Damien Hirst on his ‘extreme’ and ‘almost tacky’ Cherry Blossoms

Damien Hirst on his ‘extreme’ and ‘almost tacky’ Cherry Blossoms

Marking his first museum exhibition in France, British artist Damien Hirst dominates the Fondation Cartier with a new paintings depicting vibrant, explosive cherry blossoms

‘The Cherry Blossoms are about beauty and life and death. They’re extreme – there’s something almost tacky about them,’ says Damien Hirst, describing the new series of paintings for his first museum exhibition in France, devoted to, you guessed it, cherry blossoms. 

The show began with an invitation from Hervé Chandès, general director of the Fondation Cartier, during a 2019 meeting with the artist in London. Over the following three years, Hirst lived and breathed Cherry Blossoms. In his Thames-side London studio, the artist describes ‘diving into the paintings and completely blitzing them from one end to the other’.

 Thibaut Voisin
Exhibition view, Damien Hirst, ’Cherry Blossoms’, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Photography: Thibaut Voisin

Hirst dominates the Jean Nouvel-designed Fondation Cartier exhibition space with 30 paintings selected by Chandès and the artist. These vast canvases, divided into single panels, diptychs, triptychs, quadriptychs, and even a hexaptych, are saturated with vivid colours, and dizzying clusters of erupting buds that attract viewers, but also consume them. 

The celebration of the blooming of cherry trees (or ‘sakura’) in Japan is centuries-old – a deeply-rooted cultural and philosophical symbol. Set against a clear blue sky, they are a vision of ultimate beauty, a phenomenon in their physical magnificence, their ephemerality, and also in their almost-parodic ability to tempt anyone with a camera and an Instagram account to stop in their tracks.

‘They’re decorative but taken from nature,’ says Hirst. ‘They’re about desire and how we process the things around us and what we turn them into, but also about the insane visual transience of beauty – a tree in full crazy blossom against a clear sky. It’s been so good to make them, to be completely lost in colour and in paint in my studio.’

View of cherry blossoms paintings in Damien Hirst’s studio
Detail of Cherry Blossoms painting by Damien Hirst in the artist’s studio
Top: View from Damien Hirst’s studio, photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates. Above: Cherry Blossom (detail), 2019. Both © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021

Damien Hirst: from formaldehyde sharks to Cherry Blossoms

At first glance, Cherry Blossoms feels like quite a shift for an artist once dubbed British art’s enfant terrible – the Turner Prize-winning Young British Artist (YBA) was just as well known for the sharks he pickled as the jaws he dropped. But this series is different: it’s beautiful, explosive, garish, yet conceptually shocking in its lack of shock factor. 

But these works are consistent with Hirst’s insatiable appetite for experimentation and with his long-term devotion to painting. ‘I’ve had a romance with painting all my life, even if I avoided it. As a young artist, you react to the context, your situation. In the 1980s, painting wasn’t really the way to go,’ he says. Within the thickly applied brushstrokes is a meeting of modes and movements: the traditional constructs of landscape painting; the gestures of Impressionism and Pointillism, and the physicality of Action Painting; the immediacy of representation, and the zest of abstraction. 

 Damien Hirst cherry blossoms in his studio, 2019 © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021
Damien Hirst in his studio, 2019. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021

In 1986 he began a series known as Spot Paintings, where coloured dots, which appear to have been painted by a machine, are devoid of all traces of human intervention. Similarly, his famed Spin Paintings are created by pouring gloss paint onto a mechanically rotating canvas.

The Cherry Blossoms feel human, as though Hirst is introducing us to a new concept, and himself. ‘They’re garish and messy and fragile and about me moving away from minimalism and the idea of an imaginary mechanical painter and that’s so exciting for me.’ §

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