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August 17 2012

Leonardo's womb, gold postboxes and crazy golf – the week in art

Da Vinci's anatomy drawings make the must-see show of the year. Plus, guerrilla gold postbox painters and battling Hitler at crazy golf in Blackpool – all in your weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist

These are the greatest drawings in the world and this is the most important exhibition of the year, so try to see it. They include Leonardo da Vinci's moving depiction of a foetus in the womb, among many awe-inspiring studies of the human interior. Leonardo's apparently scientifically rigorous study of the womb contains a bizarre mistake: it is modelled on a cow's womb. This is not just because at the time he made this drawing Leonardo had no access to human dissection; it is also because he believed so strongly that human anatomy must be similar to that of other animals. He recognised, like a true scientist, that we too are animals – an outrageous notion in the early 1500s. Leonardo did get to do a series of brilliant dissections of people who had died at a hospital in Florence. Today, that hospital – Santa Maria Nuova – is still a busy city infirmary. You can go and watch ambulances arriving and ponder the mystery of human life, so fragile and beautiful, that Leonardo captures in these drawings.
The Queen's Gallery, London SW1A 1AA until 7 October

Other exhibitions this week

Picasso's Vollard Suite
These sensuous prints burst with life and imagination and are among Picasso's greatest works.
British Museum, London WC1 until 2 September

Adventureland Golf
Jake and Dinos Chapman, David Shrigley and others reinvent the seaside pastime of crazy golf.
Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool until 6 October

Olympic and Paralympic Posters
There are some fine posters here by , Chris Ofili and others.
Tate Britain, London SW1 until 23 September

Simon Patterson
Last chance for a memorable exploration of the strangeness of statues.
Haunch of Venison, London W1 until 31 August

Masterpiece of the week

Unknown artist, A Dead Soldier
This eerie painting of a man dead, his body lit by an oil lamp, has the realism of a Caravaggio but is not by him. No one knows who painted this disconcertingly modern work of art. In the 19th century, it fascinated Edouard Manet, who was inspired by it to paint a picture of a dead toreador. As Manet recognised, this is a raw, blunt and unredemptive portrayal of the cold fact of death. Not only is the artist anonymous: so is the unknown soldier whose passing is remembered here forever.
National Gallery, London WC2

Image of the week

What we learned this week

How John Minihan celebrated snapping Samuel Beckett

That psychics have taken over the live art space at London's Tate Tanks

What your timeline of top artworks looks like

That gold postboxes were the surprise illegal street art of the Olympics

What upcoming photography shows you should put straight in the diary

And finally...

There's still time to share your art about sport now. Reflect on the Olympics, or look forward to the Paralympics

Post your personal images of London on the Guardian Art and Design Flickr

Check out our Tumblr

And our Twitter


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August 15 2012

Crazy golftime for Hitler

A model of Hitler on a crazy golf course at Grundy Art Gallery has been called 'tasteless' by a Jewish organisation. But shouldn't artists have the right to offend?

Hitler golf? Now that's what I call crazy. An exhibition called Adventureland Golf that has just opened at the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool (where else?) features crazy golf course obstacles created by artists who include David Shrigley, Gary Webb, and Jake and Dinos Chapman.

Can you guess which of them is responsible for a lifelike statue of Hitler's head and torso, its arm poised to rise in a Nazi salute every time the ball goes through a hole between its legs?

Take a bow, Chapmans. Or give a salute, whatever.

In a bit of national publicity that must be welcome to any exhibition opening in the middle of August, Michael Samuels of the Board of Deputies of British Jews has condemned the Chapman brothers' piece, calling it "tasteless" and declaring that it has "absolutely no artistic value whatsoever".

Is it worth him making those comments? What has been gained by them? The exhibition is in the news as a result. The Hitler artwork will be seen by many more people than would otherwise have attended the Grundy. Surely this is an object lesson in how not to criticise art you find offensive.

