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August 04 2012

Edinburgh fringe theatre roundup

Peep; Still Life; Coalition; After the Rainfall; One Hour Only

On the first day of the Edinburgh festival fringe last week – "preview Wednesday", when venue staff are still wallpapering every flat surface with posters for the month's attractions, and early-up spectators wander around trying not to feel like unworldly partygoers who arrived at the exact hour written on the invitation – I was reminded how shockingly intimate fringe theatre can be.

Nudity did it. Unblinking, close-quarters nudity. Day one at Edinburgh had in previous years cast me as a reluctant hula dancer (that was 2011's Dance Marathon) and a ranging urban troublemaker (2010's En Route, asking of its participants trespass and minor acts of graffiti). This year, hardly off the train, only just done with the great annual question of whether to get a post-journey jacket potato from Tasty Tatties or a scotch pie from Auld Jock's, I was squatting down in a peep show-style booth trying to maintain a stern and professional expression while a candid play about sex unfolded six inches from my face.

Peep was an odd production, a triptych of 20-minute playlets for which the creative team had constructed a new makeshift venue outside the Pleasance Courtyard. Four actors performed in a room little bigger than a double bed, an equatorial line of one-way glass ringing the space at waist height. Behind this sat audience members, each in their own tiny compartment. We were supposed to feel sordid, peering in on performers from our cubicles, and I did. This was especially so during the short entitled "69", a montage about the pleasures and problems associated with sex in modern Britain. At one point, without warning, the semi-clothed actors spun to the glass and hovered close, glaring – giving the audience some idea of what it's like, perhaps, for the luckless who've worked in such booths in real life.

Costume, again, was an impermanent thing across town in the white-walled confines of the Whitespace gallery. Here I saw Still Life, a one-woman show about Henrietta Moraes, Francis Bacon's famous model and muse. Sue MacLaine played Moraes, clad, sometimes, in a burgundy robe, more often in nothing at all. The audience were asked to cluster around with handed-out paper to draw pencil sketches.

"I will hold this pose for one minute," said Moraes, interrupting the story of her life to stand straight-backed. "I will hold this pose for eight minutes," she said later, explaining that Bacon had once asked for her to be photographed in just such a reclining position. The resulting pictures inspired his A Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, which sold this year at Christie's for £21m. The original photographs of Moraes, meanwhile, were sold on as porn in a Soho pub. "Ten bob each."

Written by its gutsy performer MacLaine, Still Life interwove affectionate elements of biography with a more oblique sense of what it cost to be the human starting point for lasting art. Moraes was an alcoholic and heavy drug user. Bacon made her an immortal, but his close attention might have left behind trouble. At one point in the play Moraes begged her scribbling audience: "Draw me now and see if you can get beyond almost… Show it back to me. Show me myself."

Still with the sheaves of sketch paper in my pocket, I went on to the entirely different Coalition, a political comedy at the Pleasance Dome. It presented a near-future Britain, the alliance between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats almost over, the Lib Dems in ruin. No Cameron, no Clegg, the key players here were fictional, the Lib Dems led by Matt Cooper (comedian Thom Tuck), a likable weakling so beaten down by "coalition chess" he can't really remember why there should be anything wrong with the idea of 48 new British nuclear plants. An enjoyable comic play, a little baggy at 90 minutes. Good but not great.

I still wanted great – that brilliant play, seen in its first few outings at the fringe, impressive enough to make you its missionary. Everybody! Everybody! Abandon your plans, get tickets! A single gem is enough, in week one, to make all the early-bird aimlessness and guesswork of the emergent festival worthwhile. On Thursday I saw two brilliant plays, back-to-back.

After the Rainfall told a woozily complex story that strung together ideas about colonialism, revolution, social media and, somehow, ant hills; a story of parallel lives (a scientist, a spy, a sister, a student) lived out over a span of more than 70 years. The group behind the play, Curious Directive, staged a fringe hit last year, Your Last Breath, that was similarly layered, jumping about in time to tell a story about extreme human endurance. Its high point was a memorable dance sequence involving coloured string that criss-crossed the stage.

After the Rainfall needed no similar centrepiece. Its flourishes were fainter: rolling landscape, seen from the window of a low-flying plane, summoned by a simple piece of canvas being manipulated under a spot. Such subtlety characterised script and performance, the unfairness of colonial Britain's artefact-pinching, for instance, inferred not in a lecture but in a believable conversation between strangers on a train. As well as vibrant design, a strength of this rising company is a talent for compactness. After the Rainfall achieved more in a single hour than would seem possible. I left heavy with its weight, eager to sit down and think it all through.

But no time. I was straight to the uppermost floor of the Underbelly venue on Cowgate to watch a third play in two days about sexual exposure. And One Hour Only threatened, for a minute or so, to be as intense as Peep, as solemn as Still Life. In fact it was neither; instead, a terrifically simple love story, a modern Brief Encounter, staged in a brothel with the ticking away of costly minutes threatening the growing liking between prostitute Marley (Nadia Clifford) and customer AJ (Faraz Ayub). Marley and AJ are Londoners, clever and studying to better themselves, but young and naive enough to assume that their knowing, 21st-century ease with paid-for sex will never trouble them intellectually. Of course it does – the worse, over their 60 minutes together, as they begin to fall for each other.

Written by performance poet Sabrina Mahfouz (who last year impressed with dramatic monologue Dry Ice) the play did not spend much time decrying the sex trade. That has been done well, and often, at fringes past. Instead, Mahfouz made quiet study of the strange and even hostile places like-minds can find each other out. Staged in the uppermost room of the Underbelly, a hangar-like auditorium that is arguably the least cosy at the festival, One Hour Only achieved an intimacy that surpassed even those productions put on in a mocked-up peep booth, a life drawing class. The story, not the setting, forced audience proximity here. Everyone kept leaning in closer and closer.


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August 01 2012

Tehran exhibition reveals city's hidden Warhol and Hockney treasures

Paintings collected with help of Iran's last queen, Farah Pahlavi, and safeguarded in museum basement, on show for first time

It is the finest collection of modern art anywhere outside Europe and the US, boasting works by Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch, René Magritte and Mark Rothko.

But the pieces have been stacked in the basement of Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art for more than 30 years, gathering dust in storage. Censors in Iran classed some as un-Islamic, pornographic or too gay, and they have never been shown in public. Others have been displayed only once or twice.

But now a number of the collection's paintings are on show for the first time in Tehran as part of the museum's Pop Art & Op Art exhibition, featuring works by Warhol, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Victor Vasarely, Richard Hamilton and Jasper Johns.

"Many of the works in the exhibition are shown for the first time," Hasan Noferesti, the museum's director for art programmes, told the Mehr news agency. "The exhibition aims to show the evolution of these artistic movements."

More than 100 pieces from the museum's remarkable collection are on display, according to Mehr, along with a series of works from Mexico that have been dedicated to the museum in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Mexican revolution and the 200th anniversary of the country's independence.

James Rosenquist, Jim Dine, Larry Rivers and RB Kitaj are among other artists whose works are in the exhibition, which runs until mid-August.

Iran's unique hidden treasure was bought before the Islamic revolution, under the supervision of Farah Pahlavi, the former queen of Iran, who fled the country with the late shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.

The 38-year reign of the shah, self-proclaimed kings of kings, came to an end after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile to Tehran receiving a hero's welcome and founded the Islamic republic.

The collection includes Pollock's Mural on Indian Red Ground, considered to be one of his most important works and estimated to be worth more than $250m, as well as important pieces by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Whistler and Marcel Duchamp.

There are even pieces by artists whom the former empress met in person, including the Russian-French painter Marc Chagall and the English sculptor Henry Moore. The collection is thought to be worth more than $2.5bn.

Speaking to the Guardian, Pahlavi explained that the collection was bought during Iran's 1970s oil boom. "Our oil revenue had significantly increased and I spoke to [the shah] and Amir-Abbas Hoveyda [then prime minister], and told them that it was the best time to buy some of our ancient works both internally and from outside.

"I thought how good it would be to have a museum where we could put the works of our contemporary artists. Later I thought, why shouldn't we include foreign works. This is how it all started … at that time our curators and collectors were mostly interested in traditional art and not so much in the modern art."

Pahlavi's interest in western art is believed to derive from her education in France.

Kamran Diba, an Iranian architect and a cousin of the queen, was commissioned to design the museum in the heart of the capital and later selected the works with help from various people, including the presidents of Christie's and Sotheby's.

Pahlavi said: "I was very worried for the fate of those paintings during those events [at the time of the revolution], I was worried that the revolutionaries would destroy them. But fortunately the museum staff protected them in the basement.

"Some years ago the director of the museum showed some of the pieces and made a catalogue listing the works. I'm happy that people have realised what was hidden there for years."

Between 1997 and 2005, during the mandate of the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, when restrictions on art were temporarily relaxed, Alireza Samiazar, then head of the museum, struggled to secure permission for the first display of some of the works.

In 2005, to the dismay of the regime's hardliners, a large number of the paintings were brought out for an exhibition. That show sparked controversy. Francis Bacon's Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendants, with seeming homosexual content, was deemed inappropriate and removed from the exhibition. However, many contentious works survived the censors. Andy Warhol's portraits of Mick Jagger and Marilyn Monroe are in Tehran and his paintings of Mao Zedong have been put on display in full for the first time in the pop art exhibition.

Despite the contempt of Tehran's rulers for western art, the collection has been safely guarded – bar a Warhol portrait of Pahlavi herself, which, she said, had been cut with a knife.

In 1994 the museum exchanged one of its many remarkable paintings – Woman III, by the Dutch-American expressionist Willem de Kooning – for a rare illuminated volume of Shahnameh, an ancient Persian poetry book, which belonged to the American art collector Arthur Houghton, because the painting had shown too much nudity in the eyes of the authorities.

The swap infuriated many, including Pahlavi. "If they were really interested in Shahnameh, couldn't they pay $6m and keep De Kooning's painting? The US businessman David Geffen, who bought the painting for some $20m, sold it for $110m few years ago. The De Kooning exchange is the sole exchange they've done so far and I hope it remains the last one."

