First springing onto the art scene in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Damien Hirst is now very much a household name. Hirst’s work spans multiple mediums, from detailed drawings and colourful paintings to thought-provoking sculptures and eerie installations. A recurring theme throughout his pieces is death and its blatant inevitability; many of his works explore the link between death, life, science and the overall human experience.
From his beginnings as a fine art student in London to exhibiting at some of the top galleries around the world today, here we take a look at what you need to know about this incredibly influential British artist.
While born and bred in Bristol, a rebellious young Damien Hirst went on to study his craft at London’s Goldsmiths College in the late 80s.
During this period, he both curated and debuted his work in a group exhibition called Freeze. He and his fellow artists became known as the Young British Artists (YBA): a prolific jumble of creatives who often exhibited together and were famed for their edgy artistic styles and unique use of materials. Within the Freeze collection were some of Hirst’s first globally-recognised Spot paintings which he painted directly on the walls of the exhibition space in London’s Docklands.
As the world entered the 1990s, Hirst’s career skyrocketed and he was awarded the prestigious Turner Prize in 1995. He developed a close working relationship with Charles Saatchi, the well-known art tycoon, after Saatchi viewed his grotesque A Thousand Years piece which featured hundreds of maggots eating a dead cow’s head. Saatchi immediately saw promise in Hirst’s provocative and often absurd art, providing him with support and financing until the early 2000s.
Dead animals are by no means unusual in Hirst’s works. Some of his most iconic collections have included them, most notably The Physical Impossibility Of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – a huge tank featuring a 14-foot tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde. More controversial works have featured the rotting corpses of cows, while others have been a little more light-hearted, such as the live butterfly installation he showcased at the Tate Modern in 2012.
Screen prints, intricate drawings and eerie installations all number among Hirst’s countless masterpieces. His works have been displayed in galleries across the globe, with one show (titled Beautiful Inspired My Head Forever) even being put up for auction in its entirety at Sotheby’s in 2008.
While on the surface they may look like a bunch of brightly-coloured dots daubed onto a white background, Hirst’s Spot series has plenty of hidden meaning. The paintings are reflective of the artist’s love of colour in general and gazing upon them can evoke feelings of both joy and chaos.
Hirst has created hundreds of Spot paintings over the decades, with the first ones completed in 1986. In 2012, he even exhibited The Complete Spot Paintings 1986 – 2011 at various major galleries around the globe. Over 300 were featured, including one painting created in 2011 which featured over 25,000 spots – each one in a totally different colour.
Hirst has maintained a long-term fascination with death throughout his career. This is perhaps most vividly displayed through his Natural History series which spans from 1991 to 2013.
Merging art with science, the series is infamous for its use of taxidermied animals, from farm species like cows and sheep to more exotic creatures such as sharks and zebras. Gazing at bisected, flayed and sometimes rotting flesh provokes both a sense of horror and intrigue. As Hirst explained once in an interview: “What I really like is minimum effort for maximum effect”.
Fast-forward to the 2010s and Hirst went back to his roots with a series of abstract oil paintings that were large in scale and beautifully bright. The Veil series steps away from his fixation with death and instead evokes celebration with the huge size and kaleidoscopic palettes of the paintings.
You’ll notice the same colours repeating throughout the series. This is intentional, with Hirst claiming in an interview with the Gagosian Gallery: “They are like sweet shop colours and the colours of fruit and flowers; they’re my go-to colours”.
Curious about the name? Veil alludes to the fact the paintings both reveal something yet are also obscuring something else. They look almost like highly pixelated images, with their exact subject matter very much open to the individual viewers' interpretation.
Hirst is a true icon of contemporary British art. While his gorier pieces remain safely behind glass in various galleries worldwide, it is possible to purchase some of his prints and paintings for your own private viewing pleasure. Browse our small but curated collection of Damien Hirst prints or our full collection of contemporary artworks.