Artists have the right to offend. We do not have the right, as citizens, to be free from every image that upsets, shocks, or even disgusts us. To call this crazy golf representation of Adolf Hitler "tasteless" is a bit like calling the Colossus of Rhodes "colossal". Does anyone think the artists were trying to be anything other than tasteless?

I only hope Mr Samuels is never exposed to the Chapmans' much more ambitious (and famous) work Hell, which features thousands of melted, melded and otherwise abused toy Nazis enacting an apocalyptic vision of torture and death.

But when does an image of Hitler become offensive? Hitler as a crazy golf statue apparently offends. But what about Basil Fawlty doing his funny walk, Mel Brooks's Hitler musical in The Producers, or the bizarrely characterful portrayal of Hitler in the film Downfall?

Why should the Blackpool Hitler be seen as an outrage too far, when this vicious mass murderer is such a familiar, even comic image in our culture?

The trouble seems to lie in our belief that statues are honorific. To make a statue of someone, even as a proposal for an imaginary crazy golf course, is – we assume – to praise and ennoble them. That's why statues get toppled in revolutions and wars. The exhibition in Blackpool also includes an image of dictator Saddam Hussein. Is that praising him?

Does the crazy-golf Hitler have artistic value? As an exercise in causing offence, it is apparently quite effective. That may not be the highest artistic achievement, but it's not bad for mid-August.


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March 18 2012

Secrets of the studio

In pictures: For a groundbreaking book, 120 of Britain's most celebrated and emerging talents have granted rare access to their work spaces



July 14 2011

Wind-up merchants: Jake or Dinos Chapman

White Cube, London

Jake and Dinos Chapman's new show in both White Cube's London spaces is a world divided. Their art is always riven by something. If there's a gimmick it is that the brothers have been making work independently and in secret from one another – one show is Jake's, the other is by Dinos. Exactly how true this is we shall never know: the Chapmans are wind-up artists, in the best sense, and like many siblings the people they wind up the most are one other.

What unites them is that it is all in the worst possible taste. Things start decorously enough in the Mason's Yard gallery, in the West End, with lots of semi-abstract sculptures on plinths, small confections of corrugated cardboard, empty loo rolls and packaging. Some look like dinosaurs. There are phallic extrusions and portentous cavities, heads and houses and the sorts of things tutors once drooled over on the Saint Martins sculpture course, when there was one.

These small, cobbled-together objects are also knockabout takes on modernist sculpture – think Picasso bricolages, think 1960s heavy-metal abstracts in steel by the likes of Anthony Caro or William Tucker, but writ small and frangible and painted with the slapdash enthusiasm of a talented four-year-old. They're articulate and have a great lightness of touch.

More of these sculptures are in the big basement space, some beefed-up to the scale and material weight of plaza-dominating behemoths, big, black, and weighing tonnes.

The gag here is that the works have an audience of life-sized, ghoulish Nazis, immaculate in Waffen SS uniforms, with their death's head emblems and their daggers, but with smiley faces replacing their arm-band swastikas. They stand about, savouring the art like so many sophisticated high-ranking officers at the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition.

Hate the politics, love the uniform. The mannequin spectators are black-fleshed ghouls with worryingly flayed, pop-eyed heads. They peer and grimace at the art. They casually shag one another, they get spattered with the incontinent droppings from the birds roosting atop the sculptures – taking Maurizio Cattelan's flocks of pigeons at the current Venice Biennale one step further.

On one sculpture, a robin attempts congress with a woodpecker. Both birds are stuffed – there are some things nature abhors even more than taxidermy. The Nazis were tough on miscegeny too.

What would have happened to the history of modern art if the Nazis had backed the kind of art they affected to despise – radical modernism, Bauhaus rationalism, expressionism, abstraction and other freethinking footlings? Maybe these sleekly dressed thugs in fascist fetish-gear aren't so different from the rich collectors who buy from commercial galleries nowadays.

