genius or imposter? Solo show at villa Borghese in Rome – Veronica Winters Painting

Damien Hirst at villa Borghese in Rome

I revisited the Borghese gallery in Rome in September 2021 and encountered Damien’s solo exhibition titled “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.” It’s a collection of sculptural works from a fictional shipwreck off the coast of East Africa. Walking around the gallery I couldn’t but notice a thoughtful placement of the artist’s pieces in the rooms. Most fit organically into the gallery space that goes overboard with art by design. The powerful Borghese family members were avid art collectors and patrons of the arts. That’s why their exuberant art collection boasts so many masterpieces by the 16th and 17th-century artists like Caravaggio, Bernini and Canova.

Borghese gallery, Damien Hirst, the Minotaur sculpture, Archaeology Now
Borghese gallery 2021, Damien Hirst, the Grecian Nude (left) and the Minotaur (right), black granite, sculpture.

Born in 1965, Damien Hirst is a British contemporary artist who explores the theme of life and death. Because he sees no separation between life and art, this theme becomes his art, which is an amalgam of painting, sculpture and installation. The theme of death is one of the central themes in the Western art world but every artist is able to take it into a different direction…

Damien Hirst Lion Women of Asit Mayor- bronze-2012-borghese gallery-winters blog
Damien Hirst Lion, Women of Asit Mayor, bronze, 2012 at villa Borghese 2021, pictures taken by Veronica Winters

First shown in Venice in 2017, “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” is a show with some merit. Sculptural works utilize traditional and precious materials, such as marble, alabaster, lapis lazuli, coral, crystals, malachite and bronze. Some sculptures breathed with beauty and classicism long forgotten by the contemporary art galleries. It was fun to spot contemporary art by Hirst standing right next to the antiques of the Borghese gallery permanent collection. Some sculptures did give a feeling of rescued objects from the ocean floor as colorful barnacles and sea creatures covered the surface of many sculptures. Some body limbs were missing or got obscured by the sea overgrowth.

damien hirst_unknown pharaoh-borghese g-veronica winters blog
Damien Hirst, Unknown Pharaoh at villa Borghese. This is one of my favorite pieces seen at the gallery. There is a beautiful balance between materials, color and the form. This sculpture gives a feeling of a real piece saved from a shipwreck.

While most of it fit well within the space, the sculptures were strikingly different in the level of execution. It prompted a question who really made these works and how much of it was Hirst’s skill and vision. Some were very classical in nature, while others looked like the leftovers from modernism. Some artworks were beautiful and engaging, while others looked strange and too primitive to be called ‘art’ especially in comparison to the art collection of the Borghese family.

borghese gallery-sculpture of hirst
Bronze sculpture of Hirst at the villa Borghese in 2021, This sculpture looks grotesque lacking ethereal beauty of classical art.

How original is Damien Hirst?

Hirst is the all-over-the-place artist, in my opinion. He produced a variety of art that would be frowned upon in any graduate school where consistency of theme, size, and approach is encouraged and basically required to graduate. And this is where the rules get broken… The artist rose to fame with a number of controversial art pieces. The notorious diamond scull, beautiful entomology paintings, sharks in formaldehyde, pill cabinets, dot paintings, neoclassical sculptures, installations and so much more – everything made by Hirst or may be not.

I think it’s ok to evolve and transition into new art forms or body of works over the years as we-artists experience change and so art changes with us. However, Hirst seems to drift from one idea to the next that doesn’t have a clear connection to his previous work in either technique or vision. Usually we can see one work by the artist and recognize the “style” in subsequent works even if it’s quite different. Hirst puzzled me in this regard because his series of paintings or sculptures had no connection to each other.

Art by Damien Hirst

Art Workshop

The exhibit made me think of a Renaissance workshop. Workshops used to be the only way of learning and training young artists in the Renaissance Italy. That’s how da Vinci painted his first angel in the Verrocchio’s painting (The Baptism of Christ, 1475, Uffizi gallery, Florence). Vision and ideas were of the master artists who painted major figures and finished paintings. Master artists worked on image designs, composition, color and so on while art students mixed paints, helped with image transferal and some underpainting. Based on presented sculptures I saw at the villa Borghese, the Damien Hirst workshop functions quite differently. The apprentices seem to be the creators.

damien hirst_Pair of Slaves Bound for Execution-painted bronze sculpture-borghese g
Damien Hirst, Pair of Slaves Bound for Execution, painted bronze sculpture at the villa Borghese

His workshop may produce all the art with some apprentices (artists) being very skillful at their task. That explains great inconsistency and variety of produced art by Damien Hirst. Painted bronze sculpture “Pair of Slaves Bound for Execution” was the most exceptional, contemporary art piece I’ve seen in a long time, showing balance, grace, and the perfection of anatomy – central to classical art. “Unknown Pharaoh” is one of my favorite pieces. There is a beautiful balance between materials, color and form. This sculpture gives a feeling of a real piece saved from a shipwreck. While another sculpture with a giant foot, squirrel and ear looks immature. The standing bronze figure of Hirst appears grotesque to me as well.

Damien Hirst-Archaeology Now at the Galleria Borghese-installation view
Damien Hirst, Archaeology Now at the Galleria Borghese-installation view (giant foot with a squirrel)

Are workshop artists mere laborers or the creators on their own right? Based on the produced and shown art at the villa Borghese, Hirst created a factory of talented artists who do all the work but marketing. And in this case it looks like marketing is everything really. Remove the name from any of these works and they won’t be fetching top dollar for art.

Now, many famous contemporary artists keep workshops. We can explore the workshops of contemporary realist artist Kehinde Wiley or the glass blower Chihuly. You can find their art pieces in many permanent, museum art collections, private art collections, hotel lobbies and so on. The key difference is that these artists are true to their unique vision and every piece feels like a continuation of the artist’s previous work. Apprentices in their workshops are the helpers, not sole creators of art. That’s my opinion of course, you may not agree with.

Damien Hirst, sculpture of a shell displayed at the villa Borghese in 2021

There is no doubt that Damien Hirst is a very smart artist. He is also a great publicity guru. He created and marketed himself as a top luxury brand for the wealthy to invest in. There is a lot to either admire or learn from this living artist.
What do you think of his art? Share this article on social media.

Damien Hirst, Hydra and Kali, outdoor sculpture, Borghese gallery-veronica winters blog
Damien Hirst, Hydra and Kali, sculpture displayed outdoors at the Borghese gallery
damien hirst_neptune-borghese g-veronica winters blog
Damien Hirst, Neptune, 2011 at villa Borghese

Learn more: https://damienhirst.com/

This blog is created for educational purposes with the art credited to the sited artists. All pictures are taken by Veronica Winters. The article expresses personal opinion only.

Damien Hirst sculptures at villa Borghese
Damien Hirst sculptures at the villa Borghese in Rome in 2021

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