‘A photograph is from a moment. Painting is about stopping to look at the world, considering it, and giving it more importance’
(D. Hirst, quoted in ‘Epiphany: A Conversation with Damien Hirst’, in H-U. Obrist, End of an Era, London 2012, unpaged).
Standing over a metre tall, Damien Hirst’s Skull with Knives, 2005, is a high precision, photorealist work from the artist’s Fact Painting series. With its clean, almost clinical detail and elegant palette of blue and white, the painting obscures the true nature of its dark subject matter. Beneath the enticing façade of its impeccable composition lies the visceral reality of the razor sharp knife against a cold metal surface, and the deathly presence of the skull, itself an iconic motif within Hirst’s oeuvre. Having engaged with the rhetoric of conceptual and minimalist art for over two decades, in works such as Skull with Knives we see Hirst returning to painting as a means to continue his ongoing investigation into the universal themes of life, death, medicine and religion.
Evoking a range of references from the traditions of art history, Hirst’s skull acts as a modern day momento mori. Skull with Knives is in many ways a contemporary iteration of the Baroque vanitas, replete with symbolic reminders of life’s transcience. The traditional scholars’ table from the Baroque vanitas is replaced by the hard aluminium surface, while the historic metaphors for the fragilty of life, such an hourglass or fruit, are exchanged for sharper modern day objects, including knives and metal hooks. While the Baroque momento mori may have softened the notion of death, Hirst’s immaculate realism exposes mortality, providing it with a direct physcial presence that reasonates with his bisected Natural History works.
Executed the same year as the birth of his third son, Syrus, Skull with Knives forms part of the artist’s investigation into the role of painting within contemporary image-making. During this time Hirst reproduced several of his own photographs, including images from the caesarean birth of his son, delibertately dessensitising them through their extreme realism. Hirst explained he wanted the images to be like ‘newspaper pictures, factual and non-expressive’ (D. Hirst, quoted in S. Kent, ‘Interview with Damien Hirst’, Time Out, November 2006). Recalling the immaculate, hyper-real artifice of his renowned pill cabinets, Skull with Knives deploys colour, form and precision-engineering in order to confront the fragile boundaries between art and science and, ultimately, life and death. As he himself has asserted, ‘Art is the closest you can get to immortality’ (D. Hirst, quoted in S. Kent, ‘Death Becomes Him’, Time Out, November 2006).