As Jeremy Deller once said, art fairs are great places to meet international arms dealers; and knocks at Picasso's studio door during the Occupation often came from admiring Wehrmacht officers, gagging for an audience with the great artist.

More weirdly, there's a genuine Breughel on the wall (by which Breughel I'm not sure). It signals a history of perversity in art, a perennial fascination with barbarity and horror that the Chapmans are happy to perpetuate.

Perversity and blasphemy continue at White Cube in Hoxton Square. A group of mannequin schoolgirls with animal faces, duck-bills and elephant trunks, look at the paintings.

The paintings themselves are brown and brushy, and have some sort of basis in children's colouring books. Pink bunnies, blobs, half-visible couplings, and other adult goings-on swim in the paint.

More worrying are the religious kitsch paintings and Catholic-tat plaster sculptures, which decorate an installation that's like some sort of dismal, Father Ted vestry. Baby Jesus has octopus tentacles squirming from his mouth, there are horror-movie Madonnas, saints with rotting faces, and reworked, junk-shop religious paintings, inscribed LOL (Laugh Out Loud) and LMFAO (I'll leave that one for readers to work out).

I've seen more shocking things in Spanish seminary collections. The boys aren't bothered by blasphemy: "We're Greek Orthodox," Dinos Chapman shrugged.

So who did what? On my visits Jake was among the Nazis at White Cube's Mason's Yard gallery, Dinos in Hoxton with the kiddies and the religious art, looking upset that someone had just egg-bombed his car. Maybe it was Jake, in a fit of artistic jealousy and brotherly pique.

Rating: 3/5


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August 27 2010

Colouring competition: the winners

We were overwhelmed with entries for our G2 kids colouring competition. Here are the winners, as chosen by Jake and Dinos Chapman



August 03 2010

The brothers grim

Famous for their twisted sculptures and visions of hell, the Chapmans are now creating art for children. Stuart Jeffries visits their studio to talk innocence, Freud and fairytales

Kids' competition: colour in a Jake and Dinos Chapman drawing

Jake Chapman is checking the proofs for his and his brother Dinos's new colouring book for children. They are spread out on a pool table in their factory-sized studio on an east London industrial estate. I can guess what many of you are thinking: why are those crazy artists who stuck erect penises on child mannequins, who produced a tragicomic life-size sculpture of a cloning disaster consisting of a four-legged 12-child-headed monster, unleashing themselves on this most innocent of literary sub-genres? What kind of sick, degraded stuff will go into it? And, more to the point, how do I get a copy?

One image that Jake Chapman is looking at depicts a sweet, grinning boy sporting a helmet made from a folded newspaper and waving a homemade wooden sword. It's the very image of the kind of wholesome, Enid Blytonesque activity that parents hope their children will be engaged in during the summer holidays but, let's be honest, probably aren't. Of course, there's a twist. The cartoon of the boy is underlaid by another drawing in the style of Philip Guston. This shows an arm holding a long serrated blade that seems to stab through the boy's grinning face into another body, spurting blood over the back of the boy's head. Nothing like this appeared amid the bonnets and bunnies of my four-year-old's Tesco Easter colouring book. Which, to my mind, is a shame.

"I think that works pretty well," says Chapman. (Dinos did not want to be interviewed, and, it later turns out, is busy colouring in the final artwork for this week's opening of their Whitechapel Gallery show.) Aren't these images too disturbing for children? "Nope: there's nothing we've done here that can rival the darkness of the imaginations of children. They aren't the innocents that adults want them to be."

Around Chapman flit assistants who are painstakingly reconstructing Hell, the art work that was destroyed in the 2004 Momart warehouse fire. It consisted of nine glass cases arranged in the shape of a swastika, each filled with miniature toy figures. In the Chapmans' reconstructed Hell, cloned Hitlers roll unstoppably from conveyer belts, war atrocities recur, the horror never stops. Jake Chapman must suppose children have very dark imaginations if they can trump what he and Dinos have concocted in this factory of nightmares.

