Life and Work of Damien Hirst, Controversial British Artist

Damien Hirst Unveils Major New Work
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Damien Hirst (born June 7, 1965) is a controversial contemporary British artist. He is the best-known member of the Young British Artists, a group that shook up the U.K.'s art scene in the 1990s. Some of Hirst's most famous works feature dead animals preserved in formaldehyde.

Fast Facts: Damien Hirst

  • Occupation: Artist
  • Known For: Key member of the Young British Artists and the creator of controversial, sometimes shocking artwork.
  • Born: June 7, 1965 in Bristol, England
  • Education: Goldsmiths, University of London
  • Selected Works: "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" (1992), "For the Love of God" (2007)
  • Notable Quote: "I was taught to confront things you can't avoid. Death is one of those things."

Early Life and Career

Damien Hirst (born Damien Steven Brennan) was born in Bristol and grew up in Leeds, England. His mother later described him as a morbid child, interested in grisly and gruesome images of disease and injury. These subjects would later inform some of the artist's iconic works.

Hirst had several run-ins with the law, including two arrests for shoplifting. He failed numerous other academic subjects, but he succeeded in art and drawing. Damien attended the Jacob Kramer School of Art in Leeds, and in the late 1980s, he studied art at Goldsmiths, University of London.

In 1988, in his second year at Goldsmith, Damien Hirst organized an independent student exhibition titled Freeze in an empty London Port Authority building. It was the first significant event organized by a group that would become known as the Young British Artists. The final version of the exhibition included two of Hirst's iconic spot paintings: multicolored spots on white or near-white backgrounds painted by hand with glossy house paint.

International Success

Damien Hirst's first solo exhibition, In and Out of Love, took place in an empty shop on Woodstock Street in central London in 1991. During that year, he met the Iraqi-British businessman Charles Saatchi, who became a primary patron.

Saatchi offered to fund any art that Hirst wanted to create. The result was a work titled "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living." It consisted of a shark preserved in formaldehyde inside in a tank. The piece was part of one of the first Young British Artists exhibitions at the Saatchi Gallery in 1992. As a result of the media attention surrounding the piece, Hirst earned a nomination for the U.K.'s Turner Prize for distinguished young artists, but he lost to Grenville Davey.

In 1993, Hirst's first major international work at the Venice Biennale was titled "Mother and Child Divided." The work included a cow and a calf cut into sections and exhibited in separate tanks. The next year, Hirst exhibited a similar piece: "Away from the Flock," which featured a sheep preserved in formaldehyde. During the exhibition, the artist Mark Bridger entered the gallery and poured black ink into the tank, then offered a new title for the work: "Black Sheep." Bridger was prosecuted, but at Hirst's request, his sentence was light: two years of probation.

In 1995, Damien Hirst won the Turner Prize. In the latter half of the decade, he presented solo shows in Seoul, London, and Salzburg. He also branched out into directing music videos and short films, and he formed the band Fat Les with actor Keith Allen and Alex James of the rock group Blur. By the end of the decade, the Young British Artists, including Hirst, were seen as a key part of the mainstream art scene in the U.K.

Later Career

On September 10, 2002, the day before the one-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center terrorist attacks in New York City, Hirst released a statement describing the attacks as "kind of like an artwork in its own right." The outrage was quick and severe. A week later, he issued a public apology.

After meeting Joe Strummer of the band The Clash in 1995, Damien Hirst became good friends with the guitarist. In late 2002, Strummer died of a heart attack. Hirst stated it had a powerful effect: "It was the first time I felt mortal."

In March 2005, Hirst exhibited 30 paintings at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. They took over three years to complete and were based on photos taken mostly by assistants but finished by Hirst. In 2006, he introduced the work: "A Thousand Years (1990)." It contains a life cycle of maggots hatching inside a box, turning into flies, and feeding on a bloody, severed cow's head in a glass display case. The case included buzzing live flies, many of which were electrocuted in a device designed to ward off insects. The famed artist Francis Bacon praised "A Thousand Years (1990)" in a letter to a friend a month before he died.

In 2007, Hirst presented the piece "For the Love of God," a human skull copied in platinum and studded with over 8,600 diamonds. The only part of the original skull included are the teeth. The price for the work was $100,000,000. No one bought it at the original exhibition, but a consortium that included Hirst himself purchased it in August 2008.

Praise and Criticism

Damien Hirst has earned praise for drumming up new interest in the arts through his celebrity persona and sense of the dramatic. He helped bring the British art scene back to prominence internationally.

His supporters, including his benefactor Saatchi and many other noted artists, say that Hirst is a showman, but that getting the attention of the public is essential. He is sometimes mentioned in the company of 20th-century masters like Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock.

However, detractors question whether there is anything artistic about dead, preserved animals. Brian Sewell, an Evening Standard art critic, said that Hirst's art "is no more interesting than a stuffed pike over a pub door."

A 2009 Hirst show titled No Love Lost, which featured his paintings, received almost universal criticism. His efforts were described as "shockingly bad."

Plagiarism Controversy

In 2000, designer Norman Emms sued Damien Hirst over the sculpture "Hymn," which was a reproduction of the Young Scientist Anatomy Set, designed by Emms and manufactured by Humbrol. Hirst paid an out-of-court settlement to two charities and Emms.

In 2007, artist John LeKay, a former friend of Hirst, claimed that the inspiration for many of Hirst's works came from the Carolina Biological Supply Company catalog. He also claimed that the diamond-encrusted skull titled "For the Love of God" was inspired by LeKay's own crystal skull work in 1993.

In response to a number of other claims of copyright infringement or outright plagiarism, Hirst said, "As a human being, as you go through life, you just do collect."

Personal Life

Between 1992 and 2012, Hirst lived with his girlfriend, Maia Norman. They have three sons: Connor Ojala, Cassius Atticus, and Cyrus Joe. Hirst is known to spend much of his private time at a farmhouse in Devon, England. He also owns a large compound in Mexico where multiple artists help carry out his projects at his art studio.


  • Gallagher, Ann. Damien Hirst. Tate, 2012.
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Lamb, Bill. "Life and Work of Damien Hirst, Controversial British Artist." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, Lamb, Bill. (2021, February 17). Life and Work of Damien Hirst, Controversial British Artist. Retrieved from Lamb, Bill. "Life and Work of Damien Hirst, Controversial British Artist." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).