Jun 2012 Journal

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Art notes (review)

Almost as many column inches have been spent on him as the insect life he has squandered in his quest for celebrity. I am talking about Damien Hirst. His latest fantasia of conceptualism at Tate Modern is about death staring you in the face. Dead cows and calves, splintered down the middle to reveal their sanitised innards. Butterflies flowering in their beauty only to flutter and die on the floor, or trapped in a virtual stained-glass window formed by their bodies. Maggots escaping from a rotting, bloody cow’s head. A million flies turned into a deathly-black mandala on the wall.

Hirst has many detractors. Brian Sewell wrote in the Evening Standard three blistering pages of criticism. Others have pleaded vainly in the cause of animal and insect rights. Is there anything left to say?

Yes. Because Hirst poses the question: is it art or nihilism? The splayed mother and calf or the shark in formaldehyde are touched by the cold hand of death. Nothing here breathes. And that suggests that neither the beauty nor the pathos of art is relevant -burned out like the cigarette butts you passively inhale from Hirst’s massive white ashtray. It implies that the richness of our artistic inheritance, from the Byzantine to the Baroque, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, from Expressionism to post-Modernism, has drifted away like smoke through our fingers. Conceptual art cannot be criticised because it is in the head - perhaps better it stays there.

Of course Hirst the businessman may be laughing all the way to the bank with his diamantine wallpaper, his gleaming, bejewelled skulls, his sculptures exposing organs (derived from the artist Gunther von Hagens, who flayed and plasticised dead bodies). In the midst of recession, war, Euro-mania and unemployment, he is throwing his wealth and his anarchism in our faces.

Great artists may portray death, but they usually hint at the meaning of life and its ultimate ending, whether they describe the Crucifixion or the Holocaust. Hirst’s subject matter, and his vast apothecary of coloured bottles, suggest we cling to immortality, but that everything dies. We know that. But art should celebrate life.

There is something to celebrate in the Ben Uri’s successful Josef Herman exhibition moving to Bristol’s Royal West of England Academy for the artist’s centenary.
Josef Herman: Warsaw, Brussels, Glasgow, London, 1938-44 examines the six years in which the artist fled across these cities leaving his indelible mark. We see his experimental period and his brilliant colours in oil, gouache and tempera, including works on paper from his series Memories of Memories. The Expressionist artist paints his many losses - loss of his family in the Warsaw Ghetto, loss of religion – but there are also gains: those of political awareness and a dark, mystical sense of his connection to the common man. The intense muscularity of The Cobbler (My Father), the anguish of Warsaw and the plaintive portrayal of his grandmother in heavy sepia tint - hinting at her grace and power - were the crucible in which his gifts were honed and solidified. Herman’s remembered childhood is a dream-like procession of people, of animals ‘radiant with an inner light’.

Gloria Tessler

previous article:AJR representatives at Buckingham Palace for Diamond Jubilee celebrations
next article:On the side of the underdog: From Kindertransport child to renowned DDR writer (review)