The Last Supper Damien Hirst
The 13 large prints that make up Damien Hirst’s Last Supper series signpost an immensely fruitful period in the artist’s career defined by visual originality, his trademark acerbic wit and a clear sense of cultural context. As a set or individually they are a powerful meditation on what the artist considers the absurdity (and dualities) of faith and consumerism and the self-destructive and brainless nature of humankind. The ideas behind this series are important, engaging with more than one of the defining themes of Hirst’s work.
Why is The Last Supper series important?
The series was created at a pivotal time, arguably at the very peak of the so-called YBA movement’s creative power (the conceptualist group for whom Hirst was considered ring leader) prior to the fall out between the artist and the group’s patron Charles Saatchi. In terms of historical context, it was executed four years after Hirst won the Turner prize, two years after the landmark Royal Academy show Sensation and a year after the opening of his thematically connected Pharmacy restaurant in Notting Hill.
In 1999 Hirst was at his enfant-terriblesque best, taking the unprecedented step of turning down being Britain’s representative at the Venice Biennale, explaining to the British Council that the enormously prestigious honour “didn’t feel right”. He also turned down an invitation to become a Royal Academician and took legal action against British Airways claiming breach of copyright for their use of spots in an advertising campaign. Aged 34, this was Hirst at the peak of his disruptive powers, taunting the establishment and producing headline after headline in pursuit of success.
At the time, the world was counting down to the Millennium and the coming year would see the opening of the Tate Modern in Bankside. Hirst’s prices were hitting the stratosphere and a year later his sculpture Hymn (one of three) would sell for a million pounds.
Pharmaceutical iconography is a longstanding part of Hirst’s work, notably at his first solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1991 (although its use stretches back further to at least 1988), which featured several glass fronted medicine cabinets full of empty medicine boxes. In 1992 there was Pharmacy, a full room transformed into a chemist with 22 cabinets holding thousands of medicine containers.
The imagery takes its visual cues from highly standardised and clinical contemporary pharmaceutical packaging, replacing the product name with a traditional and often unhealthy British foodstuff and transforming it into a consumer-facing medicinal brand. Hurst describes the work: “I like the idea of an artist as a scientist. A painter as a machine. The packages in The Last Supper and in the medicine cabinets are … trying to sell the product … in a very clinical way. Which starts to become very funny.” He adds a range of trademark symbols and uses his own name in a number of guises and stylistic forms to become each product’s manufacturer (HirstDamien, Damien + Hirst, Hirst etc).
The number 13 is, of course, significant - a holy number. The title suggests that each of the pieces could be a disciple and Jesus himself could be a fatty Sausage or a thick-crusted gravy lathered Pie. The notably phallic logo on Chicken is another slice of sharp satire and provocation.
Hirst weaves together religion, medicine and death. Medicines are prescribed commodities dealt by a trusted and infallible doctor but in fact created and distributed by huge, faceless corporations. They are everyday items that are accepted and even worshipped by those heedless of any danger. Medicines are addictive. We guzzle pills like ham sandwiches and we accept aid unthinkingly, much like a supposed sinner quaffs a Eucharistic wafer. Parallels can be made between the globally mass-produced nature of both religion and food-industry consumerism, and between religious faith that demands belief without proof and the thoughtless way people buy and consume both food and medicine, believing whatever is written large on the box.
The artist identifies himself as a branded entity but simultaneously places this work within a strong art historical context. His use of screen print and consumer imagery immediately recalls Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans and Brillo boxes but it also follows in the Dadaist tradition of endowing the everyday with artistic meaning (Duchamp made reference to apothecary shops in some of his earliest ready-mades). Hirst also compares medical packaging to the formats of minimalism: “A lot of the actual boxes of medicines are all very minimal and could be taken directly from minimalism, in the way that … minimalism implies confidence.” Unlike later examples there is a subtle weight of art historical meaning divested across the series.
Each work in The Last Supper is signed and issued with a numbered certificate of authenticity. The images themselves are not numbered and can therefore be hung in any order individually or in a group. That said, it was originally the artist’s intention to show all 13 pieces together in any order. The series was proofed and printed at Coriander Studio, London in a relatively small edition of 150, plus a small number of artist’s proofs. They are screen prints composed of, in each case, between three and seven separate colours.
The series was originally exhibited in a programme called Art in Sacred Spaces in 2000, as part of which a series of exhibitions were held in practising places of worship across London. The intention was to create a dialogue between artists and various religious groups. The Last Supper was exhibited at the Anglican Church of St Stephen in Canonbury, Islington. The works also were printed and published as a set along with works by the likes of Rachel Whiteread and Gary Hume by the Paragon press. In 2001 The Last Supper was awarded the Ljubljana Biennial Grand Prize.
The prints remain a scarce commodity; few are made available on the open market. For the discerning collector of Hirst they are among some of the most coveted works to acquire. The full set of The Last Supper features in some of the world’s most important museum collections including the Tate, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA among others.
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