition, ‘Fear of Flying’, is different again. The actual steel-framed glass formaldehyde container, painted black and fairly narrow, sits on an equally black plinth of roughly the same height. The shark is a lean hammerhead that, well balanced by its slender fins and the sideway protrusions at its jaws, seems to drift rather buoyantly – an effect that may be heightened because the fish is positioned in the viewer's sight line.
It seems then that in the art of Damien Hirst, even something as straightforward as a tank is the object of formal, aesthetic consideration. The tank provides a frame of vision, and by that framing the artist can emphasise or direct attention to what appears inside the frame. In this way, by subtle framing, Hirst manages to manipulate the psychology of our vision in seeing different characters, even in different sharks. The tank of ‘Away From the Flock’, for example, is small and intimate – the lamb only just fits into it.
Looking at the construction of art works from this angle, it would seem that, in designing his containers, Damien Hirst also considers their atmospheric effect. There are contemplative cabinets like ‘Still’, for instance, but for the crowded displays of drug packets, he used less-transparent boxes in order to create shadows. Those he made for laying out glittering lines of diamonds (manufactured) are shallow, with long narrow shelves that maximise the intense sparkle behind the glass pane. For displaying row upon row of pharmaceutical capsules (also, occasionally, arranged in little heaps resembling flowers), the cabinets are very simple. Then there are the large tanks without liquid, like self-contained glass rooms in which a narrative mise en scene may be located, employing pieces of furniture, medical objects or other utensils (like live flies or the severed head of a cow) – harrowing little enactments without words, sparse as the bleak plays of Samuel Beckett.
For all his containers, Damien Hirst finds the clear-cut forms developed in Minimal art the most suitable, because they are without clutter and do not disturb whatever is going on inside. While most of Donald Judd’s structures are serene, rectangular organisations of volume and space, Damien Hirst creates work in which the interiors are more puzzling, and their expression more disturbing. Another reference for him is the eccentric, distorted and disorientating organisations of space and shape that Bruce Nauman invented in his art – in performance, video work and sculpture. Yet the realism of Damien Hirst is of a grimmer nature still.
His tanks, vitrines and cabinets display and frame figures and scenes. Strict framing sets the sharp realist scenes apart from the everyday world: they are placed in their own special perspective. Consequently, these often-brutal figurative events become distressingly extreme, but at the same time relentlessly captivating. Defying belief, they keep holding your confused attention in a state of conflicting emotions as you find yourself trapped when looking, for instance, at a violent Baroque painting like the tremendous ‘Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence’ by Peter Paul Rubens (engraved 1621 by Lucas Vorsterman, Antwerp). Everything in the scene is theatrically placed: in the centre, the saint is being roasted on a grid. Doing the torturing are two henchmen, surrounded by a party of Roman soldiers. Whatever space is left in the already crowded composition is filled with thick curling smoke. From above, we see a baby angel descending with palm and laurel to assure the shocked observer that the victim will go to Heaven and become a saint. The ambiguity is, of course, that this image is horrible and beautiful at the same time. The saint is a heavy figure of vigorous manhood, placed in the centre and framed within an abundant wreath of flamboyant figurative and ornamental movement, whereas ornamental flourish is suppressed by spare Minimal design in Damien Hirst’s art. In the interior of his tanks, however, there is often a singular physical weight and abundance that gives the works an exceptional gravitas. That is why I propose to call his art Minimal Baroque, a name that also does justice to its ambivalent beauty.
Those who believe Hirst’s animals are sacrificed as symbolic figures of celebration (of whatever they may, ambiguously, celebrate or evoke) could somehow regard these works as martyrdoms as well. That interpretation would transform their preoccupation with death and the defiance of death into an exultant incantation of life and beauty. For that is what martyrdom is about: death, but also the renewal of life. Included in this exhibition is the tall figure of the martyred apostle ‘Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain’ who, far away in Armenia, was flayed alive for preaching the Faith. Placed on a stool, the naked anatomical man is standing in the typical posture of a victorious Roman general. He is holding a pair of scissors in his left hand, while limp remnants of his skin hang down from a right arm raised in triumph, holding out the flayer’s knife. While familiar imagery presents the martyred saint skinned and dripping with blood, Hirst's sculpture, made in gold-plated silver, is gloriously pristine.
Saint Bartholomew’s beauty may be equivocal, but that is not so with ‘The Virgin Mother’ fashioned in partly painted, polished bronze. Hirst portrays his monolithic Madonna as a pregnant young woman, here standing 34 feet high in an elegant pose reminiscent of a Degas dancer. As so often in Damien Hirst’s representation of the human body as physical machine, skin and flesh are, in places, removed. Of half her head, we see the pale skull that makes the bashful smile on her face — teeth and lips together — slightly mystifying. The skinned right breast looks like a soft ornament. But the main focus is the swollen belly opened up to show the unborn child crouched in the womb, the light blue, fragile umbilical cord curling around him like a tender garland. Though this exquisite sculpture comes from the iconographic tradition of the sacred Madonna del Parto (Madonna in labour), it is at the same time completely new, and moving in its amazing tenderness: the expectation of new life. The intractable beauty of the thing makes it real and credible.
