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by Simon Todd
Damien Hirstís latest art sensation, the exhibition "No Love Lost: Blue Paintings," opens at the Wallace Collection in London, Oct. 14, 2009-Jan. 24, 2010. The show comes a little more than a year after Hirstís astonishing "solo auction" -- a new term, that -- at Sothebyís London last September, which totaled about $200 million and also marked the zenith of the art boom. Hirst calls this exceptionally well-played move the result more of luck than skill.

His "Blue Paintings" exhibition includes 25 works that represent a new stage in the oeuvre of the 45-year-old artist. As everyone must know by now, he has made these paintings himself, at an easel with paints and brushes, a fact that is remarkable for being remarkable. In these paintings, Hirst renders his signature themes and motifs -- skulls, shark jaws, flowers, butterflies -- in a painterly style not unlike that of Francis Bacon, an artist who has long provided him with inspiration.

Hirst freely admits "nicking" his blue and black color scheme from Bacon, who had a short-lived blue period of his own in the 1950s. One of Baconís works from that era hangs in Hirstís office. And triptychs like The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth (2008) and Men Shall Know Nothing (2008) feature Baconís trademark gold frames as well. For Hirst, itís a quieter, more personal mode of production, of course. He has even closed two studios and diverted staff to framing duties.

"Lucien Freud is great with every brushstroke," Hirst said, "but Bacon is grasping for something in the shadows." Indeed, Hirst now joins Freud as one of the few living artists to exhibit at the Wallace Collection, where he was wont to visit with his boys to view the display of historical weapons. The two galleries allocated for "No Love Lost" were specially redecorated with matching wall silk and gold gilt. It would have been "mad to have an exhibition in the Wallace and prepare the rooms like a contemporary art gallery," Hirst said.

In recent years, Hirst has had increasing requests to exhibit in historical settings. In 2004 he had a retrospective at the Archaeological Museum in Naples, but it was Jeff Koonsí exhibition at Versailles last year that convinced him to show at the Wallace. A number of the "Blue Paintings" have already been exhibited at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev, the biggest private museum in the former Soviet Union. Steel billionaire Victor Pinchuk is an avid Hirst collector and owns a number of his new works.

Hirstís UK studio is a former railroad signal station that he originally purchased when his after-hours drinking parties got too rowdy for the house. In this cozy den he enjoys an intimacy with artwork he has not had for some time. Hirst says he is distracted from his work only by his children, whom he jokes he "fobs off" with a prepared canvas to make their own artworks.

Hirst has admitted to a bit of apprehension regarding the potential reception of his new series. He expects the critics to hate the work, and accuse him of "picking up a brush and a canvas and going backwards." However, upon further inquiry, he admitted that "people donít like change. They like you for what you did a couple of years before, but like Warhol said, you donít read your reviews, you wear them."

According to rumor, Brian Sewell, the famous and rather old-school critic, came to the exhibition and was in and out in five minutes. This news Hirst found rather pleasing. "I remember Brian Sewell said something positive about a show and I thought he was trying to destroy me. It makes everybody hate it if he likes it."

In closing, I asked Hirst whether paintings were harder to sell than dead sharks, an impertinent query he received with equanimity. "I am more nervous about these things" he said, "because dead sharks tend to sell themselves."

"No Love Lost: Blue Paintings by Damien Hirst," Oct. 14, 2009-Jan. 24, 2010, at the Wallace Collection, London.

SIMON TODD is Artnetís London representative.