Of the many ironies surrounding the artwork is the fact that Iran's powerful Guardian Council, a group of clerics, intervened a decade ago to forbid the selling or exchange of the works because, they said, trade in un-Islamic and pornographic works was prohibited.

Ali Amini Najafi, an Iranian art critic based in Germany, said: "The works in the collection are not randomly or arbitrarily chosen, it is clear that people involved in selecting them had a consistent plan to pick relevant and significant samples to depict the evolution of modern art and also to make sure that all movements from impressionists to pop art are represented.

"This collection was gathered at a defining moment of our history when Iranians were taking distance from their traditional past and were showing curiosity with modern art."


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April 17 2012

Damien Hirst's favourite art

As part of his week-long digital takeover, Damien Hirst talks through some of the artworks that have most influenced his career



March 23 2012

John Richardson: a life in art

'I was able to grow up and be what I wanted to be – a writer about art with a career at the centre of the art world'

"How well do you know Kipling's poetry?" demands John Richardson, almost before the door to his Manhattan apartment has closed behind me. "I'm trying to remember the name of a poem … it's for something I'm writing." Richardson – the first volume of whose Picasso biography won him the Whitbread book of the year award in 1991 – is 88 years old and suffers from macular degeneration, severely hampering his ability to read. But he is still working furiously: writing, now with collaborators, volume four of the Picasso biography, and curating exhibitions. (His Picasso: the Mediterranean Years at the Gagosian Gallery London in 2010 was regarded as a museum-quality exhibition – or indeed, as surpassing museum quality, arising as it did out of an intimate personal knowledge of the artist and his circle.) When I visit, he is drafting an essay on Lucian Freud, whom he had known since he was 18 years old and Freud was 20.

Richardson – who occasionally pauses at length to excavate a name from the deep layers of his memory, but who is otherwise sufficiently youthful to clamber out of a sash window to perch on his tiny terrace at the behest of the photographer – leads me through a startlingly impressive array of rooms, busily decorated with sculptures, deeply upholstered divans, elaborate lamps, antique tables and, above all, pictures. He gestures in the direction of an 18th-century portrait. "That's a Reynolds of Frederick, Prince of Wales. One of Queen Mary's ladies-in-waiting was always trying to get it out of me. They didn't have one at the palace." We whisk past Picassos and Freuds, and I spot what I imagine to be a reproduction of a Braque perched on a side table. It is only later, when I look at the inscription – "Pour Richardson, avec mes amitiés, G Braque" that I realise it's the real thing, a delicate piece in ink and cardboard collage of a bird flying to its nest.

Richardson is one of the last links to a dazzling, lost world: aside from Picasso, Braque and Jean Cocteau, whom he met while living for 12 years with the art collector Douglas Cooper in the south of France after the war, he was on terms with an array of literary and artistic figures – Anthony Blunt, Cyril Connolly, WH Auden, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Francis Bacon, Nancy Mitford, Graham Sutherland, James and John Pope-Hennessy – many of whom are vividly brought to life in his gripping, gossipy, score-settling memoir, The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Above all, the memoir conveys the character of Cooper, one of the most important early collectors of cubist art, who seduced Richardson and then swept him away to France in 1950.

Cooper introduced him to many of the stellar figures who shine out of the memoir's pages, but he was also a domineering, controlling companion. As Richardson puts it: "There was a great deal to Douglas - he was brilliant, he was very funny, there was never a dull moment, but to live under the same roof way off in a rather deserted part of Provence was – well, I sometimes went stir crazy."

He eventually left and settled in New York, writing for the New York Review of Books (among other publications) and organising a successful Picasso exhibition in 1962 that spanned nine galleries. He then set up the New York branch of Christie's with fellow Briton Charlie Allsopp. "We complemented each other. I didn't know much about 17th-century Dutch painting, or Chinese porcelain or silver. He didn't know much about modern painting," he says of Allsopp, the father of TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp. Leaving Cooper, he says, "I was able to grow up and be what I wanted to be – a writer about art with a career at the centre of the art world."

It was going back to France to consult Picasso about the 1962 exhibition that brought forth the idea of the biography. "I'd say: 'Who is it a portrait of?' And he'd say that with works of the late 1930s there were sometimes as many as four people in one portrait – Dora Maar, Nusch Eluard, Inès the maid, Lee Miller, you'll see all of them. So the whole question of identity in these portraits was fascinating. I thought I'd do a big study looking at how one could trace Picasso's style through the portraits of the women who were inspirational to him. Then I realised it was much better to do a large-scale biography."

With its sharp, jargon-free prose, its persuasive art-historical arguments and its pungent insights into its subject's character, the first volume was a revelation. Art historian Richard Wollheim wrote in the London Review of Books: "There is no short way of conveying the wealth, precision and imaginativeness of this book." For critic Waldemar Januszczak, writing in the Guardian, it was "the finest biography of an artist I have read".

John Patrick Richardson was born in London in 1924, the eldest son of the 70-year-old Sir Wodehouse Richardson and his much younger wife, Patty. "My father was totally fascinating and rather impressive," says Richardson. "He was decorated by Queen Victoria and knighted by Edward VII. He was quartermaster general in the South African war, and the first to feed the troops refrigerated beef – he brought in refrigerated railroad cars." After the Boer war he co-founded the Army and Navy Stores, with its HQ in Victoria Street in London and outposts in Calcutta and Bombay. "One day, on a Thursday, which was board meeting day, when he'd always do a tour of inspection of the store, he saw this little woman retouching photos and got interested in her, and he waited outside with a bunch of roses, and one thing led to another." His father died when Richardson, the oldest of three children, was six. "I was enormously proud of my father and to some extent have missed him every day of my life. He was so bright, so funny and warm – heroic in his way."

At 13, Richardson was sent to Stowe, its Capability Brown grounds and elegant 18th-century follies providing the backdrop for some of his earliest sexual experiences. Here, his art teacher introduced him to the work of artists such as Picasso and Schwitters. Richardson shows me a little abstract work that he made at the time, impressively progressive for a 1930s schoolboy. As war broke out he enrolled at the Slade. Later, just as he was called up, he caught rheumatic fever: he was out of the army before he ever put on an Irish Guards uniform.

He lived in wartime London with his mother and siblings, working as an industrial designer by day and doing air-raid warden and firefighter shifts by night. And then there were the parties. "In those days being gay was somewhat dangerous; my best friend was had-up for some non-offence and jailed for a month – you had to be careful. But during the blitz London was kind of amazing. There were these great nightclubs in bombed basements in Soho. And there would be a feeling of tremendous excitement because quite a few of the men would be going off the following day to Egypt. And people were so great with each other during the war. People weren't petty or bitchy, they were out for basically whatever thrills they could get before they were bombed or packed off to the battlefield."

Soon after the war he began to write literary journalism for the New Statesman, mentored by Cuthbert Worsley, the magazine's theatre and deputy literary editor. "Postwar London," says Richardson, "was bohemian fun, but also one felt there was a creative spirit to it, which seems to have ceased." One day in 1949 Worsley took him to a party at the house of John Lehmann – brother of the novelist Rosamond – in honour of Paul Bowles's new novel, The Sheltering Sky. Also at the party was Cooper, who had spent a chunk of his fortune amassing an impressive modern art collection.

"In those days," says Richardson, "booze was always a problem. You had to scrounge around for a bottle of port, then there'd be a bottle of scotch, a couple of bottles of South African red wine, some liqueurs – and so you'd get drunk after three different drinks. I had met Douglas before and I longed to see the collection; it was difficult, impossible, to see great cubist works at the time. So I went up to him and introduced myself. 'I know perfectly well who you are,' said Douglas.

"I said: 'I would like very much to see your collection.' He said: 'There is no time like the present. Let's leave these ghastly people and this ghastly party.' And off we went in a 20-year-old Rolls-Royce, black with yellow wheels, resembling a wasp. We set off at an enormous speed and screeched to a halt two blocks away at Basil Amulree's, with whom Douglas shared a house."

Soon it would be Richardson's home, too: "I slept with Douglas out of curiosity, and also I wanted to get to know him better," he says. Amulree, a physician and a peer "who never did a mean or cruel thing", seemed not to mind. "He lived through Douglas," says Richardson. "In fact, the worse Douglas was, the more satisfaction Basil seemed to get. He wasn't so much masochistic as uptight. Somehow through Douglas he let go. He would hoot with laughter at Douglas's antics; occasionally he would give a slight sigh, but he would often egg him on. Basil was not in the least jealous of Douglas's relationships; Douglas, on the other hand, was extremely derogatory about Basil's occasional relationships."

Cooper took Richardson on something of a grand tour around Europe, which culminated in the discovery of a beautiful, neglected chateau called Castille, where they settled. It was here that they moved into the orbit of the magnetic, contradictory creature that was Pablo Picasso, who lived not far away.

Picasso was between mistresses, with various candidates swirling around. Richardson took a great shine to one of them: Jacqueline Roque. "She seemed perfect for him. She was the right shape – big pair of breasts and a big pair of buttocks and not much in between, and that's what he liked. I went up to Paris and got a present for her, a sort of bullfighter's cape from Dior, and that cemented our friendship, for Jacqueline soon ended up as the mistress."

Jacqueline was with him to the end, devoted to and exhausted by the artist. "The last eight years of Picasso's life there was no one around but her. She was secretary, housekeeper, she lugged around the canvases. She would have to do all the practical things – go to the bank, buy the stuff for the weekend, have a hassle with the lawyer – and be back at home by the time he rose at 10.30. Then she had to remain by his side without even leaving the room until sometimes two, three, four in the morning. And she started to drink. By the time he died she was in terrible shape."

After a dozen years, the relationship with Cooper ground painfully to a halt. A final episode of the endgame came when Cooper was stabbed by a young man whom he had picked up. Richardson, who had moved away by that point but was back to celebrate Picasso's birthday, rushed to the hospital, sleeping on a deckchair by his bedside. When Cooper eventually spoke, it was to enquire: "Where did you find that assassin?"

