TThe first thing that strikes me when I see Damien Hirst’s Cherry Blossoms is not the scale (monumental) or the palette (psychedelic) but the painting itself. It’s thick, sticky, and a bit unsightly. Creamy white and dusty pink spots swirl on the surface like meringue kisses, brittle and sugary sweets. Others are more chewy, like dry gum. Then there are the mustard yellow and brown slimy stains, which are down to my toes and remind me of something I rolled off the sidewalk this morning.
“I think the idea of being a painter has always appealed to me,” says Hirst, who is most famous for what we might call his work without canvas. “I guess it’s that old story of Turner tied to a mast during a storm so he can paint it, it’s kind of romantic.”
Hirst, of course, used a paintbrush before, but it wasn’t until he finished coordinating his 2017 Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable extravaganza, which took a decade, required an army of assistants, and filled two museums in Venice, that he began to want to spend time alone in the study. “I like to be alone if I know what I’m doing,” he says. “With this, I worked the whole series, then there were three years of intense painting.” It’s as if he had known closure was coming.
Hirst was invited to show his Cherry Blossoms at the Fondation Cartier in Paris in 2019. Managing Director Hervé Chandès came across a couple of his new paintings. On Instagram and quickly designed a studio visit. The exhibition, Hirst’s debut in a French museum, was supposed to take place last June, then this spring, and now it has just opened. The artist and I chat on the top floor of the Foundation, where I find him signing posters. He is dressed for the occasion in a pale pink suit, his short hair dyed sky blue. As I take a seat, he tells me that his girlfriend was putting blonde highlights and the hairdresser had a blue tint, so he did it on a whim. “I thought about going pink, but decided it might be too much with Cherry Blossoms.” Too? Those are two words I never thought I’d hear from the Young British Artists original enfant terrible.
Of 107 paintings, 30 are on display. The first space I walk into overlooks a garden, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that let in natural light and make Hirst’s artificial trees converse with real ones swaying in the summer breeze. On the ground floor, canvases of different sizes take a wide-angle view of the blooming branches, while in the basement each image is a close-up. At all times, the works alternate between figuration and abstraction. “From a distance I wanted them to look like trees,” says Hirst, “and up close I wanted them to disappear and fall in insane amounts of paint. Whenever something got a little complicated, I just dumped paint on it. “
He applied it with sticks and brushes, “whatever he had to hand,” and often from the other end of his studio. “I would go way back and throw it. And I also had paintings on both sides, so when I was working on one, I was painting the other. “The white foundation walls and concrete floors may be spotless, but in London it’s another matter:” I have to scrape my windows. soon, I think, otherwise I’ll be working in a completely dark room. “
It’s a surprising approach, given that Hirst for the past 20 years has stuck to a precise grid with his Spot Paintings, which appear to be machine-made. “I wanted that show to be bright and festive,” he says. “He didn’t want anyone to be able to criticize him, that’s where the grid came in. I realized it was difficult to criticize a grid.”
It was also about taking control of color and exploring her love of minimalism: “I’ve loved it for years, but there’s something wrong with it. You want the circles to collapse and break. “He says loose, uninhibited cherry blossoms feel more like” him “right now.” It’s a different kind of painting, a different kind of chaos. “
The cherry blossoms are sure to be a hit with Hirst’s mother. “When I was making the animals in formaldehyde, she said, ‘Oh, there is enough horror in the world, can’t you paint flowers?’ And I think, my God, it took me to 55 before I could please her. “
But they are more than flower paintings. They are lush and comforting, but also excessive and messy. As Hirst says, some people think that cherry blossoms are about life and others think that it is about death. “They bring together the past, the present and the future, everything we love and everything we hate. Even though no dead sharks are to be seen, I still find them as an assault on the senses. I still find them aggressive and violent. “He adds:” In the first paintings, I put a set of roses and a set of whites. After that, they turned into a riot. “
The theme stems in part from a memory of Hirst’s mother painting a cherry blossom when she was three or four years old – she remembers thinking that the spots looked pretty easy to reproduce. It is also a continuation of the completely abstract. Veil Paintings showed in Los Angeles in 2018 – he tried to create a sense of depth and ended up seeing gardens in the bright spots of paint.
Hirst’s pictorial ability has been questioned in the past, but when you’re portraying imperfect nature you can allow yourself some leeway. My favorites here are canvases that have room to breathe, the summer sky providing a respite from the sparkling flowers and tangled branches. The largest work is 5.5 meters high and 7.3 meters wide (18 feet x 24 feet), consists of four panels, and has a full wall to itself. My eye hooks on a putty-like stain, then glides along a thin branch before getting caught in a bright white stain. Elsewhere, a diptych brings together two halves of a flowering tree, with the trunk split in two. Does it remind you of something?
Hirst’s habit of cutting things in half persists, but he has reduced the impact factor. “All my favorite art, if I look back at any artist, it’s like a map of a person’s life,” he says. “You start off crazy and wild, then you slow down and become more stable.”
I remember something he said before about never liking the term “YBA” because he knew one day it would be replaced by “OAP”. I ask him if he’s calmed down and, after thinking about it for a moment, he says he’s a little wiser and more patient.
“I guess at first,” he says, “with the drinking, the parties, and the drugs, I felt immortal. I thought, ‘This is going to last forever, nothing can stop me.’ So, boom, it hits you and you think, ‘This is not where I am anymore. But I still have that streak of wanting to change the world and wanting to reinvent myself. “
I tell Hirst that he sounds quite thoughtful, and he says he always has been. He talks about the confinement and feeling blessed that he was able to go to his study every day. The Cherry Blossoms were conceived before the pandemic, but he’s sure his need to find some positivity prompted the project.
“I guess I was tentative because it’s a bit unexpected for me. I thought people would say, ‘Are you painting flowers? What’s going on?’ Then when Covid hit, I felt strongly that it was the right thing to do. As I get older, I am more confident, or perhaps I have lost my edge. Who knows? “Does that worry you?” Not at all. I just want to see what happens next. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism