Page last updated at 07:16 GMT, Friday, 2 October 2009 08:16 UK

Hirst goes back to the drawing board

By John Wilson
Presenter, Front Row

Damien Hirst, with his 2007 installation Death Explained
Hirst has ditched the controversial installations in favour of intimate oil paintings

Damien Hirst is splattered with paint, from boots to hair. He looks like a walking Jackson Pollock in Prada shades.

For the last three years art has become a messy business for the man who usually gets other people to do the dirty work for him.

Here in his studio - a converted railway platform waiting-room in the rolling grounds of his Devon estate - one of the world's most famous living artists works alone.

Several shark jaws hang from the walls, alongside dead crows and a human skull.

A huge stuffed bear rears up in one corner surrounded by dozens of Hirst originals, propped against every wooden wall.

But these are not the spot and spin paintings, the trademark canvasses that are mass-produced in Hirst-owned art factories by teams of assistants.

They're figurative paintings, oil on canvas. And all his own work.

Scooby Doo

Most of them are very dark, literally and thematically: white skulls floating in a sea of Prussian blue; a mad-eyed Medusa, snakes writhing around her head, trapped in a glass box.

Francis Bacon is clearly an influence on Hirst the Painter - but he has always borrowed from a variety of sources.

Pointing to the blood-red eyes on his Medusa, he reveals he was inspired whilst watching Scooby Doo with his four-year-old son.

"The baddie had these red eyes and I just thought, oh my God, yes!"

Other than members of his family, no-one has seen these pieces yet. Some of them will never leave the cramped studio, especially the one the artist has labelled HATE, scrawled across the back of the canvas.

"Yeah, that's rubbish that one, isn't it?" he mutters.

Hirst has long been criticised for his hand-off methods. His response was usually to cite Michelangelo and his studio of assistants, or to ask whether Norman Foster lays the bricks for his buildings.

Damien Hirst
It dawns on you that you're not immortal
Damien Hirst

From the outset 20 years ago, Hirst was always the brilliant ideas man: catch a tiger shark and suspend it in formaldehyde; pin a thousand butterflies to a canvas in the shape of a stain glass window; decorate a real human skull with £14m worth of the finest diamonds. No problem.

So why is he standing in his garden shed, brush in hand, struggling to create another skull in old-fashioned oil paint, rather than modern uber-bling?

As ever with Hirst, death plays a major part in the reasoning.

"You get to an age when you realise you have more time behind you than you have in front of you" he says.

"It dawns on you that you're not immortal".

He suggests that the act of painting alone provides a more satisfying and peaceful means of artistic expression than overseeing a production line of luxuries for the super-rich.

'Messy painters'

He claims his motivation was "never about the money", but the desire to make great art.

Later this month, 25 Hirst works will hang alongside Rembrandts, Poussins and Titians in the Wallace Collection in London.

It will be a debut exhibition for an artist who has shown in galleries from LA to the Ukraine.

He's resigned to the probable response from art critics. "Oh, they're going to hate them. Hate them." he says.

"People are not shocked by animals in formaldehyde any more, but they're shocked that you're picking up a brush and a canvas and going backwards".

As a teenage student in Leeds, he dreamed of being a great painter. But then he discovered Francis Bacon and was overawed, cowed into submission.

"He seemed to have cornered the market," Hirst says. So he gave up and turned his mind to high-concept art.

Since then, he has always wanted his occupation listed as painter rather than artist.

All his heroes were "the messy painters like Goya and Soutine", he says. He loved the idea of Turner strapped to the mast of a ship, madly capturing a swirling sunset over the sea.

But the 44-year-old father of three says his biggest ambition these days is to earn the respect of the next generation of young artists.

"I just want kids to think 'that Damien Hirst, he was really cool.'"

Damien Hirst talks to John Wilson on Front Row, BBC Radio 4, Friday 2 October at 1915 BST.



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