The Tate's "Damien Hirst" Aims to Show the Artistry Behind the Hype (But Still Includes Live Butterflies)

Damien Hirst with "Mother and Child Divided" in "Turner Prize: A Retrospective" at Tate Britain
(Photograph: Andy Paradise)

LONDON — The recent frenzy surrounding Damien Hirst's "Complete Spot Paintings" show at Gagosian galleries around the world might have seemed like the paragon of media hysteria, betweeen with the dot lovers, the dot haters, and the critics imagining the artist dead. But let's brace ourselves for a new wave of Hirst hype, because the "first substantial survey" of the artist's work in Britain opens at Tate Modern tomorrow. 

Calling it the "first substantial survey" is almost amusing. A Martian landing in London might think we are talking about an underrated genius, until now grossly overlooked. That is, clearly, not the case. Or is it? Auction houses, commercial galleries, collectors, and the artist's own corporation Science form a powerful circle around Hirst, united by the need for the artist's prices to grow, or stay stable at the very least. Yet museums have been slow to grant the former enfant terrible of British art genuine recognition, and with it scholarly credibility.

Will the Tate manage to clear away the hype muddying the endless stream of Hirst-related press, and offer a fresh view of the work? "Throughout his career, Hirst’s work has been experienced by the majority of people through the filter of photographic reproduction and headline reportage," exhibition curator Ann Gallagher told ARTINFO UK. "This exhibition will be an important opportunity for everyone to examine the works themselves at first hand and to appreciate why they became such iconic images."

Tactfully, the exhibition isn't called a "retrospective," but it nonetheless covers most of Hirst's voluminous production since his days at Goldsmiths College — with the notable exception of the embarrassing "Blue Paintings," pilloried when first shown at the Wallace Collection in 2009. The show gathers pieces first shown in the now-legendary "Freeze" exhibition Hirst curated in London Docklands in 1988; the shark, or rather "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Young" (1991); spot paintings (again); spin paintings; medicine cabinets; and a small herd of pickled animals. Oh, and the £50-million diamond-encrusted skull "For the Love of God" (2007) — said to be owned by a conglomerate of businessmen including the artist — is displayed in a separate, highly guarded viewing room in the Turbine Hall.

"Damien Hirst" will also include "In and Out of Love" (1991), a rarely seen two-room installation first presented in a vacant shop on Bond Street, involving live pupae stuck onto canvases which hatch in front of the visitors. "Amazingly, the butterflies hatched on schedule," Hirst's former tutor Michael Craig-Martin remembers of the original in his catalogue essay. "As Hirst now acknowledges, if they hadn't, the anticlimax and loss of credibility might have jeopardized his whole subsequent career."

Tate is no doubt hoping to cash in on the thousands of visitors London is expecting this summer for the Olympic Games. But their choice isn't to everyone's taste. Former museum director Julian Spalding recently told the Independent: "The emperor has nothing on. When the penny drops that these are not art, it's all going to collapse. Hirst should not be in the Tate. He's not an artist." Spalding is, however, a good businessman and he did not shy away from opportunistically launching his own book "Con Art — Why You Ought To Sell Your Damien Hirsts While You Can" on April Fools' Day, 48 hours before the Tate show opens to the public.

Like another globally famous British product, people seem to either love Hirst or hate him. Whatever your position, it can't be denied that this emotional outpouring matches the impact the artist and his gang have had on British art. There will forever be a "before" and an "after" the YBAs in the UK. "I believe that what Hirst had achieved was not just to bring its young participants to international attention," writes Craig-Martin, "but to establish for himself and for them a clear sense of context, a realization that they were part of something larger than just their individual selves: a common cause. 'Freeze' felt fresh and exciting, announcing the arrival of a new and very different generation of artists, not afraid to assert themselves or willing to wait for an invitation to the table."

To preview some of the famous artworks in "Damien Hirst" at Tate Modern, click on the slide show.

This is a version of a story that first appeared on ARTINFO UK.