Controversial contemporary artist Damien Hirst is known for his provocative works that often explore themes of mortality, beauty, and human emotion.
How did Damien Hirst rise to fame? Where was he born? Here are some facts about the artist whose pieces have both intrigued and divided the art world.
When most people think of Damien Hirst, they think of his use of animals in artworks. This is often a source of controversy and discussion, as his work frequently involves the preservation of dead animals – usually through a process of immersion in formaldehyde, the powerful embalming chemical – and subsequent display in clear glass tanks. One of his most famous pieces is The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living, which consists of a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde inside a large vitrine. It is considered a seminal work of the Young British Artists movement and one that has come to define Hirst's artistic output. Hirst continued to use this technique in other pieces, and his works using animals often explore themes of mortality and ephemerality. However, they have also been the subject of significant controversy, as many animal rights activists have criticised Hirst's arguing that his art is cruel and exploitative.
Damien Hirst's use of butterflies is a prominent theme throughout his career, and he has explored this motif in a variety of different ways. One of the most famous examples of his use of butterflies is in the series titled In and Out of Love, presented in 1991. The exhibition consisted of two parts: in one room, Hirst attached butterfly pupae to white painted canvases, from which the butterflies hatched, matured and flew within the confines of the room. In the second room, he displayed canvases covered in monochrome gloss paint, to which dead butterflies were attached.
One of Hirst’s earliest patrons was Charles Saatchi, a prominent advertising executive and art collector. Saatchi began collecting Hirst's work early in the artist's career and was a staunch supporter, including funding the creation of Hirst's famous shark in formaldehyde work.
He also played a significant role in promoting the work of many other Young British Artists (YBAs) in the 1990s. Saatchi displayed Hirst's work alongside pieces by other YBAs in a series of influential exhibitions at his London gallery, which brought the YBAs to the attention of a wider audience and helped to establish their reputation.
However, the relationship between Hirst and Saatchi eventually deteriorated after the latter sold a significant portion of his Hirst collection in 2003. Despite this, Saatchi's early patronage and promotion played an important role in Hirst's rise to prominence in the art world.
Hirst is known for his use of dots, also known as his Spot paintings, a series of works that began in the 1980s and has continued since. These paintings, created by assistants following Hirst's instructions, feature rows of randomly coloured circles or dots, which aim to create a "mechanical" feeling of art making. This is a significant departure from the traditional idea of the artist's hand being present in the work. There are many of these Spot paintings, ranging in size from a 10-foot canvas with spots measuring 60 inches in diameter to smaller canvases with spots just 1 millimetre in diameter. The colours are random, with the only rule being that no two colours can be next to each other.
These paintings are representative of Hirst's exploration with Minimalism and his interest in challenging traditional notions of authorship, originality and artistic creativity. However, they have also been a source of controversy, primarily because they are often produced by assistants rather than by Hirst himself.
Ever since his days as a student at Goldsmiths, Damien Hirst has amassed an impressive exhibition history. His work has been featured in esteemed institutions such as the Saatchi Gallery in London, Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. A retrospective exhibition of his work was held at Tate Modern in 2012.
In 1988, while still a second-year student at Goldsmiths University in London, Hirst was one of the main organisers of the Freeze exhibition. The show is often credited as being one of the key events in the rise of the generation known as the Young British Artists, marking a significant moment in Hirst's own career. The exhibition was staged in an empty warehouse in East London – many of the artists included were Hirst's classmates, and they worked together to renovate the warehouse space and display their work. Freeze is now recognised for the way in which it showcased the themes and approaches that would become prevalent in the work of the YBAs, including a focus on the direct and often confrontational engagement with the viewer, as well as the use of unconventional materials and methods. Freeze was a landmark event that played a significant role in launching the careers of a number of important British artists and, importantly, helped to reposition London as a vital centre of contemporary art production.
Hirst studied at Goldsmiths, University of London, from 1986 to 1989. It was during this time that he began developing his distinctive artistic style and started to gain recognition for his provocative and sometimes controversial works. As a member of the YBAs, Hirst was part of a dynamic scene of young artists at Goldsmiths who were interested in exploring new ways of making and presenting art. Overall, Hirst's time at Goldsmiths was a formative period in his career. It provided him with a platform to begin challenging traditional modes of art production and exhibition, a practice that he would continue throughout his career.
Hirst has collaborated with Heni Editions in the last few years, a platform that works with artists, institutions and estates to produce high quality, limited edition reproductions of artworks. Both his The Currency and The Beautiful Paintings series were launched through Heni, making a significant profit for the artist: he earned over £20 million from the drops. They, like prints, are a more accessible way for people to own a piece of contemporary art history.
In the summer of 2023 he staged Where The Land Meets The Sea, a project that joined auction house Phillips and HENI editions to showcase three series of interpretations of the British seaside.
Much of the criticism pointed towards Hirst is directed at questions surrounding his inherent talent and sense of originality. However, as seen in the quote above, Hirst’s ethos diverges from many in the contemporary art world in the sense that he believes that everyone has the creativity and ability to become a celebrated artist, it only takes a desire to do so.
