Damien Hirst has finally said stuff it to taxidermy zebras and formaldehyde sharks.
It will come as little surprise that mortality hangs over his new exhibition, which opens today at the classical Wallace Collection in London. The shock is that instead of pickled livestock or bejewelled human remains he presents a series of 25 paintings. Crazy idea.
"They're all by me!" he insisted yesterday, questioned about whether his workshops of minions had contributed to No Love Lost, Blue Paintings. "I've always painted, I painted these works over the last three years in one place, an old signal box that I installed at the bottom of my garden as an overflow room when drinking in the house becomes too much." Some of the painting was also undertaken at his home in north Devon.
His new works suspend trademark imagery – skulls, cadavers, ashtrays and sharks – in front of intense dark blue backgrounds. The gallery, which Hirst personally paid £250,000 to have refurbished and draped in blue silk, sits next door to the Wallace Collection's rooms of Old Masters; Titians, Rembrandts and Gainsborough. In a sideswipe at his contemporaries, Hirst said he had wanted the paintings displayed there because "you get a bit bored" of modern art galleries.
Forget the skulls and animal corpses. The strongest arbiter of death at his latest offering is the ghost of Francis Bacon, whose work Hirst echoes without surpassing.
"He's certainly an inspiration to me," acknowledged Hirst, speaking at the gallery. "I became obsessed with the colours black and blue as you can see. Bacon's work during the Fifties investigated the use of the colour blue."
"Painting is all about an illusion. I love Goya, Rembrandt, Bacon and de Kooning. They all share that messy go-for-it style that I find attractive." Hirst added: "I know I can sell dead sharks so from a sales perspective I'm more nervous about how these will be received."
No Love Lost portrays a sensitive side to Hirst; less art-factory manager, and instead the self-portrait of a family man. "I would agree with the suggestion that I find the process of painting cathartic," the father-of-three said. "Well, until I get interrupted by my kids. There are distractions whilst working from home and I seem to spend lots of time working for my kids. The other day my eldest asked me to change the background colour for a painting he'd done and I painstakingly followed the edges of his figures."
Earlier this year, Hirst shut two studios, although he prevented redundancies by redeploying staff to the maintenance of his existing works.
No Love Lost shows at the Wallace Collection until 24 January. It is free to visitors. A second series of paintings will go on sale at the White Cube Gallery from 24 October.
Hirst told how in the past he has bought skulls over the internet for his work for about "500 quid to a grand". Asked how he felt about donating his own head for art, he said: "I quite like that idea... I wouldn't mind my skull being an ashtray or something."