After all that, "New York was paradise for me," says Richardson. "I felt like a child let loose in a department store. There were white Russian chess players, interior decorators, old-fashioned English people, left-wing politicians." Friends included Andy Warhol, for whom he took part in a soap opera the artist had devised. ("Maxine de la Falaise played a once-famous actress who had fallen on evil days. And I was her brother from London.")

He says of Warhol: "Since he died I've seen all sorts of depths to Andy I hadn't spotted when he was alive. I'm a Catholic and I have realised the enormous importance of Roman Catholicism to him. He went every single day to mass. I think this explains the repetitions in his work – all the Ave Marias, like the 50 soup cans. To me he was like a character out of Russian fiction, the holy idiot. He could portray horrible and hideous things and be surrounded by horrible and hideous people taking drugs and killing themselves. But somehow he managed to retain his innocence and never get contaminated."

Today, Richardson is exasperated by the politics of the US. "Back in those days, most of my friends were to the left. Now the left doesn't exist any more. A woman – the wife of a well-known zillionaire – recently said to me: 'John, I had no idea you were such a liberal.' And I thought, do you know, this is what friends used to say when I was 18. Except they meant I should become a socialist. It seemed to me that history was repeating itself but upside down. I've stayed more or less where I am, politically. My father was a liberal, and I feel liberalism in my bones."

Volume four of the Picasso biography, with the collaboration of Spanish art historian Gijs van Hensbergen and curator Michael Cary, is near completion. It will cover the years from 1962 to the artist's death in 1973. "Finally one can set the whole Communist record straight," says Richardson. Though Picasso "became Communist because he was passionately pacifist and had very strong views about poverty", according to Richardson, he also did so in a fit of pique after "very temporarily becoming a passionate Gaullist" at the time of the liberation of Paris.

He explains: "The de Gaulle people got hold of this, Dora Maar told me, and they came round to dinner. But afterwards, he simply said 'bande de cons' [bunch of cunts] and joined the Communist party the next day." But, Richardson argues, "in private, he was critical of the Communists and very upset by the brutality of the Soviets, but he was stuck – he couldn't withdraw without looking like a turncoat. So up to the end of his life he realised he had no choice but to stay in the party."

And so work continues on a remarkable project; and this slayer, and celebrator, of sacred monsters, forges on towards his tenth decade.


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March 04 2012

The Photography of Eve Arnold – review

Art Sensus, London

"What drove and kept me going over the decades? What was the motive force? If I had to use a single word, it would be curiosity." This quote from the pioneering photojournalist Eve Arnold, who died in January, aged 99, is among the various first-person wall texts that punctuate All About Eve, a retrospective of her work. Just how curious she was is evident in the timeline of the projects she undertook in her long career. It takes up one whole wall and makes for an illuminating read, not just because of the longevity of her career – from the late 1940s to the 90s – but for the range of subjects she tackled.

In 1978 alone, for instance, she shot several portraits, including Dirk Bogarde, Francis Bacon and Irene Papas, alongside advertisements for Optrex, the English Tourist Board, Pentax and Rolex as well as assignments on the White Jews of Cochin, Indian troubadours and the London Symphony Orchestra for the Sunday Times magazine. Her work rate was relentless – she was still travelling on assignments well into her 70s – but as this potted history of her career shows the quality seldom wavered.

All About Eve is essentially a celebration of Arnold's life and work, the photographs chosen by her close friends the curator Zelda Cheatle and the academic Brigitte Lardinois, who worked closely with Arnold at the Magnum Photos agency in the 1990s. It's a big, wide-ranging show selected from the vast archive of one anonymous private collector that includes many of Arnold's best-known photographs – a series each on Marilyn Monroe and Malcolm X – and several that are not so instantly recognisable. There are one or two surprises. The first is a beautiful self-portrait from 1948 which greets you at the entrance to the show. Here she looks young, chic and totally at ease before her own camera. As with many Eve Arnold photographs it comes with a story attached. Apparently she was accidentally locked into a friend's studio in Pennsylvania and, bored, began photographing herself to pass the time. The result is characteristically self-assured.

The earliest pictures in the main gallery are her studies from 1951 of a group of black migrant labourers who journeyed north every year at harvest time to work on white-owned farms in Long Island. There are perhaps unconscious traces of the 30s work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange here, but Arnold's sombre and slightly surreal-looking group portrait of the farm owners, the Davis family, enjoying a picnic among the graves of their ancestors, is all her own.

Throughout, you marvel once again at Arnold's ability to gain access to her subjects at work and at play. Her many portraits of celebrities, which she called "personalities", are the product of a more open and innocent era, when stars were not so paranoid about controlling their image. There's a beautifully intimate shot of the film director John Huston and his then teenage daughter Anjelica, sketching. Arnold caught a young Michael Caine cavorting playfully with Candice Bergen in a break from shooting The Magus in Majorca, and Marilyn Monroe lunching in the woods with her husband, Arthur Miller, on the set of The Misfits. There's a great shot of a young Andy Warhol deeply engrossed in a painting in the Factory in New York, and another of a luminous Mia Farrow in rehearsal.

I've always been drawn more to Eve Arnold's in-depth reportage, the great commissions she did when she was very much a pioneering woman in a man's world. Again, her ability to be in the right place at the right time, and to catch it up close and personal, is almost uncanny. Her photograph of leaders of the American Nazi party attending a Black Muslim rally in 1961 – they were united in the belief that America should be racially segregated – has a chilling power 50 years later. A snatched black-and-white portrait, starkly titled Divorce in Moscow, USSR, 1966, is powerful in an altogether different way. In a drably functional room, a distraught man looks away from the camera to the right, while his wife stares stoically off in the opposite direction. The body language speaks volumes: his head rests on his hand; her hands are clasped tight, her wedding ring just visible. The physical space between the couple is minimal, but the emotional space is vast. In the background, oblivious, a man reads a newspaper, while another is engrossed in a book. Arnold catches the full weight of this fraught moment, and the universal truth that great personal suffering, as Auden put it, often "takes place when someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along". It's an extraordinarily poignant photograph: the decisive moment rendered just as powerfully, if not more so, as in a great piece of observational writing or film-making.

Eve Arnold was a single-minded and determined documentary photographer, and a portraitist who won the trust of her famous subjects. Her travels took her to Afghanistan, Cuba, China and Mongolia, where she made a wonderfully evocative colour series of young women training to be horse riders in the national militia. Somehow it all came together in a visual style that amounts to a signature: nothing more or less than the world according to Eve Arnold.


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February 19 2012

Picasso and Modern British Art – review

Tate Britain, London

Soames Forsyte, of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga, must be the most enterprising art collector in British fiction. At the end of the first world war, while others are still investing in John Singer Sargent, he takes a punt on a work by Pablo Picasso. It is true that Forsyte doesn't struggle to save it when his house catches fire –Dégas take priority – but his prescience has already been established. Forsyte was buying Picasso long before his real-life British counterparts.

How late we were to acquire (if not love) Picasso is one of two stories in Tate Britain's big spring show. It's a cracking tale of politics, class and cultural cringe, more or less pieced together through the captions and catalogue.

The other story is of Picasso's influence on British art. You might argue – the curators do – that Picasso is almost synonymous with modernism and therefore his influence is diffuse. But this show is very precisely focused. It looks at three artists who paid sharp attention without being overwhelmed – Wyndham Lewis, Francis Bacon, David Hockney – and five more who swooned. It is told in 150 works, almost half of them by Picasso; the comparison is frequently cruel.

Picasso's first British airing was in Roger Fry's momentous Manet and the Post-Impressionists in 1910. Putrescence, pornography, infection: the press blew up like bullfrogs and were still mocking the Spaniard in 1949 when the Tate finally acquired its first cubist Picasso. Only the Bloomsberries and a handful of Forsytes bought him. "I find him perfectly charming and quite easy and simple," wrote Vanessa Bell from Paris with telling complacency. If his admirers couldn't see the complexities, then what hope for a public who scarcely saw his work in museums before the second world war?

The attention from Bloomsbury may have been a curse. When Picasso stayed at the Savoy in 1919, designing ropey costumes for Diaghilev (exhaustively represented here, and not a patch on Bakst), the group monopolised him in Garsington and Gordon Square. Other British artists were suspicious, and as the excellent catalogue puts it: "his presence left scarcely any mark on British art".

The exception at this stage was Duncan Grant, whose weak pastiches are an embarrassment to this show. "Why, when I ask about modern artists in England, am I always told about Duncan Grant?" Picasso is said to have inquired. It doesn't get much better later on with Ben Nicholson's guitars and Gallicised still-lifes in the 1930s. "Au Chat Botté Dieppe" is neatly lettered across a tabletop viewed through a window, all done in quasi-fractured planes and chalky tones – cubism Cornish-style.

Nicholson, displaying the anxiety of influence, nicknamed the Spaniard "Piccy" and "Picz". Henry Moore shrewdly avoided all mention of his artistic forebear. To appreciate the necessity of this tactic you need only compare Picasso's The Source with Moore's Reclining Figure, two monumental figures placed conveniently adjacent at Tate Britain, and ask yourself whether the latter is likely to have come into being without the former.

It is one of a dozen instances in this show of something pretty near to plagiarism. Each artist has a different Picasso: cubist for Grant and Nicholson, neoclassicist for Moore, surrealist for Francis Bacon. The Bacon room is the least impressive because it insists upon the similarities between the open-mouthed figures in Picasso's Dinard period and those in Bacon's Crucifixion paintings as if they had a shared idiom, meaning or impact. Bacon acknowledged Picasso very readily, but whatever he absorbed feels quite inconsequential to the exuberant agony and grandeur of his art.

If Bacon looks diminished, imagine the effect on everyone else. Graham Sutherland comes over as a second-rate copyist, David Hockney as a lightweight comedian pulling cubist effects with his camera. Hockney can take care of himself, of course, but what is the lasting value of a show where so much of the art is effectively downgraded?