Many of the important themes in Hirst’s art, even when they are ambiguously expressed or genuinely puzzling, are religious by nature. Religious references are undeniably part of its idiosyncratic and iconographic atmosphere. I am not suggesting that it is Christian, but the images employed or implied, and the language of the titles, were clearly born out of ecclesiastical and biblical traditions. Death and life, pain and suffering, love and sacrifice, birth and decay, remorse and celebration, compassion: they are not only conditions and emotions central to everyone’s existence, but their relevance and profundity also originate and are shaped, in depth, by our religious and artistic history. Their deep meaning sounds mightily, also for the agnostic, in ‘Paradise Lost’.
Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe.
With loss of Eden...
With these splendid, sonorous lines, the poem begins to tell its tale. In painting, especially in the Baroque, horrible martyrdoms were framed in ornate and stylish pictorial beauty. It seems that beauty functioned as a special stylistic vehicle to highlight, by contrast, the ugliness of the martyrdom itself. Or was it that the soothing effect of pure beauty also gave solace to the fearful audience?
At some point, Damien Hirst began to make paintings in which we see flashes of very bright colour creating images of explosive chromatic contrasts. They are not deliberate compositions, but the results of a largely uncontrollable random technique of spattering liquid paint onto a moving surface — a very physical process, in line with his artistic ethos. Hirst may well have come to the conclusion that colourful splendour is, next to raw reality, as much an aspect of the physical world as bleakness and decay. And that beauty, amid the other scenes with which his work confronts us, may indeed offer consolation and hope – just as sweet spring follows harsh winter.
Even more ravishing than the spin paintings are the images that consist of decorative patterns made from butterfly wings, in which the shapes of the wings, and their intense iridescent colours, come together in a symbiotic harmony of exquisite visual pleasure. Many of these pieces seem to have been made just for their shimmering beauty - and why not? Others are, by their titles, linked to some spiritual content such the Old Testament Psalms. In this exhibition, Hirst includes twelve round paintings, each named for a particular Psalm. Their pattern is constructed from concentric rings of butterfly wings on a monochrome canvas; the beauty of their delicate markings, and the exquisite rhythm of the wings, are truly hallucinatory and miraculous. The colours are so intense because they come directly from nature, not from chemical paints. It seems these images are carried by beauty itself, just as in choral versions, the Psalms are carried by music. This notion of their words being carried seems important. When declaimed in the English translation of the King James Bible, the Psalms sound somewhat long-winded and exhortatory. Poets have attempted to tighten their rhythm and give their language a plain metre more suitable for a musical setting – John Milton, for instance, reshaped the text of ‘Psalm VII’, and others as well, into serene English prose that is perfect for singing:
Lord, my God, to thee I fly;
Save me and secure under
Thy protection while I cry,
Lest as a lion (and no wonder)
He haste to tear my soul asunder,
Tearing and no rescue nigh.
This is a slightly plaintive supplication, and I wonder if Damien Hirst has chosen the subdued colours in his version of ‘Psalm VII’, ‘Domine, Deus meus’, for that reason. Somehow those colours – black and grey and light brown and white – seem to reflect exactly the sadness and resignation that permeate Milton's poem, at least. The poet set the Psalm’s language to poetic diction so that it could be better sung by choirs, and Damien Hirst does something similarly imaginative: he sets Psalms in ornamental shape and colour so we can also see them in their luminous beauty.
I remember T.S. Eliot’s essay about Lord Tennyson, and ‘In Memoriam’ in particular, in which he reminds us how, in the tone and content of his poetry, that high Victorian touched the nerve of his time precisely. Similarly, it strikes me that the art of Damien Hirst seems uncannily to touch the nerve of our time. Perhaps that is why it is sometimes disconcerting. Eliot also asks himself why Tennyson is truly great; he identifies three qualities that come together only in the greatest poets: abundance, variety and complete competence – qualities that, I would claim, are overwhelmingly represented in the work of Damien Hirst.
'MInimal Baroque and Hymns' originally published in Damien Hirst 'Cornucopia' (Other Criteria/Musée Océanographique de Monaco, 2010). Copyright © Rudi Fuchs, 2010.
Rudi Fuchs is an art historian who since 1974 was director of museums in Eindhoven, Turin, The Hague and Amsterdam. He has organised numerous major exhibitions, and was artistic director of Documenta 7 in 1982. He is an authority on modern and contemporary art and now is an independent writer. He lives in Amsterdam and Norfolk.