Damien Hirst
Biography, of Turner Prize Winner, Leader of Young British Artists (YBAs).

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One of the great self-promoters in
the contemporary art world, renowned
for his installation, sculpture as well
as his fine art painting. Damien Hirst - Visionary artist or marketing genius?

Damien Hirst (b.1965)


Breakthrough: Charles Saatchi Buys Installations
First Solo Exhibition
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living
Turner Prize Winner
First One-Man Show in New York
For the Love of God
Controversial Artist
Our View


Important Art Works

Probably Hirst's most famous piece
of installation art, is the shark,
reportedly sold by its original buyer,
Charles Saatchi, to the hedge-fund
tycoon Steve Cohen, in 2004, for
a tidy $8.3 million.




The controversial painter, sculptor and installation artist Damien Hirst is one of the world's most commercially successful contemporary artists. A leading member of the UK postmodernist art group known as Young British Artists, he first came to prominence in the 1990s for his series of dead animals preserved and floating in formaldehyde. Influenced by Francis Bacon, his most famous works of avant-garde art include A Thousand Years (1989), a glasscase with maggots and flies feeding off a rotting cow's head; The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), a tiger shark in a glass tank of formaldehyde and For The Love of God, a platinum cast of an 18th century human skull covered in £15,000,000 worth of diamonds. The last two works exemplify Hirst's use of "found objects" as art. He is also known for his 'spin paintings,' manufactured on a rotating circular surface, and 'spot paintings,' consisting of rows of randomly-coloured dots or circles. For a look at avant-garde art from an earlier era, see: Modern British Sculpture (1930-70) and Contemporary British Painting (1960-2000).




Born in Bristol in 1965, Hirst grew up in Leeds with his mother and stepfather. Not an academic student, he failed most of his exams, barely scraping two E grades at A-level. He went to the Leeds College of Art and Design, although he was rejected on his first application.

He then moved to London, working for 2 years on building sites before being accepted, on his second application in 1986, to Goldsmiths College of art at the University of London for a BA in Fine Arts.

As a student, he worked in a mortuary which allegedly influenced his interest in the theme of death. He also began to develop a reputation as a tireless activist in promoting his art. In July 1988 the second-year student Hirst organized 'Freeze', a student art show in a disused block run by the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) who also sponsored the exhibition.

Prestigious visitors to the show included the multi-millionaire art-collector Charles Saatchi. Hirst's own exhibit was a cluster of cardboard boxes decorated with household paint.

Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings.

For a list of contemporary
installationists like Damien Hirst
see: Modern Artists.

Including contemporary creative
practitioners in most modern arts.
See also 20th Century Sculptors.

Breakthrough: Charles Saatchi Buys Hirst's Installations

Graduating from Goldsmiths in 1989, Hirst first showed at a number of minor art exhibitions but his first major breakthrough came in 1990 when he (together with Carl Freedman and Billee Sellman) curated two 'warehouse' shows, called 'Modern Medicine' and 'Gambler'. Charles Saatchi arrived at the second show in his Rolls Royce and - according to one artist - stood open-mouthed with astonishment in front of Hirst's installation A Thousand Years. (This comprised a large glass case in which maggots and flies were feeding off the decomposing remains of a cow's head. Note: Hirst often acknowledges the impact of Francis Bacon on his works, not least the latter's obsession with visceral images and rotting corpses. Bacon himself saw A Thousand Years at the Saatchi gallery and wrote about it to a friend before he died.). Saatchi immediately bought the piece thus initiating a long and fruitful business relationship between patron and artist.



Hirst's First Solo Exhibition

In 1991, Hirst staged his first solo exhibition 'Dial, In and Out of Love', an event held in a vacant London shop and organised by Tamara Chodzko. More solo shows followed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and the Emmanuel Perrotin Gallery in Paris. In addition, The Serpentine Gallery hosted 'Broken English' a group show presenting the new generation of artists with the exhibition. It was also during this period that Hirst got to know the up-and-coming fine-art dealer Jay Jopling, thus initiating another important and long-term commercial relationship.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

Following his purchase of A Thousand Years, Saatchi had offered to finance any piece of art that Hirst wanted to create. The result (which cost Saatchi £50,000) was The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a tiger shark (which cost £6,000) pickled in formaldehyde in a glass case, which was exhibited in 1992 as part of the first Young British Arts (YBA) Exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery of contemporary art in London. Hirst was nominated for the Turner Prize that year, but it went to the artist Grenville Davey instead.

In 1993 Hirst received his first major international exposure at the Venice Biennale with his work Mother and Child Divided, a cow and her calf sliced into sections and exhibited in separate glass cases. In 1994 his piece Flock, a sheep floating in a tank of formaldehyde, was exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery in London. A rogue artist, Mark Bridger, walked into the gallery one day and poured a tin of black ink into the tank and re-titled the work 'Black Sheep'. He was later prosecuted and the sculpture restored.

Turner Prize Winner

In 1995 Hirst was finally awarded the Turner Prize for Third Installation of Pharmacy, although his works continue to shock the public. His sculpture Two F--- and Two Watching, a rotting cow and bull, was banned in New York for fears of 'vomiting among the visitors'.

In 1997 he participated in the Sensation Exhibition at the Royal Academy with other young British artists like Tracey Emin and Marcus Harvey. A Thousand Years and other works by Hirst were included. The show caused a lot of controversy, in particular as to the real meaning of art. Nonetheless, it demonstrated that the YBAs were officially now part of the establishment. See also Turner Prize Winners.