There are masterpieces: several Picassos, including his beautiful portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, her face two kissing forms like the new moon holding the old in its arms, silky flesh bathed in moonlight, and Wyndham Lewis's Workshop, that marvellous concatenation of geometric planes in coruscating pinks and mustards that almost resolve into windows, ladders and shelves, by day and also, as it seems, by night.

If this relates to Picasso, it is via futurism, and speaking not of pictorial languages so much as the dynamism of modern life. And that is how it goes at Tate Britain: surely Grant got more from Matisse? If Lewis, then why not William Roberts? Did they really mean to make the British look so puny? Extraneous questions are raised from one room to the next; it is no way to experience art.

How Picasso finally arrived in Britain, how his communism affected Anglo-Saxon attitudes, who saw his work when and how they responded: Picasso and Modern British Art is tremendously enlightening – as a catalogue. The show is another matter. It needs to fit the pictures to the text and ends up shrinking the art.


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January 26 2012

Don't call me Sir

From Lucian Freud to Roald Dahl, creative talents have long been rejecting honours from the Queen. But why? Maybe they just don't want to be part of an elite gang of Fred Goodwins

Why are creative people so deeply sceptical of Britain's honours system? Previously top secret details revealed today show that artists including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and LS Lowry rejected honours from the Queen as well as such writers as Roald Dahl and Graham Greene. What made them so reluctant to be rewarded by the British establishment?

None of these artists were known radicals. They were not on record as being republicans – although Francis Bacon is said to have once booed Princess Margaret when she insisted on singing at a party. Simple politics cannot be the explanation. It must be something harder to pin down, something in the nature of OBEs and knighthoods and the rest.

In a perhaps not unrelated story, the government was wondering today about stripping former Royal Bank of Scotland boss Sir Fred Goodwin of his knighthood. And this might be a clue to the artists' snubs of royal honours – not that LS Lowry somehow foresaw the banking crisis when he said no five times. The fact is that public honours in Britain are bound up not just with royalty and snobbery and memories of empire, but also with the bonding of a business elite, a political elite, a judicial elite, and local elites. As we become more self-critical as a nation, it is starting to look like Sir Fred's honour was no exception – that there is something insidiously corrupt about the way the honours system binds the top people.

Why would a serious artist want to be part of that? Why would Freud want what bankers and police chiefs get?

France has the Légion d'honneur, which over a long period has established a reputation for rewarding cultural excellence. It is a known international recognition for writers or film-makers to get it. By contrast, Britain's gongs resemble an establishment club, presided over by royalty, in which no special aura is granted to the creative. They are not cool.

In 1950s to 1980s Britain, when philistinism was an overt part of British upper-middle class life, it would have been particularly unattractive for artists to join that club. These artists – including Lowry – clearly thought of themselves as bohemians and had no taste at all for recognition alongside mayors and newspaper owners.

Perhaps it is time to create a new honour specifically for creative achievement. Or perhaps that would just be a new corruption.

In some deep sense, these unlikely dissidents were not just rejecting the Queen – they were rejecting the tone of British life itself. They saw the corruption that others are only now starting to acknowledge.


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Roald Dahl and CS Lewis among writers revealed to have refused honours

List of authors to turn down OBEs, CBEs and knighthoods also includes Aldous Huxley, Robert Graves and Evelyn Waugh

Authors CS Lewis, Roald Dahl and Aldous Huxley all turned down honours from the Queen, newly released documents have revealed.

A freedom of information request saw the list of people to have rejected an honour between 1951 and 1999 and since died published last night by the Cabinet Office . Literary names were prominent amongst those to have said no to CBEs, OBEs and knighthoods in the annual New Year or Birthday Honours list, with Dahl, Lewis, and Huxley – who turned down a knighthood – joined by fellow naysayers Eleanor Farjeon, the children's author, the poets Philip Larkin and Robert Graves, who said no to both a CBE and a CH (Order of the Companions honour), literary critic FR Leavis, Booker winner Stanley Middleton and the authors JB Priestley and Evelyn Waugh.

In the past, this information has generally only been made public if the individuals to have snubbed the recognition announce it themselves – a step taken by the poet Benjamin Zephaniah in 2003, when he wrote in the Guardian: "Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word 'empire'; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised."

Novelist JG Ballard rejected a CBE for services to literature the same year, saying: "I think it's deplorable when left-wing playwrights like David Hare, who have worn their socialist colours on both sleeves for so many years, should accept a knighthood. God almighty, this man actually knelt down in front of the Queen."

Also included on the list of 277 individuals refusing honours between 1951 and 1999 are the sculptor Henry Moore, the artist Lucian Freud, the film director Alfred Hitchcock – although he later accepted a knighthood – and the painters Francis Bacon and LS Lowry. Lowry was the individual to have rejected recognition from the Queen the most often, turning down a total of five honours, including a knighthood.


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January 06 2012

The month in photography – audio slideshow

Our guide to the month's best photo exhibitions and books – featuring Pieter Hugo, Eve Arnold, William Eggleston, Don McCullin and Annie Leibovitz



December 07 2011

When Freud met Bacon – in pictures

A new exhibition, The Mystery of Appearance: Conversations Between Ten British Postwar Painters, looks at the personal relationships between artists from Freud to Bacon to Hockney



October 19 2011

Artoon: Francis Bacon

In this week's send-up of the art world, as imagined by cartoonist Peter Duggan, artist Francis Bacon attempts to deceive an intruder – but is it just smoke and mirrors? Click on the image to enlarge it



July 07 2011

A nation of abstract art snobs?

There's strength and truth to be found in abstract expressionism – British sceptics need to get over their puritanical hauteur

Britain has never "got" abstract art. Even articles that appeared this week marking the death of Cy Twombly attracted comments of the "my child could do that" variety. It is tempting to dismiss these attacks as philistine, but that would be to ignore an eminently respectable and artistically sophisticated British tradition of disdain for abstract painting.

In a justly famous collection of essays called Art and Illusion, the leading art historian of postwar Britain EH Gombrich argued that western painting is the pursuit of reality – that in effect representational painting has a scientific vocation. This is a translation to art of the empiricism that goes back in British philosophy to John Locke. To look is to discover (although Gombrich showed how what we see is coloured by what we expect to see). If art is about trying to see things how they really are, what is the value of abstraction? For Gombrich it basically had no value at all.

It was not only theorists who believed this in postwar Britain. The best artists did, too. Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud fearsomely depicted real life as they found it – real human life, with the figure at the heart of the matter, the lonely human predicament their weighty concern. Bacon loudly dismissed the American abstract painting of the 1950s as looking like "old lace". Freud paints to this day with total commitment to reality and no interest whatsoever in abstraction.

So British sceptics who think abstract art like that of Twombly is just a load of visual guff can claim a tradition on their side.

Why, then, are we so different from Americans? In the same postwar years that saw British art dig itself into a realistic trench, US painting became heroically and famously abstract. From the moment Jackson Pollock appeared in Life magazine, the New York abstract painters were revered, renowned, and part of modern American national identity. The US and Britain were very different places at the time: America was at the height of its wealth and global power, and abstract expressionism suited the confidence of this epic society. Britain was living through the end of empire; everything was shrinking. Gloomy realism suited the times.

Having grown up and become fascinated by art in a 1980s Britain where abstract modernism was still laughed at, when at last I got a chance to see American art in depth in New York, it was one of the most liberating, beautiful and profound experiences of my life. I recognised some deep strength and truth in abstract expressionism that I did not find – and still do not – in most modern British art. From Henry Moore to Antony Gormley, even our "modern" artists seem stuck in the fussy world of the figurative, while American painters such as Rothko transport me to a heightened reality.

It is actually impossible to argue with someone who refuses to experience the power of abstract art, because to feel it you have to let yourself go a bit. Perhaps the problem is one of trust. British sceptics cannot bring themselves to trust the mystery of aesthetic experience. Even that phrase "the mystery of aesthetic experience" is about to be mocked ... but it is your loss. This scepticism must, in the end, go back to the Reformation and its fear of graven images. Somewhere in your psyche, abstraction-haters, when you look at Twombly's lush colours you see a medieval stained-glass window: and the puritan in you wants to smash it.


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July 01 2011

We don't own modern art – the super-rich do

A record-breaking Sotheby's auction has punctured the boom-time illusion that the art of today is common property

Art is a luxury, the ultimate luxury. Imagine the glory of having an original work of art by a great artist on your wall. It beats the best car, the best helicopter. Art is money and if you want people to know your wealth, you must buy art.

Sorry if this imaginary blurb for the art market seems offensive, but that is kind of the idea. The market in modern art is truly offensive. It is becoming more sickening by the day. This week saw businesses go bust and an entire nation on the edge of the economic abyss. In Britain, famous high street names such as Thorntons and Habitat hit the buffers. In Greece, riot police held back protesters as punitive austerity measures were imposed by parliament.

Meanwhile, a sale of modern art at Sotheby's on Wednesday night made £108.8m, a London record according to the auctioneers. A Bacon went for £8.3m, a Warhol portrait of Deborah Harry for £3.7m. Spectacular sums were also paid for works by German contemporary artists, while a Damien Hirst spot painting topped a million quid, suggesting he is still attractive to the people he needs to be attractive to.

But who are they, these people? I would genuinely like to know. The popular assumption seems to be that today's art collectors are "Russian oligarchs". Certainly the spectacle of Roman Abramovich's yacht drew attention to the oligarchic presence at this year's Venice Biennale. One thing is certain – the big-time buyers of art are people in the financial sector who are weathering our troubled times a lot better than high street businesses, nations picked on by Standard & Poor's, or public sector workers.

And yet, for the last couple of decades, contemporary art has flourished through an alliance of the rich and the not-so-rich. It is the same educated, probably public-sector-employed middle class (many of whom marched this week) that enthusiastically visit galleries and art fairs. It is these fans of modern art who have helped, by their acclaim, to generate the charisma that makes it apparently worth so many millions.

