Damien Hirst: The maestro of the macabre

From sliced-up cows to dead sharks, Damien Hirst is the master of statement, but his retrospective at the Tate shows how little of himself he reveals

"Like no other artist of his generation, Damien Hirst has permeated the cultural consciousness of our times," declares the curator, Ann Gallagher, introducing the retrospective of the artist in Britain at the Tate. Well, confining it to "his generation", Hirst certainly has the notoriety with his dead sharks in formaldehyde and diamond-encrusted skull, although Tracey Emin with her My Bed (1998) and confessional installations could probably give him a run for his money (not literally, of course, given Hirst's reputation as the richest artist in the world today).

And here are Hirst's shock creations, gathered together for the first time in this country, the shark, the skull, the butterfly assemblages and the spot paintings, in the spacious new galleries of Tate Modern's third floor. You can say what you like – and everybody seems to have had a say already, most of it adverse – they represent the formidable output of an artist deeply committed to his profession and immersed in its history. The argument over whether sticking a cow in a tank or pinning a butterfly on a board amounts to art is now so worn out that you could be had up for ageism just mentioning it.

Go and see the diamond skull, (For the Love of God, 2007) encased in its own little walk-in cubicle at the back of the Turbine Hall of the museum or step into the central room in the main show surrounded by his fish, sheep and cows preserved in tanks and you can hardly accuse Hirst of tossing off the works without care or creativity. Nor can you say they are without meaning. The skull is a remarkable object, enfolding the reality of death and the image or religious relic with the permanence and the dazzle of real diamonds. The animals in formaldehyde are genuinely disconcerting in their still forms of frozen life.

The surprise of the show is that Hirst wanted it. After years of declaring that he'd never show in a museum like the Tate, it seems he has decided to look back on his career at the tender age of 46, thus immediately arousing the suspicion that it's a desperate effort to regain some of a reputation in decline.

It's a suggestion the exhibition, it has to be said, doesn't altogether allay. Arranged chronologically it starts with a room of his work at Goldsmiths College in 1986-8. There's a row of pans painted in household gloss, a ping-pong ball kept dancing aloft by a hairdryer at full blast, the first of his spot paintings pointedly leaned against the wall rather than hung. You would be hard put to see in any of these some great well of imagination or even precocious talent. But then, quite quickly, he seems to find himself and his gift for the art of effect. Perhaps it was because he searches into his own past and fears. Perhaps it was, as he suggests in a characteristically open conversation with Sir Nicholas Serota published in the catalogue, because he was just wanting and waiting to create something that would make a splash. But make a splash he certainly does.

From his weak beginnings you move on into a room, being careful not to sit on the sheep's head preserved in glass containers on the floor and portentously titled Stimulants (and the way they affect the mind and body) (1991), to be faced by the famous – infamous at the time – A Thousand Years (1990). It's a work of huge ambition and no little technical challenge in which a bloody cow's head is devoured by flies moving in a constant cycle of birth, decay and destruction by an insect-o-cutor. All are contained in a six-foot-high, two-chambered glass box filled with the buzz of the flies. It's both disgusting and compelling in its portrayal of the morbidity of death and its aftermath.

Hirst, still in his twenties, had found a way to bring the reality of living and dying into the room and the rest of his career can be seen as a constant effort to equal it. Nearly all the themes that have dominated his work since were created in those few years of the late Eighties and early Nineties: the animals in formaldehyde, expressing the permanence of mortality; the pharmaceutical cabinets positing science and commerce against human need; the rows of cigarette butts representing the fire that consumes, and the spot paintings giving off the air of random order and precise space,

Much has been made of Hirst's obsession with death, fuelled by his own statements that he thinks of it every day. But it's not actually death that permeates his work so much as the fragility of life and the beauty of it as it approaches its end. The Tate has been able to re-enact his room of fluttering and still butterflies, In and Out of Love (1991) from his first solo show in which the flies of the dead cow's head are replaced by a whole room you can enter, full of butterflies and gaudy potted plants. The shark (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991) no longer threatens, its skin too grizzled now to make it seem deadly (best looked at an angle from the front corners show you see it reflected several times to the sides), nor do the sliced cow and calf (Mother and Child Divided, 1993) amount to more than themselves, but the two cabinets of arranged fish swimming in opposite directions (Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding, 1991) do work amazingly well still, their ordered progress providing a rhythmic flow that draws you in and disconcerts. So, too, with the cabinets of medicines, where the sterility of the brightly coloured packages belies the humanity of their purpose.

Hirst's work of the past decade doesn't so much develop these themes as monumentalise them on larger scale and with more luxurious materials. The plastic anatomy figures of the pharmacy are succeeded by a gigantic 20-foot high figure of painted bronze (Hymn, 1999-2005) and an angel anatomised in Carrara marble . The flies of A Thousand Years (1990) are massed in resin on a round 12-foot diameter canvas of stark blackness (Black Sun, 2005). The shark becomes a dove in formaldehyde in an unnerving image of frozen flight (The Incomplete Truth, 2005), while the butterflies are used en masse and to brilliant effect as stained glass windows (Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven, 2007).

Finally, the Tate attempts to replicate the Sotheby's sale of 2008, in which Hirst gathered together some of his richest and glossiest works in a direct auction to the public (or at least its richest members), with a two-room display of gold-plated steel and aluminium cabinets containing zircon gems in dramatic lines. A tasteless theatre of the absurd on Hirst's part, positing wealth as the be-all and end-all of his profession (it's not for nothing that this show is sponsored by an oil-rich country, Qatar, with no art of its own)? Or was it the final act of bravado of an artist who'd had enough of the course he had followed and wanted out?

The exhibition doesn't answer this, or even ask the question. But it's the thought that hovers over a show which, like the works, has something of the memorial to it. Hirst himself has talked of how he has changed with fatherhood and how increasingly he has turned back to painting himself, although the exhibition contains no examples.

Perhaps it is Hirst being shy of showing the results. There is in his career a feeling of the search for effect over and above the search for himself. Too often, satisfied with impact, he prefers to make statements rather than pose questions. You see it most in his spot paintings, which he, or rather he and his assistants, have painted over 20 years and were shown earlier this year in their entirety across Gagosian's galleries worldwide. They're bright, they're mathematical, they suit a market that wants a Hirst picture to hang on their walls and they answer an artist's intellectual desire to pursue a theme to its limits. But there's a worrying sense that the artist has elaborated them not so much from a spirit of inquiry as a fear of doing anything more spontaneous. Hirst certainly has the courage to take risks but does he, one asks, have the courage essential to the best art of taking risks with himself?

I hope so. One would like this maestro of the macabre to produce a different, more personal work. As it is we have a retrospective that proves his coherence as an artist but not his worth.

Damien Hirst, Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888; www.tate.org.uk) 4 April to 9 September

Video by Crane.tv

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing