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Hirst tackles painting with nod to Bacon, Richter

By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters) - British artist Damien Hirst has made a reputation, and sizeable fortune, from suspending animals in formaldehyde and filling medicine cabinets with pills.

Now one of the world's most successful living artists has returned to more traditional territory of painting, and this time, unlike his mass-produced canvases covered in colored spots, the 44-year-old actually executed them himself.

Hirst has displayed 25 new paintings, mostly featuring white skulls on blue-black backgrounds, at London's Wallace Collection, a family collection of old masters housed in gilded, silk-walled opulence.

"It's quite funny isn't it? You kind of think you've done all of that formaldehyde work, and then it's a real shock that you're doing something quite straightforward," Hirst told a small group of reporters at the museum Tuesday.

"When I've got them (the new paintings) up in my studio next to spot paintings and spin paintings, they look kind of old fashioned. But when you put them here they look kind of contemporary. It's all about context."

Hirst was quick to play down comparisons between his own works and those by the old masters hanging at the Wallace including Rembrandt, Velazquez and Poussin.

"Rembrandt or Titian or Velazquez in the other room are just phenomenal painters," he said. "But ... art's all about making a comment about the world. I think today you can't have the same impact that those guys had so you can't really compare.

"There's too much going on (today). When they were painting there were paintings, there was no Hollywood, there was no plastic surgery, advertising, TV. We live in such a crazy world now I think a mere painting on that level doesn't really work."

DEBT TO OLD MASTERS, YOUNG CHILDREN

At the same time, Hirst recognized his indebtedness to old masters and more recent figures like Francis Bacon, the clearest influence on his skull paintings, and Gerhard Richter.

"That's why I stopped (painting) in the beginning when I was 16, because Bacon had sort of covered it all and basically I was making bad Bacons. But then through everything I've been through I've sort of come out the other side."

Even his children had an impact on his art, he added.

"Oh yeah. My mum once said to me: 'I've learnt a hell of lot more from my children than I could possibly teach them.' All children are artists. It's just that most of them stop."

Early reviews of the works, entitled "No Love Lost" and on display from October 14-January 24, 2010, suggest critics are unconvinced of Hirst's abilities as a painter.

"Hirst's paintings lack the kind of theatricality and grandeur that made Bacon succeed," Adrian Searle wrote in the Guardian newspaper. "At its worst, Hirst's drawing just looks amateurish and adolescent ... He can't yet carry it off."

Hirst dismissed the notion that by turning to painting he was trying to be "radical."

"I don't think it's radical at all," he said. "I've never really thought (anything) that I did was radical. People just say it's radical because they're shocked. When I did it I actually never thought painting could be shocking."

Most of the paintings on display have already been sold to Ukrainian steel and banking magnate Viktor Pinchuk, who held a Hirst exhibition in Kiev earlier in the year.

While Hirst is seen as synonymous with the contemporary art market boom of recent years, from which he personally made tens of millions of dollars, he said money was never his aim.

"When somebody looks at one of my paintings I don't want them to be looking at the dollar signs. I want them to look at the art."

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)

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