"Damien Hirst: The Agony and the Ecstacy, Selected Works from 1989 to 2004," Oct. 31, 2004-Jan. 31, 2005, at the National Archaeological Museum, Naples.
In today's world of mass-mediated contemporary art, nobody loves to hate success more than the British press, particularly when in comes in the form of that unmentionable word. . . money. And there is no one more successful at making a buck these days than superstar Damien Hirst, a 21st century version of Peter Paul Rubens.
Many of his numerous critics will bristle at the comparison. But recent press attacks focusing on Hirst's assembly-line working method bear a striking similarity to criticisms leveled against the Flemish master.
Ironically, the attacks against Hirst were made at the same time the artist was overseeing the opening of his first retrospective, "The Agony and the Ecstasy" at the Museo Archeologico Nationale in Naples, Oct. 31, 2004-Jan. 31, 2005 -- a truly staggering show that will slap the scowl off any detractor's face.
Strange then, the premiere of the first retrospective of Britain's most popular artist didn't have a single member of the English press in attendance, nor has there been any coverage in the UK press since.
"They hate me now because I made lots of money," said Hirst, referring to his recent Pharmacy Sale, where the artist pocketed an estimated $19,000,000-plus.
And then there is the series of epic, Rubens-like paintings, soon to be unveiled in March 2005 at the titanic New York gallery of Larry Gagosian, now Hirst's exclusive dealer.
That's right. Hirst's legendary collaboration with the venerable Jay Jopling -- soon to launch his own mega-gallery in London's Mason's Yard -- a partnership that wrote one of the great chapters in British contemporary art, has apparently come to an end.
"People say painting is back. But did it ever leave"? Hirst told me. "I've been working on a series of paintings for the last few years but I couldn't get them right. Now my assistants do them better than I do -- and its time to show."
Like Hirst, Rubens' production method, much more akin to the role of the studio in today's feature-film production, was a prime example in the history of art of how works could be branded by an artist's name, even if they were not actually executed by his own hand. This made him a fortune.
Remarkably, in our post-Warholian era, there is as much resistance to assembly line production today as there was in the 17th century.
When Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1609 after an eight-year sojourn in Italy, his reputation was already soaring. To cope with the demand, Rubens set up a large workshop of over 40 assistants and went into what we post-industrials call assembly-line production. And, in keeping with the tradition of artist's workshops, the master entrusted most of the painting to assistants, while remaining in charge of the designs.
After one smaller deal in 1616, Rubens' influential patron and connoisseur Sir Dudley Carlton offered to exchange his notable sculpture collection for a large group of Ruben's own paintings. The master was only too happy to accept.
An ardent collector, Rubens' grand home contained a substantial working library and a magnificent assembly of Venetian paintings by Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto, as well as ancient sculptures; gems, coins and an assortment of curiosities, including a real Egyptian mummy (shades of Hirst's pickled menagerie!). Likewise, Hirst's home holds a vast collection of rare medical books, the source of much of his imagery, plus medical oddities and paraphernalia.
As correspondence between Carlton and Rubens from the spring of 1618 reveals, Carlton felt he was being duped. He made a point of expressing his concern about the authenticity of the works Rubens proposed, insisting the deal was off unless Rubens could assure him everything was by his own hand -- and if not original in design (i.e., a copy of an Old Master painting), then at least finished by his own hand. In a letter dated April 28 of that year, Rubens promised everything he was proposing to Carlton was finished by his own hand.
Were all the works eventually sent to Carlton finished by Rubens himself? Although we'll never know for sure, there are many modern scholars who contend the paintings were not. But does it really matter? Like Hirst's work, they fetched huge prices irrespective of the amount (or lack of) physical labor that the master had put into them.
And as Hirst said in an interview with Mirta D'Argenzio, "I like the idea of a factory to produce work, which separates the work from the ideas, but I wouldn't like a factory to produce the ideas."
Carlton's repeated insistence on what the German's call eigenhandigkeit, the quality of authenticity guaranteed by the presence of the artist's own hand, shows the collector's age-old interest in not merely the artist's name, but also the feel of the artist's authentic touch, for which a name is merely an index. This is the core of the recent debate surrounding Hirst's production.
Like Rubens, Hirst's prolific assembly-line production of art has earned him a fortune -- estimated to be around $80,000,000.
But two centuries after the Romantic era, the crowd still thirsts for the cliché of the suffering artist, when the "pain" embedded in the word "painter" was the measure of artistic integrity. Many continue to pine for the art hero, a half-mad impoverished genius working in isolation. Their benchmark is nothing less than van Gogh's bloody ear!
Yet bearing witness to Hirst's retrospective at the Museo Archeologico, most notably home to the world's greatest collection of erotic Pompeian relics, the word "marvelous" comes to mind. I was reminded of a line in a letter written by Dr. Phillip Romero, clinical psychiatrist and author of the upcoming Random House blockbuster Phantom Stress:
"The success of Hirst's art lies in the creative collision of opposites, life and death, beauty and ugliness, sacred and profane, time and timelessness, commerce and crime. . . ."
The Hirst retrospective is sensational. Strolling through the various rooms alone before opening was a profound experience where all thoughts of money -- such as the 40 million insurance value of the exhibition -- faded into insignificance.
Brilliantly organized by Eduardo Cicelyn and the husband-and-wife team of Mirta D'Argenzio and Mario Codognato, the exhibition took over a year to put together. The curatorial triumvirates essays featured in the lavishly illustrated catalogue (sponsored by Gagosian) are sure to become the defining word on Hirst scholarship.
The show spans over 15 years and features the artist's most familiar works -- sculptures of pickled and sliced pigs, sheep and cows preserved in formaldehyde; vitrines containing pills, pharmaceutical boxes and animal skeletons; and paintings using resinated flies or butterflies trapped in enamel. The bronze anatomical sculpture Hymn majestically looms over the main entrance hall like an excoriated Zeus.
Seeing all Hirst's works outside the sensationalizing context of the English press -- alongside the ancient relics in the Museo Archelogico -- is like experiencing them anew. His art becomes multi-dimensional and gains a sense of timelessness.
"It's a continual surprise," said Sotheby's auctioneer Oliver Barker of the installation. "You compare Hirst's old work with the new and contrast the entire lot against the ancient works in the Museum -- it's just breathtaking. Everything here just blows you away no matter how familiar you are with it."
A moving display of heartfelt praise from Jay Jopling perhaps summed up the exhibition best. "The amazing thing is the breadth of Damien's achievement. . . ." He paused, contemplating One Thousand Years. The vast vaulted room was so quiet that we could hear flies buzzing inside one of the vitrines.
After what seemed an eternity, Jopling resumed. "You know, he's been making art for the last 15 years. And the breadth of what he's achieved in that space of time is staggering. This is the first time that a survey show like this has been put together. I think people will be overwhelmed by it."