If you go down to the Whitechapel in London on Saturday, you'll be sure to see some of the drawings deemed too grisly to go into the colouring book. This weekend, the gallery launches an exhibition of Chapman etchings called Gigantic Fun. In one, a cartoon depiction of a little boy's head surrounded by dainty butterflies is subverted by an underdrawing of a rotating torture machine in the shape of a swastika, to which victims are attached by ropes and dragged around. In another, a darling little monkey holding a balloon is flanked by a diabolical skeleton with massively oversized and hairy testicles, blood dripping from its ghastly antennae.

These are typical Chapman subversions, art gambits akin to Fuck Face (1994), their toddler mannequin with a penis for a nose and an anus for a mouth, or their 2008 suite of portrait paintings, One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved, in which the brothers deformed anonymous aristocratic portraits from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Over the years, children have been prevented from seeing some of these gleeful grotesques, the Chapmans' art hidden behind screens to protect the innocents. "I remember the melodramatic warnings at the Sensation exhibition [the Royal Academy's 1997 show of Young British Artists], that our work should only be seen by the over-18s," Jake says ruefully. He's not saying, so far as I can tell, that children should have been allowed to see Fuck Face, rather that the signage verged on the histrionic. In this latest exhibition, children will be positively encouraged to see the brothers' lurid etchings.

The brothers will also be running drawing and poetry workshops. "Another idea we had is a colouring competition, where the winner would have me and Dinos come round and read them a bedtime story." What would they read? Quite possibly something from their soon-to-be published collection of reworked fairytales, entitled Bedtime Tales for Sleepless Nights. It's a book that begins:

"Sticks and stones

Shall break thy bones

And words will

Surely hurt you

Eyeball and teeth

Shall be wrenched by grief

As nightfall comes

To shroud you."

Reading this, I burst out laughing at the thought of two strange men sitting on my daughter's bed at dusk reading such risibly ghoulish stuff. What would the second prize be? Two bedtime stories from Jake and Dinos, at a guess.

Children who visit the gallery will get some protection from the Chapmans' more grotesque imaginings. "We're scatter-hanging the gallery," explains curator Selina Levinson, "so we can put the most upsetting images higher up." How does Jake feel about this cunning if sanitising hang? "In this case we have been relaxed about it. We have to be respectful of [the gallery's] thoughts about what the public and the trustees will find acceptable."

This is their first show for children. "We've long been misunderstood as 'children's artists' when we're nothing of the kind. Because there are representations of children, or childish figurations in our work, it's assumed our work is for children. But we're not really interested in children per se," Jake explains over tea in his studio's first-floor kitchen, which overlooks the building site for the 2012 Olympic Games. Across the hall, there is a display of sculptures the brothers created last year, when they posed as Yuri and Konstantin Shamanov, two underground Moscow artists who claimed to have created a new art movement called Chameleon. Beyond this is the Chapmans' replica of Tracey Emin's tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1965 (the original also burned in the Momart fire).

"Our interest is in what adults do to children and the image of innocence they project on to them," Jake continues. "Our thought about children is that they're pretty much psychotic, and that through sweets and other forms of coercion they are civilised." Spoken, I say, like a father. "Like a father of three," he says. (Dinos has two daughters.)Would Jake be happy for his kids, aged between three and 11, to see the show? "Of course. There are definitely things I wouldn't want them to see, and which I will protect them from seeing. But the things we've imagined in our art are anaemic compared with what kids imagine. I know it was a long time ago that we were kids [Jake was born in 1962, Dinos in 1966], but we were never innocents, were we?"

This question goes to the heart of their art, and explains a lot about those cuddly images of children and cutesy animals. The adult insistence that children are innocents corrupted by civilisation is a presumption the brothers want to subvert. "It's a will to believe, as Nietzsche would have put it. You can see it in Picasso, where he has this idea of getting rid of nasty adult instincts and seeing like a child. We don't believe in the idea of innocence, in the same way we don't believe in beauty in art. Celine [the French writer] said beauty is for poodles. He was right."