In the 1990s, a credit-fuelled sense of affluence made the excesses of the art market seem fine, even entertaining. Besides, contemporary art has a dual nature. On the one hand it is – like all fine art down the ages – a plaything of the rich. But that is not the whole story. It is also a public art. Spectacular installations, accessible videos such as The Clock, and free display spaces like the Tate Turbine Hall, make the art of today a common property, capable of communicating in exciting ways across nations and generations. It has a utopian aspect.

So spare us the conservative attacks on modern art. I do not think the prices paid for Warhol or Bacon reflect on the artists themselves – as it happens, a lot of good art changed hands at the Sotheby's sale. And for all the fuss over the Abramovich yacht, the reality is that people from all walks of life are visiting the Venice Biennale this summer and finding it, as I did, a stimulating overview of the best new art on the planet.

But how long can this go on? How will the growing, grotesque disparity between our belief that we "own" modern art and the glaring reality that it is bought and sold by the super-rich, survive these times? In 2009, Athens was being touted as a rising contemporary art centre, with collectors, fairs, new galleries. Art is fully globalised, and seems to be operating as a separate world system while all around it crashes. I am not prophesying disaster for it. If people go on believing in it, art may even be a clue to the survival and recovery of world capitalism. On a more local level, if British people keep on loving new art even as the rich carry it home, it probably also means the coalition is destined to a decade or so of power and the left is toast. Or if the times here and elsewhere prove harder to stabilise, if the rocks in the road get bigger – well, the art system will probably still go on. But will we be looking?


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October 11 2010

Bacon painting set for £4m sale

Figure in Movement, a gift to the artist's friend and GP, expected to fetch at least £4m in Sotheby's sale

A Francis Bacon painting of a tortured cricketer twisting and writhing is to be sold at auction after hanging in Tate Britain for much of the last decade, Sotheby's announced today.

The painting is being sold by Bacon's friend and personal doctor, Paul Brass, who was given the portrait in 1985, the year it was completed.

After loaning it to the Tate, Brass has decided to sell and an estimate of $7m-$10m (£4.4m-£6.3m) has been placed on it ahead of the auction in New York on 9 November.

Figure in Movement, featuring a typically agonised figure, common in Bacon's work, this time in cricket pads and against a black and bright orange background with blue cage-like struts, also featured in the major 2008 Bacon retrospective at Tate Britain, which toured New York and Madrid.

Brass took over the role of being Bacon's personal physician from his father, Dr Stanley Brass, and was offered a choice between two paintings – the cricketer and one of a jet of water.

In an interview with the New York Times, Brass said: "I was tempted to opt for the jet of water, but when I told that to Francis, he said no, that painting happened by mistake when he spilled white paint on the canvas. He told me, 'If I were you, I would choose the cricketer'."

Bacon died in 1992 and his works attract some of the biggest prices for any 20th century artist although no one expects the painting to get anywhere near the record, set in 2008 when Bacon's Triptych 1976 was bought by Roman Abramovich for $86m, reportedly to hang on the walls of his London home.

There have been disagreements about what is going on in Figure In Movement and who it is based on. The figure seems to resemble John Edwards, the man Bacon found solace in after the suicide of his lover George Dyer in 1971, but there have also been suggestions Bacon based it on David Gower, captain of the England cricket team in the mid-1980s.


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August 09 2010

Gossip, love and tragedy – every artist's catalogue needs it

Official records of exhibitions and achievements whitewash the real details of artists' lives – the blood and tears that bring their work to life

The world of art would be a lot healthier if catalogues of artists' works acknowledged the human status of their subjects. In art history, it is dreary to read about great painters as if they were somehow spared the trials of flesh-and-blood life, as if art takes place in a museum rather than among real, flawed people. A bit of gossip goes a long way towards humanising the old masters. But this is also true of art today. In fact, the strange evacuation of real life from the story of art starts with living artists, and the way that galleries and curators choose to edit their lives for public consumption.

I recently read a catalogue in which a very sad fact about an artist's life emerged, in passing, in an interview with the artist. I wanted to know more, so I looked at the biographical summary at the back. It was the usual stuff – born, such and such a place, 19-whatever; went to art school blah blah. When I got to the year of the tragedy, the catalogue just listed his exhibitions for that year, as if these were more "real" than a major episode in his life.

This is typical. There is a bizarre impersonality to these Augustan tomes that see a show at the Grand Palais as more significant than a lover's death. By the time an artist's life is over, the archive has all too often been blanded-out by these curious documents. Artists, it seems, have two lives, one in which they bleed, and another of exhibitions and other trivia that is recognised in official publications.

Martin Creed's new book, a catalogue of all his works to date, can be enjoyed as a subversion of this genre. At first sight it is the most reticent and authoritative of catalogues, but if you follow the numerical sequence of his works you actually learn a lot about his life and his feelings. A relationship and its breakup is described among these "works". Art and life come together, instead of being kept pompously separate. I wish museums, collections and galleries would take a leaf from this book.


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April 17 2010

Too poor to buy paint: how Francis Bacon starved for his art

Lost letters reveal millionaire artist's early struggle

He is one of the 20th century's greatest artists, whose paintings change hands for more than £40m, but Francis Bacon's early struggle to sell his paintings became so desperate that he threatened to become a cook or a valet, according to unpublished letters that have just come to light.

Bacon, a self-taught artist, was 40 before he gained proper recognition. The letters, dating from the 1940s, reveal that he was frequently reduced to begging for handouts from his dealer, his debts no doubt aggravated by his addiction to gambling.

"Is it possible to make me a small advance?" he implores in one. "I am quite broke, and canvas and paints are terribly expensive."

In another he laments: "If I can't sell anything or haven't anything to sell, I will get a job as a valet or cook."

The correspondence, contained in the archives of the Lefevre Gallery in London, is between Bacon and Duncan Macdonald, then its director. It is certain to deepen future biographers' understanding of the artist's struggle to launch his career. Barry Joule, the artist's friend who is now writing a Bacon memoir, said: "I haven't seen these letters before. They're a revelation. I've read everything on him inside out. The struggle is not covered in the biographies and is perhaps overlooked because of the prices paid for his paintings later in his life."

In one letter, Bacon reveals his battle to afford basic art tools: "If you know of anyone who will take the risk and supply me with paints, canvas, and the minimum of vittles, think of me. I might make them money."

Bacon, who died in 1992, believed his pictures deserved either the National Gallery or the dustbin, and he often dumped or slashed his own works.

Study for Man with Microphones in 1946 was among paintings that no one wanted to buy. Bacon painted over it. The letters also list numerous other works which no longer exist.

Many of the letters convey his desperation to exhibit his work. In one passage the artist wrote: "I shall have a group of 3 large paintings… Is there any chance of your having an exhibition in the autumn…? They want to be hung together in a series as they are a sort of Crucifixion… I think they are the most formal things I have done and the colour is a sort of intense blue violet. I think they are better than what I have done up to now…

"If you think there is a chance of your being able to show them, as I really need the money desperately … I want £750 for the set. It is not a quarter of what is has cost me with gambling etc; if you think you can get more, it would be tremendously welcome."

The paintings are thought not to have survived.

Richard Shone, editor of The Burlington Magazine, which will publish the letters in May, said: "One day a really comprehensive biography of Bacon will be written and these letters will be indispensable."


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November 29 2009

Reheated Bacon

White Cube Mason's Yard and Hoxton Square, London

What can a portrait do to its subject, beyond the usual act of depiction? The question is unexpectedly raised in Damien Hirst's new two-site show. Among the many paintings of carrion crows, skulls, knives, empty pill bottles, corpses and other mortal intimations is a series of portraits in chalk white and inky blue. Each represents Angus Fairhurst, Hirst's close friend and contemporary.

Fairhurst was 41 when he hanged himself at the close of his final show. Everyone spoke of his death with extraordinary sorrow. To those who only knew his droll and philosophical artworks, it became apparent that he was much loved as a person too. Hirst has painted not one but half-a-dozen portraits: keeping him present, keeping him going.

These canvases share their hues not just with Francis Bacon's early portraits but more obviously with blue period Picasso; which might make you think of Picasso's memorials to his great friend, the painter Casagemas, who turned a gun on himself. But Picasso paints the apotheosis of Casagemas, his soul rising to heaven on an El Greco uprush of exorcism and prayer. What Hirst is doing is by no means so clear.

The Fairhurst portraits are perfectly recognisable and densely worked. You have the sense of an appearance coming and going – remembered, half-remembered – and of a character buried somewhere in the paint; clumsy, yet with something approaching force of personality.

But Fairhurst is presented as a head and severed neck, upright but positioned within a chalky outline that irresistibly proposes John the Baptist's head on a salver. A martyrdom then – but what about the suicide's still-attached rope? Dead again? Twice killed? Certainly overkilled: these decapitated totems, giving neither life nor afterlife, keep the subject very viscerally and emphatically dead.

In a catalogue interview with the late Gordon Burn, Hirst speaks of his anger towards Fairhurst. And perhaps this is a squaring up, as well as a coming to terms. But for all their painterly effects – brutal, expressive, theatrical – the tone of these works is peculiarly indistinct. The only certainty is that they are sincere.

And sincerity is a big issue with Hirst's latest paintings. The facts about them are known by now: he is making them himself (no more assistants); they are not critically admired; they are indebted, first to last, to Francis Bacon. One way to tell them apart is that they anthologise trademark elements – sharks, ashtrays, drugs, butterflies, grids of spots – so that buyers will always be getting hallmarked Hirst (his recent Wallace Collection show was bought wholesale by the Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk).

Another way, of course, is simply to look.

For though they rely entirely upon Bacon for surface appearances – shallow space, figures emerging out of darkness, chalk-line cages and space frames, empty chairs, blood-red triptychs framed in old gold – there is no affinity in terms of meaning or mood. Hirst uses Bacon as a backdrop for his own show, arranging and rearranging his motifs like props.