Hirst solidified his place in the annals of contemporary history when he announced his diamond-encrusted artwork For the Love of God in 2007. Consisting of the platinum cast of an 18th-century human skull covered in 8,601 flawless diamonds, the work is both a celebration of opulence and a memento mori, reminding viewers of the inevitability of death. It is also notorious as the most expensive artwork ever created by a living artist, at an estimated cost of £8 million. The sales history of the work is murky, and there are doubts on whether the work has ever been sold.
Some of Hirst’s most notable works are from his Kaleidoscope series, a collection of artworks that utilise the imagery of butterflies arranged in geometric patterns to create a kaleidoscopic visual effect. This series showcases Hirst's ongoing fascination with the beauty, fragility and brevity of life, themes that are recurrent in his art. Hirst uses thousands of butterfly wings placed into intricate designs, often drawing inspiration from stained glass windows found in religious settings. This connection to religious imagery, combined with the symbolic nature of the butterfly, creates a spiritual or transcendental dimension to these works.
Hirst was born in Bristol, but he spent a significant part of his childhood and early adult years in Leeds, West Yorkshire. As a teenager, Hirst attended Allerton Grange School in Leeds. Later, before attending Goldsmiths, Hirst completed a two-year Foundation Diploma at the Jacob Kramer College of Art (now called Leeds Arts University). This early education played a crucial role in shaping Hirst's creative development and his subsequent success in the art world. Hirst has maintained connections to Leeds throughout his career, often choosing to display artworks there.
Death plays an important role in the art of Damien Hirst, and he has developed a reputation for creating art that explores themes of mortality, decay and the fragility of life. This interest in the macabre can be traced back to his childhood fascination with death and the natural world, and has most notably manifested in his series of artworks of animals preserved in formaldehyde. Hirst generated significant controversy when he located and published a photo of himself as a teenager, posing next to a deceased person’s head at a morgue in Leeds. In these and many other works, Hirst's use of the macabre is aimed at challenging viewers to confront uncomfortable truths about mortality and the transience of life. His work also often questions the boundaries of what is considered acceptable or beautiful in art, using the macabre to blur the lines between attraction and repulsion, life and death.
Hirst entered the NFT world with his 2022 project The Currency, which challenged traditional ideas of art ownership. Hirst began by selling an edition of 10,000 of his renowned Spot paintings, each corresponding to an NFT (Non-Fungible Token) artwork. The twist came when buyers had to decide between retaining either the physical piece or its digital counterpart, sparking a philosophical conundrum: should one preserve the physical artwork and eradicate the NFT, or retain the NFT and witness the physical artwork's destruction, quite literally?
As part of the project, Hirst opted to retain 1,000 of these artworks as NFTs, meaning he had to destroy his own physical pieces for the first time. Each of these physical pieces was methodically incinerated at a special event in October 2022, raising intriguing questions about the legitimacy of NFTs as a distinct art form and sparking debates about whether traditionally tangible art was on the verge of obsolescence.
Hirst is known for significantly relying on his assistants to create his works, which often raises questions of who is the “original artist.” Controversy arose when it was revealed that Hirst only painted five of his Spot paintings, although the artist has defended himself by saying: “You have to look at it as if the artist is an architect, and we don’t have a problem that great architects don’t actually build the houses… every single spot painting contains my eye, my hand and my heart. I imagine you will want to say that if I don’t actually paint them myself then how can my hand be there? But I controlled every aspect of them coming into being and much more than just designing them or even ordering them over the phone. And my hand is evidence in the paintings everywhere. I think it's important that they are handmade but equally important that they look machine-made. I've never had a problem with using assistants.” For Hirst, the concept of the artwork is significantly more important than its execution.
Throughout his career, Hirst has faced at least sixteen accusations of plagiarism. In 2010, artist Charles Thomson wrote a scathing review of some of these claims, which relate to a number of his artworks such as Hymn (1999-2005). Hirst's 6 metre tall bronze sculpture with meticulous representation of a male body is a direct copy of a children’s toy: the "Young Scientist Anatomy Set," originally designed by Norman Emms. Hirst later agreed to an out-of-court settlement, donating to children’s charities without admitting to any wrongdoing. It is important to note that the concepts of appropriation, inspiration and replication are deeply embedded in the practice of many contemporary artists, not just Hirst. However, allegations of plagiarism still play a significant part in the discussion surrounding his work.
In 1996, two enfants terribles of the British contemporary scene joined forces to relaunch Quo Vadis, a historic restaurant in London’s Soho. Marco Pierre White was then in the earlier stages of his celebrated career, when he partnered with Damien Hirst to revamp the restaurant. Hirst contributed significantly to the restaurant's design and ambiance, creating a series of colourful murals for the restaurant featuring his signature motifs, as well as a bar made out of medical supplies. These designs created a unique, memorable, and somewhat provocative dining environment. However, the partnership soon ended and the two had a public falling out. Hirst’s works no longer adorn the restaurant.
