I’ve resisted writing about Damien Hirst for this column. It felt too obvious. Yet it seems impossible not to mention him at some point to evaluate his contribution to British art during the last three decades. In the 1990s, the YBAs – Young British Artists for anyone asleep during that decade – burst onto the scene delivering shock and awe with works such as Hirst’s shark pickled in formaldehyde, entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Somebody Living, Sarah Lucas’s sexualised Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab and Marcus Harvey’s blatantly crowd-baiting portrait of the infamous photograph of Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderer. These post-punks of the art world were flagrant and irreverent. Iconoclasm and fame their goal.
In his essay Reframing Postmodernism from Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion, Mark C. Taylor suggests that the aesthetic embodiment of the ‘death of God’ began with Pop art, with Jasper Johns’ Targets and Warhol’s Brillo boxes that were all surface and no depth. Artworks that appeared to be referring only to themselves and the society in which they existed. It was in this aesthetic mulch that the YBAs flourished. Nothing was serious; everything was tongue-in-cheek. In 1993 Hirst created Mother and Child (Divided) for the Venice Biennale. It was to win him the Turner Prize two years later and consisted of four glass tanks containing the bisected halves of a cow and her calf, preserved in formaldehyde. Even at this distance, it is still hard to decide if his primary motive was to épater les bourgeois or to investigate philosophical concerns.
His first use of a heavy glass vitrine was in A Thousand Years, 1990, in which a colony of flies swarmed around the rotting head of a cow. A piece that, despite its form, was, in many ways, a classical vanitas work. The clean, industrial lines of the vitrines also paid homage to the minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd and Carl Andre whilst nodding at Francis Bacon’s popes shut screaming in their own cages of solitary hell. Hirst may have been the bad boy of the YBA brat pack, but he was a Catholic bad boy, unable to erase the religious iconography of his childhood from his imagination. “I have”, he said, “a lot of strong memories of religious images. We had a big, illustrated bible, and when I was young, I would go straight to the crucifixions or severed head pages”. After graduating from Goldsmiths, a job in a mortuary familiarised him with death and dulled his sensibility to dealing with mortal remains. Yet, even with this proximity to cadavers, the fundamental mystery of what makes us human remained.
Mother and Child, for all its ghoulish fairground appeal, draws on the oldest image in Christian Western art, the Madonna and Child. When seen in this light, it takes on what the poet Yeats called ‘a terrible beauty’. The undulating leathery folds of the bisected animals appear, emptied of their viscera, surprisingly beautiful, an expression of intimacy and vulnerability. Here the formaldehyde replicates the amniotic fluid in which the embryo once lay suspended and innocent. There’s also a nod to the scientific (often deviant) specimens preserved in glass jars for scientific research. Or it could be read as a metaphor for failure and a reminder of mortality. For, despite the preservative properties of formaldehyde, all matter is, in the end, subject to entropy. It also conjures those once living relics – saints’ fingers and thighbones – to be found in many a Catholic church, objects whose purpose is to inspire devotion whilst emphasising that all life is transient. Whilst the play between inside and outside evokes that Western philosophical conundrum, the Cartesian split between mind and body and the Platonic search for unity. There’s also a nod towards Melanie Klein’s theory that the child separated from its mother perpetually yearns for the prelapsarian state of a return to wholeness and perfection.
Hirst went on to produce a number of works in tanks, including Stimulants (and the way they affect the mind and the body) consisting of two vitrines each displaying a skinned cow’s head, and a tank of formaldehyde containing a woolly sheep, aptly entitled Black Sheep with Golden Horns. From there, he moved on to spot paintings and butterflies (works that could be made in multiples ) along with his notorious diamond-encrusted skull.
There is no doubt that Hirst was – whether by design or just the happenstance of being in the right place at the right time – one of the most original artists of his generation. Theatrical and startling, his early works are undoubtedly thought-provoking. His more recent attempts at painting are, perhaps, proof that, despite his vast wealth, he has always wanted to be placed in the pantheon amongst the greats. But Hirst’s problem has always been that he was never able to decide whether he wanted to be a serious artist pursuing his work against the odds – with all the hard graft and possible lack of recognition this involves – or a showman and billionaire playboy. Like the schoolboy who pulls wings off blue bottles to see how they’re constructed, there’s the sense that however many cows and sharks he cut up, he’s never found the answers he was looking for. Perhaps it was this existential despair that lead him to turn his subsequent art – the Pill Cabinets and Spin Paintings – into objects of capitalist exchange rather than work filled with metaphor and meaning. Although this isn’t an obituary, it feels like a post mortem of a genius manqué who sold his soul for a mess of potage. The originality and tenderness of Mother and Child, its relationship to the great religious art of the past, points to a road that was, ultimately, not taken.
Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2023 ‘Mother and Child Divided’, a floor-based sculpture comprising four glass-walled tanks, containing the two halves of a cow and calf, each bisected and preserved in formaldehyde solution.
Sue Hubbard is an award winning poet, novelist and art critic. Her collection of poems, Radium Dreams, is on show at The Women’s Art Collection, Murray Edwards College with art work by Eilleen Cooper. Her collection of poems on the life of Gwen John, God’s Little Artist is due later this year from Seren. Flatlands, her fourth novel is to be published by Pushkin Press in June.