The paradox of painting – the three-dimensional world conveyed in two-dimensions – clearly intrigues him as a sculptor. In fact, the overwhelming sense here is of Hirst reprising his tanked installations in a space he hopes to make drastically flat. The props are weightless and often silly – a lemon, a lime, a Sabatier knife – and he uses all sorts of daft devices to jam the illusion of depth. But occasionally there's a good convergence, as when flurries of bristling black strokes merge with the actual feathers of harbinger crows.

But the crows aren't menacing any more than the knives are sharp. Even the darkness is just the darkness of Prussian blue. Hirst has no feeling for the things he paints, so nothing here has the graphic force and register of his sculpture, and the images are the opposite of what collage (his modus operandi) should be – subtle, coherent, significantly arranged. You can't get any feeling off these cannibalised Bacons at all.

Naturally this makes no difference to the market. Within this self-perpetuating vacuum, it hardly matters whether Hirst can cut it with the brush or not; he risks neither fame nor fortune with these blank, underpowered and derivative works. But there is, I think, something profound at stake for Hirst himself. In the portrait of Angus Fairhurst, there is a palpable sense of effort, struggle, genuine perplexity. The fear of death, at last, is not theatrically faked.


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November 24 2009

A painter's progress

Barely a month since his first show of paintings was panned, Damien Hirst is back with two more. Is he trying too hard?

With their triptych formats, hefty gold frames and glazed surfaces, Damien Hirst's new paintings, which fill both White Cube galleries in London, once again recall Francis Bacon. There are further nods to Bacon within the paintings: figures who turn and squirm, cigarette butts underfoot, linear space frames. There are also worryingly vacant chairs: are they meant for us? Has somebody died? Rather than Bacon's door handles, taps, blind-pulls and switches, Hirst gives us butcher's knives (recalling the jangling cutlery in certain Picassos, painted in the hungry years of the war), and his familiar ashtrays and fag packets; there is a glass of red wine that could have come from a later painting by Patrick Caulfield. Hirst no longer drinks or smokes.

While certain Bacon figures look on the verge of turning themselves inside-out, Hirst's already have. His viscerated meat-men and skeletons hang about, waiting for a death that's already happened: they just haven't noticed yet. There is almost nothing but death in Hirst's new show. Blood-spattered crows fly across thin blue skies. The artist's late friend, Angus Fairhurst, stares out from a number of posthumous portraits. Fairhurst, who took his own life in a macabre and premeditated way in Scotland in March last year (timed to coincide with the closing day of his solo show in London), is probably also the figure amidst the gloomy woods, both here and in Hirst's Wallace Collection show. The portraits of Fairhurst manage to be affecting as well as ill-tempered, reflecting Hirst's anger at him and the manner of his death. In some respects these are the best things in the entire show, and even their inarticulacy counts for something.

Why am I returning to Hirst now, just a few weeks since reviewing his paintings at the Wallace Collection, and barely a fortnight since complaining about the media's sometimes vicarious and intrusive fixation with a small coterie of artists, including Hirst? The fact is that Hirst is a phenomenon, whatever one thinks, and his artistic problems are interesting ones.

Where Bacon was grandly, sometimes campily theatrical (grand guignol is the phrase often used, to the point of cliche), Hirst is more often hammy. And while Bacon managed both restraint and libidinous assault in his best work – the restraint adding to the squeamishness and implied violence – Hirst has often appeared, since the late 1990s, less ambitious for his art than for his career and for fame. This is a poisonous cocktail. In Hirst's final published conversation with Gordon Burn, which took place not long before the writer's death last July, Hirst describes the years he spent drinking and doing drugs as a time of "pure, unadulterated celebration, just going, 'We are the fucking kings!' and standing on the table shouting, 'Yahoo!' And loving it". All of which did little for his work. Kings are always toppled.

Sobered up and serious, Hirst has turned to painting, and painting takes a long time to master – if one is ever to master it at all. One might see what he is doing as brave, in the sense that he unashamedly exposes his vulnerabilities and weaknesses as an artist. But ambitious though his paintings are, they appear to be trying to look like successful art, rather than actually being so. They are concoctions, confections, rather than unified or achieved paintings. Hirst acknowledges Rembrandt, Goya and El Greco among his heroes, all of whom are insurmountable in many ways. Bacon's mannerisms, meanwhile, are unapproachable: there is the particularity of his signature style, its artificiality, his marshalling of extreme contrasts of facture, premeditation and impetuosity. Even Bacon ended up parodying himself; you can't, I think, start off by parodying Bacon. Still, you fight your battles of influence and originality where you must.

Hirst's scenes of destruction and misery haven't undergone the reworkings or journeys they need to go on in order to arrive somewhere new. They are too artful, and his current shows are premature – however much he needed to go through the process of making the works themselves. In the end, what it comes down to is Hirst's touch, or lack of it. It lacks conviction. His paintings are filled with approximations. The paint goes down with a dead thunk, one that lacks life or individuality. You feel as much as see this living spark in a great painter's touch, however casual or offhand or anonymous that touch might appear to be. This, in part, is what makes one painter great and another mediocre. Some great painters are far from able or felicitous craftsmen, yet they turn difficulty to their advantage. Hirst still wants to make successful art and this, paradoxically, is his problem. You can smell failure almost as much as see it – in the same way that Heston Blumenthal has said you can taste fear in an ailing restaurant's cooking.

To follow the Wallace Collection with an exhibition that fills both White Cube spaces is the kind of overexposure that might have diminished Hirst. In fact, it succeeds by sheer force of will, never mind if the paintings sell or not. Hirst has always been as profligate with his talents as he is in his supportive attitude towards other artists, from his fellow students at Goldsmiths College to his more recent collecting habits.

He has put it about that I was on the selection panel that rejected him for a place at St Martins in the mid-1980s. I wasn't. We first met around the time of the Freeze exhibition in Docklands (I remember him playing with my small daughter outside), and got to know him better when I was an external examiner of the Goldsmiths fine art course. I was immediately charmed. He had an ability to galvanise and encourage his fellow students, including Fairhurst. We'd also see each other around Soho where, recovering from a breakdown and a disastrously convoluted love life, I unhappily frittered time away; at the Coach and Horses and the French House, Gordon Burn and I would eye each other warily across the bar.

Hirst's development during the early part of his career was astonishing, creative and full of life. In 1991, for a guide to an exhibition of Hirst's work at the ICA, I wrote that his work expressed "a sense of having been born into the wrong tribe, speaking the wrong language, and yet never knowing, exactly, how else to be". Overly dramatic, perhaps, but it seems this is something like the position he has returned to. Perhaps he has been trying things out all along, though too much seems to be an expensive but essentially trivial adjunct to the business of being Damien Hirst, famous artist. Now he has planted ­ himself inside and outside the tribe of painters, belonging and not belonging. Is there a way forward, or a way back?


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November 22 2009

Bacon's legacy revisited

Art historian John Richardson's revelations on the troubled artist he knew as a young man

Francis Bacon's was a life lived to extravagant extremes. His drunken excesses in the Colony Room Club in Soho; his carnivalesque, ruinous generosity; the formative occasion on which, as a teenager, his father found him wearing his mother's underwear and beat the living daylights out of him – all this is almost as celebrated as his riotously tortured paintings.

But now the art historian John Richardson, whose multi-volume life of Picasso has been called the best artist's biography ever written, and who knew Bacon from the 1940s, has argued that the best of Bacon's art stemmed precisely from his sadomasochistic sexual relationships at their most intense, which also led directly to the death of at least one of his lovers.

It was that early beating by his father to which Bacon attributed his taste for masochism – desires that were played out in adulthood with his lover Peter Lacy.

Richardson describes Lacy's "most heinous assault": "In a state of alcoholic dementia, he hurled Bacon through a plate glass window. His face was so damaged that his right eye had to be sewn back into place. Bacon loved Lacy even more. For weeks he would not forgive Lucian Freud for remonstrating with his torturer. Mercifully, Lacy moved to Tangier."

Writing in the forthcoming issue of the New York Review of Books, Richardson calls Lacy "a dashing 30-year-old … He owned an infamous cottage in the Thames valley, where Francis would spend much of his time – often, according to him, in bondage".

Richardson adds: "Unfortunately, drink released a fiendish, sadistic streak in Lacy that bordered on the psychopathic. Besides taking his rage out on Bacon, he took it out on his canvases. To his credit, however, he inspired some of his lover's most memorable works, among them, the Man in Blue paintings: a menacing, dark-suited Lacy set off against vertical draperies."

The best-known of Bacon's lovers is George Dyer – partly because Bacon immortalised in paintings Dyer's 1971 suicide in a hotel bedroom lavatory, on the eve of the artist's retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Richardson describes the directness of the relationship between Bacon's desires and his artistic output. "Bacon would goad George into a state of psychic meltdown and then, in the early hours of the morning – his favourite time to work – he would exorcise his guilt and rage and remorse in images of Dyer aimed, as he said, at the nervous system." Richardson argues that these are among his best works.

Richardson describes the evening he spent in New York with the pair in 1968. After a lunch during which Bacon called Jackson Pollock an "old lace-maker" they went out drinking. Dyer left, after an argument, and in the early hours Richardson received a call from Bacon who had found his lover passed out on the floor of their room in the Algonquin hotel, "unconscious from having washed down a handful of his sleeping pills with a bottle of scotch".

According to Richardson: "The goading worsened, the imagery intensified," and finally, after another unsuccessful suicide attempt in Greece, Dyer killed himself in Paris.

Richardson argues that Bacon's art went rapidly downhill when, after Dyer's death, he entered a relationship with John Edwards, which was "seemingly free of sadomasochistic overtones. This may explain why Bacon's work lost its sting and failed to thrill. Paintings inspired by Edwards, as well as a Formula 1 driver and a famous cricketer the artist fancied (fetishism survives in the batting pads), reveal that in old age Bacon managed to banish his demons and move on to beefcake. His headless hunks of erectile tissue buffed to perfection have an angst-free, soft-porn glow".

