Damien Hirst, “Swirling Death on High” 2013

Damien Hirst has always been about death. Dead sharks, rotting cow’s heads, dissected bodies, desiccated insects… Some of his work is revolting, such as when it incorporates living maggots, but some, like the kaleidoscopic butterfly paintings (and particularly the stained-glass variant), are beautiful. He got away from death with his dot paintings, which one critic nailed as “glorified wall paper”, but which I’d call also-ran Wonder Bread wrapping. There was the series of large round paintings. And then he brought death back in skulls.

He combined his round paintings with skulls to unite beautiful color with the now token reminder of death. Some of these were not bad. The one below is particularly striking.

Damien Hirst: “Beautiful Muruga Paranoia Intense Painting (with Extra Inner Beauty)”, 2008

Some were not as successful. The painting below is too clumsy and there’s too much of that grey-green camouflage color.

Damien Hirst: “Beautiful Kali Psychopathy Intense Painting (with Extra Inner Beauty)” 2008

Five years later and he’s at it again, but this time using concentric rings. Hirst is as obsessed with death as ever, but now he is focused on what he calls, “the transcendent beauty of it”. What multi-millionaire artist wouldn’t grapple with death? You’ve got it all: fame, fortune, reputation, accolades… and it’s all going to be taken away by merciless time. But Hirst is starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel. “I suspect  there’s something glorious and illuminating about death. Maybe that’s bullshit, but it occurred to me to think of it as light instead of dark, and then the whole thing came together. There’s still the horror of dying, but when you peel away that layer it’s light shining through. Death is gorgeous.”

The new series of skulls seek to capture the quality of the illumination of death. So far I’ve only seen one image, but I”m looking forward to the rest.

Damien Hirst, "Swirling Death on High" 2013
Damien Hirst, “Swirling Death on High” 2013


Nah, that one’s really by me, too. Was just looking at his skull paintings, which I rather like (well, the better ones), and thought about his process. The skull is basically a mask or reverse mask. The paintings have two layers with separate patterns for each mask. I thought I could make a pretty good approximation in PS, but didn’t have the right filter to get the exact effect so went with another variety. When I was near finished and went back to look at his to judge whether mine was convincing or not, I found his a bit drab. It’s a fairly glib technique.

Incidentally, I don’t hate Hirst. I don’t really wanna’ like him, but unlike Koons he doesn’t bore the living crap out of me. And you don’t have to know anything about art to get his stuff, even though it’s “conceptual”. He won me over when he attempted to make his own paintings, in a very Baconesque style, which the critics panned. Gotta’ respect the rich conceptual artist with over a hundred artist workers who then decides to make is own paintings. More about those at some point. I wanna’ do a knock-off.

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4 replies on “Damien Hirst’s return to skull paintings

  1. To be honest, I don’t mind Hirst either, I just dislike the fact that he became famous because people didn’t like his art.

    I am a fan of some of your skull stuff here. Some of your other computer stuff feels a bit barmix for me in that you have stuff all mixed together with other rhyme of reason but this seems a little more refined. I feel like I can look at it for a long time and still be intrigued. Sometimes less is more and with this less has become more.


    1. I do have some serious reservations about these artists with millions of dollars and over a hundred worker artists at their disposal. For example, I’m pretty sure Hirst isn’t the one who affixed all the butterfly wings in his kaleidoscopic butterfly paintings. He may have selected the kaleidoscopic image for them to work with, or might even have generated it himself on the computer, but then the really hard work had to be done by others. This enables him to make a body of work that would be impossible if he had to do it himself. I wonder if he asks himself how other artists can compete.

      Only the one skull was by me.

      Not sure which piece of mine you are talking about with unconnected parts. Must be a collage or something. Perhaps the one in the style of Jeff Koons. Oh well. Can’t win ’em all.


      1. The 2013 one was clearly the best (I presume that was yours.) The rings give me a calming feeling of eternity and the light in the centre has a positive connotation.

        The top one is ok but I get nothing out of the middle. It feels clumsy and empty.


      2. I agree. My way of making it allows for a lot more deliberateness and experimentation, so it’s easier to get a better result. Well, if one knows how to use Photoshop or a similar program well. What I’m noticing about Hirst is a lot of his work is easy to crack, and not hard to improve upon. The “art” part is light, as is the conceptual. But the scale and the audacity are weighty. A kaleidoscopic image made of butterfly wings is not very interesting. But if you make it enormous and enormously intricate, and hire a team of artists to produce it for you, it’s damned impressive. But beneath the first blush of “Wow” there’s not that much there, and I’m starting to think about whether or not a piece of art can be negative, unethical, immoral, what have you. Of course it CAN, but I thinking about art that isn’t setting out to be that. Hirst’s butterfly paintings are beautiful, some of them, but what do they say? I think tanks and drones and stealth bombers are all visually impressive, and if someone’s crap is art so the fuck is an airplane. Which reminds me of the guy who called 9/11 a great work of art. I think it was a composer. People were so angry at the time that they couldn’t think about that in relation to conceptual art, which I now call “conceptually art”. Is it possible that something like Hirst’s butterfly paintings, or Koons’ balloon dogs are, when taken as statements, offensive, stupid, or represent an outmoded or pernicious mindset, such as capitalistic exploitation and fertilization of celebrity. It’s just something I’m thinking about, without having conclusions as of yet. And even when I come up with conclusions, they are experimental, to be tested, like scientific hypothesis. How far can I take an idea and it still works?

        I’m also thinking about visual literacy, looking, and whether or not people are visually literate anymore.


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