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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 May, 2004, 11:59 GMT 12:59 UK
Fire a disaster for Britart icons
By Chris Heard
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst with one of his works, In His Infinite Wisdom
The destruction of millions of pounds worth of modern artworks at an east London warehouse is a devastating blow to the movement known as Britart.

Pieces such as Tracey Emin's tent and the Chapman brothers' Hell were icons of the UK's contemporary art world.

Emin and the Chapmans belonged to a new class of savvy young British artists who emerged in the 1990s at the heart of the era dubbed Cool Britannia.

Spearheaded by former Goldsmiths College student Damien Hirst, their emphasis on "conceptual" art over more traditional forms of expression split the art world.


Self-confident and media-baiting, they spoke of their work in terms of "irony" and "democracy of meaning", placing ordinary or everyday items in a context of beauty.

Works such as Hirst's famous installation of a tiger shark pickled in a tank of formaldehyde, and Tracey Emin's unmade bed, infuriated many critics who scorned them as lacking in "proper" artistic value.

Tracey Emin
Tracey Emin's works have split the art world
Former culture minister Kim Howells went as far as to publicly dismiss the 2002 Turner prize nominations as "cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit".

As in all such debates about the nature of art, however, beauty was in the eye of the beholder, and to the more sympathetic viewer the movement became a much-loved phenomenon.

A lucrative market built up around wealthy patrons who were happy to indulge these enfant terribles of the UK's contemporary art scene.

The most famous - and wealthiest - collector was Charles Saatchi, who spent millions commissioning pieces from Hirst, Emin, the Chapmans and others, including pieces lost in the fire by Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume, Patrick Caulfield, Craigie Horsfield and Martin Maloney.

Body blow

Saatchi has said he is "devastated" by his loss, while the wider art world is beginning to coming to terms with what is a severe body blow.

Damien Hirst
Hirst was at the vanguard of the Britart movement
Momart, one of the world's largest specialists in handling fine arts and antiquities, prided itself on its high standards and customer service.

An acknowledged authority in its field, it has handled many major exhibitions in the UK during the past 20 years.

Momart's services range from moving a single picture to handling an international exhibition or corporate collection.

Many major art institutions contacted by BBC News Online on Wednesday said it was too early to assess the impact of the fire.

The Tate Modern said it was counting its lucky stars. "We are very fortunate," said a spokeswoman. "Momart is a very big transporter of art and they do move a lot of our pieces but we had nothing in store."

Insurance worries

The Royal Academy and the National Gallery were not commenting. A National spokeswoman said it could not discuss storage because of security issues.

Momart fire
The fire has been devastating for the art world
London's White Cube, the gallery most closely associated with Britart, was similarly muted. "We're all terribly shocked," said a spokeswoman.

Momart and the Saatchi gallery could not immediately forecast the full financial scale of the disaster, but a Saatchi spokesman said it would be "in millions".

Speculation now will centre on the insurance position, and whether Momart and/or the Saatchi gallery are adequately covered for their losses.

London Evening Standard art critic Brian Sewell said the fire could be an "appalling tragedy" for modern art.

The Times' chief art critic, Rachel Campbell Johnston, said some of the lost works could be technically remade fairly easily, although "part of the point of art is that it has to be a one-off".

"For other collectors of Britart it could be good news," she wrote. "The rarity value of their own work goes up."

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