For the rest of the 1990s Hirst's works continued to grow in popularity. The theme of life and death continued to permeate his output. Like the artist Andy Warhol (and not unlike commercially successful Old Masters like Michelangelo, Giovanni Bellini and Titian, and Baroque painters like Peter Paul Rubens), he expanded his studio to take on assistants to help produce his works, especially his fine art paintings. This led to controversy over the authenticity of some of his works. In fact, he himself admitted to only having painted five of his 'Spot' paintings because "I couldn't be f--- arsed doing it." He described his own efforts as 'shite' and that one of his assistants Rachel was far better at it. He claimed that "the best spot painting you can have by me is one painted by Rachel...the only difference between one painted by her and one of mine, is the money." Needless to say, Hirst is not seen by many art critics as one of the greatest of 20th century painters!

Hirst's First One-Man Show in New York

In Sept 2000, Larry Gagosian, a fan of American Neo-Pop artist Jeff Koons (b.1955), held a solo show for Hirst in New York City entitled: 'Damien Hirst: Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results and Findings'. The exhibition attracted 100,000 people over 12 weeks and all works were sold. In April 2003, the newly relocated Saatchi Gallery staged an exhibition which incorporated a Hirst retrospective. This triggered strains in the relationship between the two men, over who was more responsible for boosting their joint profile. In an outburst, Hirst criticised Saatchi, saying: "He only recognises art with his wallet ... he believes he can affect art values with buying power, and he still believes he can do it." The fall-out reportedly dashed prospects of a Hirst Retrospective at the Tate Modern. In addition, not long afterwards, Hirst re-purchased 12 works from Saatchi (a third of the latter's holdings of the artist's early works), for a total fee reported to exceed £8 million, netting his patron a substantial profit, but preserving the market value of Hirst's oeuvre. Later in 2003, Hirst had an exhibition called 'Romance In the Age of Uncertainty' at the White Cube Gallery in London which made him a reported £11m, taking his wealth to well over £35m.

For The Love of God

In 2007, For the Love of God, Hirst's human skull recreated in platinum and adorned with 8,061 diamonds sold to a consortium which included the artist and The White Cube Gallery for £50,000,000. In 2008, he took the unusual step of bypassing established galleries by selling works direct to the public via an auction at Sotheby’s. Principal showcase items included The Golden Calf, an animal with gold horns and hooves, preserved in formaldehyde, and The Kingdom, another preserved tiger shark. In addition, the sale included spot and butterfly paintings, many incorporating diamonds and precious metals. Over 21,000 people visited the pre-show and all 56 lots sold for a total of £111 million. The auction was successful beyond any expectation and set a record for a single-artist auction.

Controversial Artist

The controversy surrounding Hirst stems from four issues: (1) Differences of opinion concerning the aesthetic or intrinsic artistic worth of his artworks. (2) His use of shocking, sensationalist materials in his works. (3) Allegations of price manipulation and questionable business practices. (4) The fact that he is enormously rich, one of the most successful postmodernist artists, and no doubt the subject of envy by many artists and critics.

Damien Hirst has been praised by many for galvanising interest in the British arts and in helping to create the image of a 'Cool Britannia'. Moreover, a large number of art professionals and experts have been quick to acknowledge his prowess in marketing works of art. Even so, his critics are no less vocal. A Daily Mail headline stated "For 1,000 years art has been one of our great civilising forces. Today, pickled sheep and soiled beds threaten to make barbarians of us all." Artist Charles Thomson of the The Stuckist Art Group wrote of Hirst's works: "They're bright and they're zany - but there's f--- all there at the end of the day." And in a 2008 TV documentary The Mona Lisa Curse, the respected modern art critic Robert Hughes attacked Hirst's work as 'tacky' and 'absurd' . However, despite the sceptics, Hirst continues to be a best-seller and, despite a bust-up with his erstwhile patron Charles Saatchi, the latter remains a staunch supporter of Hirst's artistic talent.

Our View

In his self-promotion and general efforts to publicize his painting, sculpture and installations, the truth is that Hirst is doing no more than many other famous artists, from Rubens to Salvador Dali. The only difference, frankly, is that he's doing it better. (One can say the same thing about Jack Vettriano.)

A more serious question concerns the longevity of his works and thus his reputation as an artist, and - by implication - the meaning of art in the 21st century. Personally, I see Hirst's work as a simple reflection of modern society which attaches overriding importance to 'news value'. As values change, I believe that the importance of his contribution to visual art will diminish to the level of mere curiosity. His name may endure for a little longer, but I expect that few people will remember his now-fashionable sculpture and installation.

As to his artistic skills, I believe them to be highly overrated. Furthermore, his own view of art appears muddled and confused. On the one hand, he seems to support the conceptualist notion that the real creative act is the idea, rather than the finished product. On the other hand, many of his works carry absurdly pretentious titles - thus signposting their exceptional significance - and a number are embedded or decorated with extremely valuable materials - hardly the stuff of traditional conceptual art.

However, Hirst's approach to modern art is entirely consistent with a strong desire to make money and achieve worldwide fame. So instead of arguing about his level of creative skill as a sculptor or painter, let us praise him for his outstanding entrepreneurial skills, and his unique contribution to the contemporary British art scene. His works hang in several contemporary galleries and one or two of the best art museums in the world.

The Last Word

According to the eminent British collector of contemporary art, Charles Saatchi: "... art books will be brutal about the late twentieth century. Every artist other than Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Andy Warhol (1928-87), Donald Judd (1928-94) and Damien Hirst (b.1965) will be a footnote."

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