Hirst’s fascination with mortality also manifests itself in a concern with the impact of religion on our philosophy of life, often seen through his use of symbolism. He often utilises traditional religious imagery, relying on motifs such as the cross, the lamb and the dove. An example of Hirst's engagement with religion is The Incomplete Truth, a dove suspended in formaldehyde, which clearly evokes the Holy Spirit in Christian iconography. Similarly, The Golden Calf, a bull with 18-carat gold horns and hooves suspended in formaldehyde, is seen as a reference to the Biblical story of the Israelites worshipping a golden calf – often interpreted as a caution against idolatry. While Hirst's work does not espouse any particular religious belief or affiliation, religious themes and iconography often provide a framework within which he explores concepts such as life, death and the human struggle for meaning. His use of religious motifs provides a shared language that allows viewers to engage with these universal themes.
The artist has collaborated many times with the illustrious auction house in his career. Notably, in accordance with his rebellious attitude towards the art world and his commercial ethos, Hirst made an unprecedented move for a living artist in September 2008: he bypassed his long-standing galleries in order to auction an entire show, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, through Sotheby's. The auction generated £111 million, setting a new record for an auction dedicated to a single artist at the time. Additionally, Hirst set his own personal record with the sale of The Golden Calf, a formaldehyde-preserved calf adorned with 18-carat gold horns and hooves, which alone fetched £10.3 million.
Hirst is famously associated with the Turner Prize, the most prestigious award for visual artists in the United Kingdom. He was first nominated for the Turner in 1992, and his entry that year included the iconic tiger shark artwork The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. While he was unsuccessful that year, his second nomination in 1995 was more auspicious: the winning piece was Mother and Child Divided, an installation that involved a cow and her calf cut into sections and exhibited in separate vitrines filled with formaldehyde. Hirst's Turner Prize win solidified his place in the forefront of the contemporary British art scene.
Hirst's 2017 underwater exhibition, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, was showcased at the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana in Venice, Italy. This exhibition was Hirst's most ambitious project to date and marked his return to the spotlight after years away from major exhibitions. The show’s premise was a fictional story created by Hirst about an ancient shipwreck discovered off the coast of East Africa. According to this narrative, the ship – called The Unbelievable – was loaded with a vast collection of treasures and artefacts gathered by a freed slave who had become wealthy. The objects in the exhibition were presented as if they were the salvaged treasures from this shipwreck.
The exhibition featured around 190 works of art, ranging from small pieces to monumental statues. The works were displayed as archaeological finds, still encrusted with corals and barnacles from centuries under the sea. Most pieces were inspired by various ancient cultures and mythologies, and some incorporated playful references to contemporary pop culture and Hirst's own past artworks: one of the “ancient” statues had “Made In China” imprinted on its back.
The Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable exhibition was met with mixed reviews. Some critics appreciated Hirst's audaciousness and sense of spectacle, while others were less impressed, finding the show excessive or critiquing it as a commentary on the art market itself.
The Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable exhibition was Hirst’s first foray into the Venetian art scene, as he chose to show it at the same time as that year’s Venice Biennale – one of the most important art events in the world – despite a lack of any formal affiliation with the event in itself.
Hirst is one of the wealthiest artists in the world, having accumulated a substantial fortune through the sale of his artworks, his association with influential galleries and the savvy marketing and commercialization of his work. Hirst's net worth was estimated to be several hundred million pounds, and he is often cited as the richest living artist in the UK. In addition to the sales of his artwork, Hirst has also pursued a range of commercial ventures including design collaborations and merchandise related to his artwork, which have also contributed to his wealth.
Self-Portrait with X-Ray is an artwork by Damien Hirst from 2008. This piece continues the artist's exploration of themes such as the human condition, as he confronts the viewer with the internal structure of his own body expressed through an X-ray. The self-portrait is a stark reminder of our physicality and mortality, elements that are frequently found in Hirst's body of work. By displaying the interior of his own body, Hirst reduces his identity to a purely biological existence, bypassing emotional or personal characteristics.
The Young British Artists (YBAs) were a group of artists that emerged together in London in the late 1980s. The group is known for their entrepreneurial spirit, use of shock tactics and willingness to explore the commercial aspects of the art world. Members of the group include Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume and Rachel Whiteread, among others. The YBAs are known for pushing the boundaries of what is considered art and often incorporate unconventional materials into their work: Emin is known for her confessional and autobiographical works, such as her tent titled Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 and the iconic My Bed. The YBAs received considerable media attention and were championed by several influential art collectors, most notably Charles Saatchi, who showcased their work in a series of exhibitions at the Saatchi Gallery during the 1990s. These exhibitions helped to cement the group's reputation and led to widespread recognition for many of its members.
One of Hirst’s most famous animals-in-formaldehyde artworks is that of a zebra. Titled The Incredible Journey, it was made in 2008 like many of the works in his Natural History series.
Like most in this series, the work is a striking image due to the contrast between the life-like preservation of the zebra and the certainty of its death. Like much of Hirst's work, it provokes reflection on life, death and the fragility of existence.