Richardson is an unusually stern critic of Bacon – who was the subject of a Tate retrospective last year and is revered by such artists as Damien Hirst. The problem, argues Richardson, is that Bacon simply could not draw. "Painting after painting would be marred by his inability to articulate a figure or its space." The critic David Sylvester – who helped cement Bacon's reputation – let him off too lightly for this "fatal flaw", he argues. "His celebrated variants on Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X are either magnificent flukes or near-total disasters. In the earliest of this 10-year series, Bacon famously portrays the pope screaming. He's good at screams but hopeless at hands, so he amputates, conceals, or otherwise fudges them."

Richardson describes his first visit to Bacon's studio in the late 1940s. "Bacon struck me as being exhilaratingly funny … Everything about his vast, vaulted studio was over the top: martinis served in huge Waterford tumblers; a paint-stained garter belt kicked under a sofa … The ramshackle theatricality that permeated the studio also permeated the three iconic mastershockers – scrotum-bellied humanoids screaming out at us from the base of a crucifixion – that were about to make the artist famous."

The sight of Bacon's blind old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, knitting in a corner "came as a surprise". She slept on the kitchen table, and "provided cover for Francis's shoplifting sprees (groceries, cosmetics, and Kiwi shoe polish for his hair)". She also helped provide an unusual source of income for Bacon: when the artist held illicit roulette parties, she would extort huge tips from visitors desperate to go to the loo. According to Richardson: "I remember Francis echoing his nanny: 'They should bring back hanging for buggery.' He was certainly not the only gay Englishman for whom guilt was intrinsic to sex."


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November 14 2009

'Anyone can be Rembrandt'

Since he made his name in the early 90s, Damien Hirst has been less an artist than head of a multinational. In the process, he's earned an absolute fortune, if not critical respect. But why should he care?

Damien Hirst stares into his portrait of a skull. This is the new Damien Hirst – Hirst the solitary painter rather than Hirst the art world's flamboyant marketing magician. He has painted these pictures with his own hands, rather than employed minions to produce work under his name, as he has done in the past. But, he says, this is also the old Hirst. After all, like most artists, he started out painting rather than conceptualising and mass-producing. "I gave up painting by 16," he says. "I secretly thought I would have been Rembrandt by then."

I give him a look. But Rembrandt was a genius?

He shakes his head. "No, I don't believe in genius. I believe in freedom. I think anyone can do it. Anyone can be like Rembrandt."

Hirst is a master of the potty soundbite. I wait for a smile or wink, but it doesn't come. Instead, he gets into his philosophical stride. "Picasso, Michelangelo, possibly, might be verging on genius, but I don't think a painter like Rembrandt is a genius. It's about freedom and guts. It's about looking. It can be learned. That's the great thing about art. Anybody can do it if you just believe. With practice, you can make great paintings."

How far away does Hirst think he is from producing a Rembrandt? "A long way. But then again, there's no need for that sort of thing today." He's got a touch of the Arthur Daleys about him – the chutzpah, the patter, the self-belief.

It's mid-October and Hirst is giving me a guided tour of his upcoming exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London. Being Hirst, it's bound to be controversial. For starters, he's paid £250,000 of his own money to have his work hung here against the same striped blue silk wallpaper beloved by Marie Antoinette. What's more, he's pitting himself against the likes of Rembrandt and Titian hanging in neighbouring rooms. And then there are the paintings themselves. For two years, he has painted alone in his garden shed in Devon. He didn't show them to anybody, didn't think they were any cop, discarded them one by one, until he finally came up with some he liked. But as he leads me round the exhibition, I'm not quite sure how to react. He's  right when he says he's a long way from Rembrandt. Perhaps a little further than he thinks. I say they're spooky – it's the best I can come up with by way of a compliment. At times, they seem more like illustrated CVs than paintings. All the traditional Hirst signifiers are there – skulls and sharks, dots and butterflies, crude nods to his hero Francis Bacon by way of spidery white lines, and the usual references to death and decay. There's certainly no mistaking who these paintings are by.

Hirst has been battling with painting for years. He's always wanted to do it, but could never quite face up to it or get down to it. "The spot paintings and spin paintings were trying to find mechanical ways to make paintings," he says. "And I just got to a point where I thought I can't avoid it any longer." Technically, they might have been paintings, but he felt he wasn't getting down and dirty with his oils and his soul, like a true artist should.

Damien Hirst remains the figurehead of Britart, the movement of British artists whose work was bought and championed by Charles Saatchi in the 90s. In 1992, he first came to prominence at a Young British Artists show at Saatchi's old gallery on Boundary Road in St John's Wood, London. The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Something Living, a shark in formaldehyde in a vitrine, became Britart's signature image.

Hirst was the star of Saatchi's Sensation show at the Royal Academy in 1997, an event that was more of a coronation than an exhibition for the new generation of British artists. Post-Sensation, Hirst and his contemporaries (the Chapman brothers, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, Marc QuinnMarcus Harvey, et al) became the new punk establishment. Britart was bursting with enfants terribles, and Hirst seemed the most terrible of them all. It wasn't simply the pickled cows and sharks; it was the swagger, the swearing, the rock'n'roll attitude. He even wore tinted glasses like Bono. He became as well known for his partying and his pill-popping as he did for his art. Then he discovered cocaine and became even louder. A night out for the Britpack was not really a night out until Hirst had taken down his trousers and waggled his willy in public.

The funny thing is, Hirst was never meant to be the poster boy for the movement. He had always thought of himself as the back-room boy – more an enabler than an artist. In 1988, while a student at Goldsmiths, he curated an exhibition of his contemporaries' work called Freeze. Another irony is that the young Hirst had been rather conventional – not nearly as wild as he wanted to be. He was born into a working-class family and grew up in Leeds. His parents divorced when he was 12, and his mother, Mary, who worked for the Citizens Advice bureau, brought him up with a fierce sense of the right and proper. The true punk at his school was Marcus Harvey, who went on to create the scandal of Sensation with his portrait of the child killer Myra Hindley. Hirst adored Harvey, who was two years older. "I wanted to be like him. He was just mental. He wore a kilt and had a tiny blue Hitler moustache on his chest. I remember being incredibly jealous because my mum would cut up anything I went out in that was bad. She'd just say get back in the house. My mum made Never Mind The Bollocks into a plant pot – she put it on the gas, with a rock in the middle, and it just went whooosh! – because it said bollocks." Today, she lives next door to Hirst and his family in Devon.

He was not an academic boy, only just squeezing into sixth form, where he did two A-levels and ended up with an E in art. He was initially refused entry to Leeds College of Art & Design, but eventually got a place. He was later turned down by St Martins, before studying at Goldsmiths. When he first moved to London, Hirst worked on a building site for two years.

He was 23 when he curated the Goldsmiths show. It featured some of his own work, but his cluster of painted boxes went pretty much unnoticed. In 1991, he got his first solo exhibition – In And Out Of Love featured rooms with live butterflies, hatching, flying and dying, with dead specimens stuck on canvases. From early on, his curating skills were evident in his work – the labelling, the titles, the layout, the display cabinets. To an extent, the presentation was the art.

In the late 90s, he became Britain's own mini-Warhol, embracing celebrity, mass manufacture – and money. No British artist seemed so obsessed by the relationship between money, art and value. For Hirst, concept was all. If he'd had the idea (even if others claimed to have had it before, as they often did), that was enough. He loved the notion that he could attach his name to work he had not laid a finger on, claim it as his own and make millions. It was funny, ludicrous and hugely profitable.

Things reached their apotheosis (or nadir, depending on your perspective) in 2007, with For The Love Of God, a human skull, recreated in platinum and adorned with 8,601 diamonds, that cost an estimated £14m to produce. Again, Hirst's timing was perfect, the symbolism acute – after two decades in which art had become the supreme commodity, money was now also the subject of art. There was nothing left to say. The work sold for an estimated $100m, although it later emerged that the consortium that had bought it included Hirst and his dealer's gallery, White Cube.

Earlier this year, he ditched the gallery system altogether and sold a load of work at a massive Sotheby's auction that raised a reported £111m. He seems to be trying to create a new business model for the art world. Hirst thinks it's about time his dealer, Jay Jopling, was given a tougher ride by artists. "He always said I've got your best interests at heart, but he doesn't really. It's like he's got a harem, and I've got to be monogamous, and you just go, 'Fuck that' after a while." (Hirst has always liked his swear words.)

It was after the diamond skull that Hirst retreated to his shed. And it was after the auction that he realised paintings would be the next thing he exhibited. "The auction was definitely the end of something. A brutal change for me – go out with a bang." He admits, reluctantly, that Britart is a product of Thatcherism, but insists he has no politics and says he has never voted in his life.

Hirst verges on the evangelical when it comes to money. He says that he has spent so long trying to make Sarah Lucas, his favourite contemporary British artist, appreciate the value of money and herself. To no avail. "She'd be like, 'I don't give a fuck, give me what you want' and I'd be like, 'You should sell your work for more' and she'd say, 'I don't care. I'm not interested in all that shit.' I was like Sarah in the beginning, but then I had to give a fuck at some point." He comes to a frustrated stop. "I kind of admire her for it," he adds wistfully.

He was jealous when he found out that Rachel Whiteread's work was selling for £100,000 at a time when his was going for £20,000-£30,000. "I remember telling Jay to put my work up to £100,000. And he said to me, 'But I can sell anything you make' and it dawned on me: 'It's cos you're selling it too fucking cheap.' He said, 'It's going to alienate your collectors' and I said, 'I don't care, just do it.' We didn't look back. When he sold something for £100,000, something changed – you get taken seriously by a whole new group of people and they start buying."

Isn't there a danger that the money becomes all-consuming; that the sole measure of a piece of art is what it sells for? "You just keep an eye on it. Selling out is very different from dealing with cash." What is selling out? "My business manager always says you've got to make sure you're using the cash to chase the art, not the art to chase the cash." Hirst would argue that his diamond skull is an example of cash chasing the art.

Has he ever sold out? "I think I've got very close. There was a point I could have just churned out the spot and spin paintings for ever and laughed all the way to the bank."

Was he taking the mick out of the art market? "No. You can take the piss out of art, but I don't think you can take the piss out of the art market. All markets are serious."