Jake cites Freud's Civilisation and Its Discontents. "Freud wrote that primary instincts are driven out of children for the sake of secondary gains. I may want to kill someone who is in my way on a bus, but it's better to ask them politely to move aside. Politeness gives me a secondary gain. That's what civilisation is like." So, in his art, is he trying to point out that beneath the veneer of civilisation we're all seething ids and repressed psychotics? "I don't think artists can do anything. An artist can only add shit to shit. Dinos once said, 'Our art is potty-training for adults.' He got that about right." The Chapman brothers are trying to help grown-ups be more civilised? "We're not here to help," he giggles. "We certainly don't care about moral instruction. Our interest in morality is not in being moralists, but in how morality works as a functional pacifier."

It's just this kind of pronouncement that has driven previous inteviewers (Lynn Barber, Johann Hari) nuts, prompting them to denounce the Chapmans brothers as pretentious, anti-Enlightenment artists who wallow in our irrationality and baseness, who merely add shit to shit. "Well, we're not anti-Enlightenment," counters Jake when I put this to him. "We're all part of the Enlightenment, in the sense that we're on a burning Concorde and we can't get off. But we're very suspicious of this idea of progress and of reason."

The Chapmans' favourite artist, Francisco Goya, once produced an etching called The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. "That phrase has long been held to show that Goya was a supporter of Enlightenment rationality and the progress of reason. But I prefer the version of that phrase by Deleuze [the French philosopher]. He said it was insomniac rationality that produces monsters. The Enlightenment has made a fetish of reason. Goya didn't and we don't."

The Chapmans have spent years reworking Goya's most disturbing images; they even bought a set of his prints only to deface them. "Like us, Goya had a heretical approach to the body," Jake explains. He cites one of the most upsetting prints from Goya's series The Disasters of War, created between 1810 and 1820, a work entitled A Heroic Feat! With Dead Men!, in which three hideously butchered corpses hang from a tree. It's a work the brothers recreated in three dimensions, in their 1993 work of the same title. Why does it resonate for them? "When Goya put three mutilated bodies in a tree, it was read as echoing Christ's crucifixion, suggesting that some kind of redemption is possible. But you can see it another way. Goya is being quite cruel about Christian redemption, shifting the Christian iconography to show there's nothing beyond. That what you're looking at is dead bodies. There is nothing to be optimistic about. It's just aestheticised dead flesh. He looks to be giving a moral demonstration, but he's not."

Are the Chapmans being similarly cruel when they make images of seemingly innocent children and then inflict their grotesque subversions, as in the new Giant Fun series? Jake readily agrees with this. "The only thing I would say is that we don't set out to be cruel. We're into the old-fashioned notion of art being beyond our control. We set out to do something, and in the process of creation the unconscious intervenes and takes what you're doing in a different direction. If our work is critical and challenging, that's not because it is the result of a scientific order. The most appropriate response to our work is to say that it adds to the chaos."

Later, when I get back home, I find myself leafing through a catalogue of Goya's paintings. A piece of paper falls out. It is a photocopy of an 18-year-old Guardian article by the playwright Howard Barker, in which he wrote about being inspired by Goya's grinning self-portrait (itself a deranging image); he wrote a libretto for a piece of music theatre called Terrible Mouth. Everything Barker says about Goya applies to the Chapmans: "Goya, and the makers of all great artistic experience, is as untrustworthy as his self-portrait suggests, a man as much fascinated as repelled by disorder and sudden death," he writes.

This, surely, is a good description of the Chapmans at their best: untrustworthy, fascinated by disorder and sudden death, never deigning to help the rest of us keep our imaginations clean. The Chapmans have long been the enfants terribles of the art world; their latest work is more likely to scare the grown ups than their children.

Jake and Dinos Chapman's Children's Art Commission is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, from Saturday until 31 October. Details: www.whitechapelgallery.org


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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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