The 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 nasty. Creamy white and dusty pink tea towels swirl from the surface like meringue kisses, fragile and sweet. Others are softer, like dried gum. Then there’s the slimy splash of mustard yellow and brown, which runs deep to my toe and reminds me of something I avoided on the sidewalk this morning.
âI think the idea of ââbeing a painter has always appealed to me,â says Hirst, who is more famous for what you might call his work without canvas. “I guess it’s that old story of Turner tied to a pole during a storm so he can paint it – it’s a romantic thing.”
Hirst has, of course, wielded a paintbrush before, but that wasn’t until he finished coordinating his 2017 extravaganza Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable – which spanned a decade, required an army of helpers, and filled in. two museums in Venice – that he began to want to spend time alone in the studio. âI like being alone if I know what I’m doing,â he says. “With that I worked out the whole series, then there were three years of intense painting.” It’s as if he had known that containment was coming.
Hirst was invited to show his Cherry Blossoms at the Fondation Cartier in Paris in 2019. Managing Director HervÃ© ChandÃ¨s stumbled across some of his new paintings on Instagram and quickly arranged 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’s just opened. The artist and I are talking 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 cropped hair dyed in sky blue. As I sit down he tells me his girlfriend had blonde locks and the barber had blue dye so he did it on a whim. “I thought about going pink but decided it might be too much with the cherry blossoms.” Too much? Those are two words I never thought I would hear from the Young British Artists’ enfant terrible.
Out of 107 paintings, 30 are exhibited. The first space I enter overlooks a garden, with floor-to-ceiling picture windows letting in natural light and engaging in conversation between Hirst’s artificial trees and the real ones swaying in the summer breeze. On the ground floor, canvases of different sizes offer a wide-angle view of flowering branches, while in the basement each image is a close-up. Throughout, the works oscillate between figuration and abstraction. âFrom a distance I wanted them to look like trees,â Hirst says, âand up close I wanted them to disappear and drop in insane amounts of paint. Whenever something got a little laborious, I just put paint on it.
He applied it with sticks and brushes – “whatever I had on hand” – and often from across his studio. âI would go very far back and throw it. And I also had paints on each side, so when I was working on one, I would take paint on the other. The foundation’s white walls and cement floors might be spotlessly clean, but in London it’s a different matter: “I have to scrape my windows soon, I think, or I’m going to work in a room. black.
This is a surprising approach, given that Hirst has been sticking to a precise grid for 20 years with his Spot Paintings, which appear to be machine-made. âI wanted this series to be bright and festive,â he says. âI didn’t want anyone 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 his love of minimalism: âI’ve loved him for years, but there is something wrong. You kind of want the circles to crumble and break. He says the loose, uninhibited Cherry Blossoms feel more “him” right now. “It’s a different kind of painting, a different kind of chaos.”
The Cherry Blossoms are bound to be a hit with Hirst’s mother. âWhen I was making the animals in formaldehyde, she said, ‘Oh, there’s enough horror in the world, can’t you paint flowers? And I think, my God, it took me until 55 before I could please him.
But these are more than paintings of flowers. They are exuberant and invigorating, but also excessive and messy. As Hirst says, some people think cherry blossoms are related to life and others think they are related to death. âThey bring together the past, present and future, everything we love and everything we hate. Even though there are no dead sharks to see, I still find them an assault on the senses. I always find them aggressive and violent. He adds: âIn the first paintings, I arranged a set of roses and a set of whites. After that, they became a riot.
The subject comes in part from a memory of Hirst’s mother painting a cherry blossom tree when he was three or four years old: he remembers thinking that the spots seemed fairly easy to reproduce. It is also in the continuity of the entirely abstract Veil Paintings that he showed in Los Angeles in 2018: he tried to create an impression of depth and ended up seeing gardens in the shimmering touches of the paint.
Hirst’s pictorial ability has been questioned in the past, but when you portray an imperfect nature you can allow yourself some leeway. My favorites here are the canvases that give room to breathe, the summer skies providing respite from the frothy blossoms and tangled branches. The largest work is 5.5 meters high and 7.3 meters wide (18 ft x 24 ft), comprises four panels and has an entire wall to itself. My eye catches on a putty-like splash, then glides along a skinny branch before getting caught in a crisp white spot. Elsewhere, a diptych brings together the two halves of a flowering tree whose trunk is cut in half. Reminds you of something?
Hirst’s habit of cutting things in half persists, but he’s reduced the shock factor. âAll of my favorite art, if I look back at any artist, is like a map of a person’s life,â he says. “You start out crazy and wild, then you slow down and become more stable.”
I remember something he said earlier about never liking the term “YBA” because he knew that one day it would be replaced by “OAP”. I ask him if he’s calmed down and, after thinking for a moment, he says he’s a little wiser and more patient.
âI guess at first,â he said, âwith alcohol, partying and drugs, I felt immortal. I thought, ‘This is going to last forever, nothing can stop me.’ Then – boom – it kind of hits you and you think, ‘This isn’t where I am anymore.’ But I still have this tendency to want to change the world and to want to reinvent myself.
I tell Hirst he looks pretty thoughtful, and he says he always has been. He talks about containment and feels lucky to have been able to visit his studio every day. The Cherry Blossoms were designed before the pandemic, but his need to find some positivity certainly spurred the project on.
âI guess I was hesitant because it’s a little unexpected for me. I thought people would say, ‘Do you paint flowers? What is happening?’ Then when Covid hit, I felt strongly that it was the right thing to do. As I got older I became more confident – or maybe I lost my edge. Who knows? âDoes that worry him?â Not at all. I just want to see what happens next.