So why did he stop mass-producing? In the end, he says, he found it too depressing – it began reminding him of his own mortality. "With the work I was doing, I couldn't see a route to the end of my life. I was doing these sculptures, and the people who work for me have always stayed the same. Then I thought, as I get older, they're going to get older and fucking older… And then I'd be getting old and have to get young people working for me so they could lift the sculptures."

Also, the paintings were no longer relevant to him. "The spot paintings were all about immortality. They're just a total celebration of when you're twatted, when you're taking drugs, when you're under the table. In that moment, you feel you can live for ever. Then you just get to the point where you think you've got less time in front of you than behind you."

There's a story about the spot paintings, possibly apocryphal, that I love – that Hirst started selling kits to make up the paintings for tens of thousands of pounds. In other words, he was charging people a fortune for painting them themselves. Hirst grins. Of course it's true. It came about when a man said he'd like to buy a spot painting painted directly on to a wall and Hirst asked how he planned to do it. "He said, 'Oh, just make me a certificate and give me some paint and tins. So I went through it in my head and worked it out – the certificate certified ownership of the artwork, the artwork must be painted by an authorised representative and the spots are these dimensions, these colours, and the spot painting can't exist in two places at the same time. I bought my own tins, mixed the colours, put it all in a box, a brush for every tin, so you get 150 tins and 150 brushes, compass, pencil and a certificate."

He must have thought that was funny? He shakes his head. "Every time I had a new idea, I realised it had been done years ago. Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, all the minimalists, they all had certified artworks."

Hirst was recently estimated to be worth £200m. What does he do with all his money? Well, there's his rapidly growing art collection, his many houses, his cars, his office. "I've got a lot of projects, and there's lots for charity as well." Hirst tells me which charities he supports, but he's hardly gushing about it. I can't help sensing he prefers the bad boy image and isn't overly keen to destroy it with heartwarming tales of do-gooding. But a number of his friends tell me of the times he has helped out when they've been in trouble.

He's more likely to tell you about the horrible things he's done. His friends confirm this side to him, too. Although he doesn't reckon he sold out, he did come close to destroying himself with drink and drugs, notably cocaine. He got clean only three years ago, and says for a long time he was insufferable. "The problem is, at the time I thought I was cool, but now I look back and think I was a twat." Shortly before his great friend Joe Strummer died, the musician had had enough of him. "He was going, 'Ignore him. Everybody ignore Damien. He'll go away.' I was just talking spew."

He tells me about a recent conversation with a friend. "I said, 'When I met you, I thought you were really cool' and he went, 'I thought you were a twat.' I went, 'What?!' And he said, 'I thought you were arrogant and stupid and pushy.' Lots of people say that's the impression I give off. I can't quite work out what I do – maybe I just show off – but it always surprises me. I think we're getting on like a house on fire. Maia [Norman, his partner] says it about her friends – they were intimidated by me or I was aggressive or arrogant or they don't like me. 'Who is that twat?' "

And when he was doing drink and drugs, he says, he was hideous. How? He can't remember all the details, so he turns for help to Jude Tyrrell, director of Hirst's company Science Ltd.

Tyrrell: "You were more in your face when you were on the booze and coke."

Hirst: "Yeah, you wanted to give up a few times."

Tyrrell: "No, only once."

Hirst: "Was that the knob out in Dublin?"

Tyrrell: "No, the knob with the chicken bone was fine. It was that girl's 18th birthday party. It was a posh boutique hotel and Damien was there, very drunk and abusive. It was just the kind of thing you don't want to see. Had he continued as he was, I don't think anybody could have stuck around. Also, he would have lost the art. He just wouldn't have been able to do it. He'd be staying up for two or three nights, and I'd have BBC news arrive, and I know how much that costs, and I'd be sending them away because he'd just not turned up."

Why does she think Hirst acted like this? "With everybody else, you think it's because there's shit in their lives. Damien I honestly think did it because he loves life – for purely hedonistic reasons."

And the chicken bone? That's an entirely different matter, says Hirst. "I went to a Malaysian restaurant and I had chicken, and I got a thigh bone from the chicken and kept it in my pocket and back at the hotel I put it in my foreskin, so I had a bone sticking out of the end of my cock."

Tyrell reminds Hirst, aged 44, that he has missed an important detail: "You were in a bar when you were doing it, and this American woman took offence."

Ah, yes, says Hirst, his memory clearing. "She stormed out in disgust, and next day she sued for $100,000. She claimed she'd been traumatised."

That was the last time he exposed himself in public. "I became aware that, in a room full of people and at $100,000 each, it could become very costly. We settled for 8,000 Irish punts."

How did Hirst manage to straighten himself out? "I just got sick of myself." What did his partner, Maia, make of him throughout this period? "We were both battered." She was as bad as him? "Yeah. If we hadn't been, I don't think we'd have stayed together."

Hirst and Maia have three sons. The oldest, Connor, is 14, Cassius is nine and Cyrus four. Hirst worries that their lifestyle affected Connor badly. "He's a bit quieter than the other two, and sometimes I think it's because of that."

We're looking at some white roses on a blue-black background. This is one of his favourite paintings in the exhibition. How important is it to him that the show is well reviewed? "Jay [Jopling] always seems to want to get people to be pleased, but I always say I try to ignore the good press so then I can ignore the bad. If you like the good and try to ignore the bad, you can get fucked up. But you make it for yourself at the end of the day, and that's who you've got to satisfy."

A couple of weeks later, we meet up again at Hirst's London offices, which double up as a beautiful, if unofficial, modern art gallery – a Jeff Koons silver sculpture on the ground floor, Warhol's electric chair upstairs, Hirsts galore. He is wearing different blue-tinted specs (he has some 50 pairs), the customary hoodie and trainers, and is explaining why he wasn't cut out to be a curator. "Dealing with the ego of artists is mental." Who's got the biggest ego among his British peers? "Er, me? You need a big ego to be an artist. I suppose you need a big ego to deal with the shit reviews I've been having for this show."

The Wallace show has received a real mauling; I've rarely read such scathing reviews. The paintings are described as "embarrassing", "shockingly bad", "Francis Bacon meets Adrian Mole", and Hirst labelled "a jumped-up pretender".

Did the reviews surprise him? "Well, I kind of expected them," he says, "but I suppose secretly you do hope they won't be as crap. The worst thing is, I've had phone calls from people who've treated it as a death – phoning up and asking, 'Are you OK?'" He grins. "A couple of the reviews made me laugh. [Guardian critic] Adrian Searle said, 'I failed at painting, too.' I thought that was a cracking line. He rejected me at St Martins."

Has it dented his confidence? "I've had all the confidence dented for two years in the studio, so I've looked at the work and gone through all the doubts and come out the other side. In a way, it was personal and quite aggressive. What got people's backs up most was that I was doing it in the Wallace, in the context of these great artists. But it's early days for me painting. I don't think I've arrived. I don't think I'm as great as they are. These are the first paintings I'm satisfied with… But the Wallace are well happy. The viewing figures are through the roof, sales in the shop are massive."

Some critics have suggested that the exhibition is a joke, that he has deliberately produced bad paintings, knowing that they'll still sell for huge sums. "Maybe it is… who knows? There's an element of that in everything I do. Someone once said to me, 'You could sign a dog shit and sell it' and I said, 'Why would I?' And then you think, if you did, it would be art. Manzoni blew up a balloon and called it Artist's Breath and sold it. And people go, 'Are you taking the piss, or is it for real?'"

He says there's nothing more boring than an artist wanting to be taken seriously, and it's true there is a playfulness to most of Hirst's work, but the bottom line is the paintings are for real; he does want them to be taken seriously. "I didn't think, right, I'm going to make paintings now and I don't give a fuck what they look like because we're going to make loads of money. That's not what they're about. They've got to be good."

Has he learned anything from the reviews? "No. I like what Warhol said: you don't read them, you weigh them." Perhaps he couldn't win, he adds. "It's the hallowed area of painting. The same guys who are saying to me these are shit are the guys who've said you're crap because you can't paint. So you paint and they say you're crap now you're trying to paint."

That's not strictly true. Many of those who were most damning about this show loved his earlier work, particularly the dissected cows and pickled sharks. The concept was so fresh, the lines so clean, the appearance so startling. I ask where he got the ideas from. "School. Even then I was doing that sort of stuff in art with frogs. And there were skulls and pine cones and bits of bone. It was like a nature table with things in formaldehyde. So we'd always draw from that."

He talks about the inspiration for Mother And Child Divided. "It was about my mum and sister, who had fallen out at the time. It was a funny take on that."

But this is all in the past, he says. The future, for him, is painting. He shows me the work that will form his next exhibition, Nothing Matters, opening later this month at the White Cube. There are more skulls and sharks and dots, but the colours are brighter – reds and greens. He's also introduced a few new motifs: deckchairs, windows, splattered crows.

Does he think this show will get better reviews? "I think it'll be another kicking," he says. "It's only a few weeks later and it's similar stuff, so they're just going to say, 'He won't go away!'"

And, he says, they'll be right. "The paintings are going to get better and better and better, and they're not going to go away. There's no way back for me. I've just got to barrel on through. If you want to make it easy for yourself, you can say there's a whole history of great artists who've been slagged off, so you can just embrace that, can't you?"

Hirst tells me he watched a documentary about Francis Bacon the other night. "I loved the way he talked about the Popes. He said they were failed paintings. I loved that. He said he tried to combine the Eisenstein shot of the nanny screaming with the Velásquez painting, and it was a disaster. He said, 'I don't even know why I tried.' I thought what a great thing to say – his greatest paintings, to talk them down like they're shit. That way, no one can slag 'em off." He pauses. "I should have done that."

But Hirst has never been one for regrets, and he chucks a final Warhol quote at me to prove the point. "Warhol said a brilliant thing. He said if anybody slags anything off, make more."

• No Love Lost, Blue Paintings, by Damien Hirst, is showing at the Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London W1 until 24 January 2010. Nothing Matters is at the White Cube, London N1 from 25 November-30 January 2010.


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