In the eyes of the artist, they’re as shocking as a dead animal or a diamond-studded skull – and they say as much about life and death.
Dozens of oil paintings of cherry blossom by Damien Hirst are going on public view for the first time this week, in Paris.
The new exhibition, at the Fondation Cartier, delayed twice because of Covid restrictions, brings together around a third of the 100 canvases painted by Hirst, including during long periods working alone during lockdown, without his team of assistants.
“It became a really solitary thing, making art,” Hirst told me before the opening. “And then trying to find some positivity in all the negativity everyone was feeling. In the beginning I was really anxious, but it’s funny that in that anxiety I made these paintings that are really positive.”
It’s quite a shift from the provocative artworks that made headlines – and his name – in previous years, like Mother and Child (Divided), which pairs a cow and calf, each bisected in tanks of formaldehyde. Or A Thousand Years, which shows the interaction of a dead cow’s head, a cloud of flies, and an insect-O-cutor.
But perhaps when you’ve made a living from provocation, nature paintings are the only surprise left?
“John Lennon once said, when someone asked him why he cut his hair, ‘well what else do you do when you’ve grown it?’ And it feels something like that,” Hirst told me.
“I always just try to keep reinventing myself. My mum used to say, ‘There’s enough horror in the world, why can’t you just paint flowers?’ So maybe she got to me.”
The canvases on display here in Paris got bigger in lockdown, he says. And in addition to the logistical challenge of transporting them across the Channel, there are now extra customs requirements in place after Brexit.
But post-Brexit red tape is more of a barrier for smaller galleries than large established ones like this, according to Steve McCrindle of Haines Watts, who advises UK companies on the import and export of artworks.
“Typically, larger galleries and dealers will already have experience shipping artworks outside the UK, to places like New York,” he told me. “But EU customers often prefer to work with other EU enterprises, so some UK operations are setting up new branches in Europe in order to simplify and enable trading for them.”
Another idea being floated is “passports for pictures”, he says, to ease the red tape and export licensing for galleries sending out paintings to the EU and elsewhere.
The director of the Fondation Cartier, Hervé Chandès, says the logistics of getting the paintings installed was relatively straightforward. His hope now is that Covid restrictions will ease enough for the British public to come and see them.
“There are a lot of people who think they know Damien Hirst; everyone has an opinion on him, but what people think of Damien Hirst isn’t the point. What’s important is that they see his work.”
In the land of Bonnard and Matisse, Mr Chandès said, people appreciate painting, and colour. And these paintings borrow from France’s great masters.
“I love them,” he told me. “I have the same feelings, the same shivers, I got when I saw them for the first time in his studio in London. [Damien] opened the door – he was alone in his studio – and I felt suddenly overwhelmed with joy, surrounded by exceptional beauty. It was really exhilarating.”
Hirst himself describes the paintings as garish, messy, almost tacky.
“Someone who saw them the other day asked me if I was in love,” he told me. “But I hope they’re more psychotic than that.”
The exhibition Damien Hirst Cherry Blossoms runs from 6 July 2021 to 2 January 2022 at Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, Paris.