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30 November 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 4:07am

Damien Hirst’s memento mori

The enfant terrible picks up his brushes

By Anna Maria Di Brina

On a dark road, a man meets a sinister figure who warns him to turn back, because “things get very serious if you carry on down this road”. This is Damien Hirst explaining to the late Gordon Burn the meaning behind Turn Away from Me, which is included in his new exhibition “Nothing Matters” at White Cube. A feebly painted ghost raises its hand, which appears to float out from the grim darkness of the background. Hirst portrays his close friend Angus Fairhurst, like Hirst a “Young British Artist”, who took his own life in the Scottish Highlands last year. It is a moving image, thick with the fear of death and haunting in its warning from the next world.

This show marks a big shift in Hirst’s career. The enfant terrible of the YBAs has left behind animals preserved in formaldehyde in favour of good old-fashioned paint. He is taking a risk, but knows he can trade on his celebrity. In an explicit homage to Francis Bacon, Hirst has produced a series of gloomy, large-scale triptychs in which a number of recurring motifs — flies, ashtrays, skulls — function as memento mori, or intimations of mortality. He takes much of his symbolism from Old Masters: crows, empty chairs, skulls, knives and so on.

But, for all Hirst’s debts to tradition, these paintings lack poetry and finesse of execution. Compare them, for example, with some of the most poignant renderings of birds ever done, by the French etcher Félix Bracquemond, and you’ll know what I mean. There is something gross and raw about the roughness of the paint slashes with which Hirst creates his bloody effects.

There is also something unsatisfying about the so-called blue paintings on show concurrently at the Wallace Collection. In one or two canvasses, phantasmagorical shapes give the viewer the shivers, but for the most part I agree with Tom Lubbock, who, writing in the Independent, concluded that “they’re extremely boring”.

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