Death and darkness are in the air

    As you probably know, the Wallace Collection is a gorgeous and tasteful museum in London, famous principally for housing The Laughing Cavalier and that naughty painting by Fragonard, The Swing, in which a French girl with no undies swings in front of a French boy with no scruples. Most of the paintings on show at the Wallace used to belong to the king of Poland, and aspire to a certain lightness of touch. It’s a frilly sort of museum. Somewhere to buy your potpourri. Downstairs, there are Canalettos. Upstairs, there are Bouchers. It is not, therefore, a location to which you might usually repair to worry about death. At least, it never used to be. Until Damien Hirst took a shine to it.

    Ever since he emerged on the British art scene so noisily a couple of decades ago, Hirst has avoided painting. As he admits in the catalogue here, it was something he wanted to risk, but was too scared to try. Too many old masters were piled up against him. So he developed various mechanical methods of mass-producing pictures, like the dot paintings and the spin paintings. Or he got in others to paint for him. All of which he now recognises as avoidance techniques.

    Since 2006, however, he has locked himself away in his garden shed and gone for it. Mano a mano. Brush on canvas. The old-fashioned way. The result is a suite of skull pictures, officially known as The Blue Paintings, which have now been unveiled in two of the grandest rococo galleries at the grand Wallace, on the museum’s grandest floor, all hanging exquisitely on blue silk wallpaper.

    The Hirst show does not consist only of these spooky white skeletons on blue backgrounds. It features flower paintings, too. And a triptych with forest figures. But the skulls definitely dominate. Walking into the ring of ghostly visages, you feel immediately encircled, observed, threatened, like a civil-rights demonstrator who has wandered into the middle of a Ku Klux Klan meeting. In most shows, you watch the work. In this show, the work watches you.

    Hovering before you as you enter, the earliest of the boney watchers, Floating Skull, from 2006, is also one of the best. Picked out with dappled light, shadowy, half-seen, the glowing skull appears to be staring at you from inside a deep black hole. A real skull in a real alcove wouldn’t look too different. This un-Hirsty realism disappears quickly in the other 20 or so skull pictures that now gang up on you. Their backgrounds turn blue instead of black, bringing something of the decorativeness of a Chinese willow pattern to the proceedings. Blue-white, blue-white, blue-white strobes the show, relentlessly. And the ambition to haunt is quickly replaced, too, by an ambition to symbolise.

    Each skull begins sharing its darkness with a range of symbolic odds and sods that have been appearing in vanitas pictures since the 15th century. Lemons, for instance. They used to cost the earth, and would remain hard and firm and miraculously yellow until you peeled them. Then they dried immediately. So the symbolic message of a lemon in art is always the same: life is short, death is eternal.

    Hirst, however, is much too arrogant to leave all his symbolism to the past. Across from the glowing lemons you will often find a glass ashtray, with its immediate contemporary implications of smoking and cancer. Another favourite sign is the glass of water, which appears here as a kind of symbolic opposite of the ashtray. Both are made of glass. One brings death, the other brings life.

    Connecting the skulls to the symbols is a network of painted lines that form a wonky birdcage, in which the doomy bones sit and glow. These cages remind you, inevitably, of Francis Bacon. In the catalogue, Hirst happily admits his debt to those early Bacons from the 1950s, in which screaming heads on dark blue backgrounds set out to capture the psychic terror of the post-war years. Plenty of casual observers of this show will complain about its lack of originality.

    I found the overall mood to be strikingly un-Baconish. Hirst’s skulls are too impish and elegant to be properly doomy. Instead, I was reminded of an amusing vanitas that Van Gogh painted when he was a student in Antwerp, of a skull smoking a fag. Death is being mocked. Guffawed over. Not because the artist doubts its power, but because he has recognised something amusing in our futile attempts to cheat the inevitable.

    In the next room, The Laughing Cavalier twirls his arrogant moustache at us, and Poussin’s great reminder of life’s transitory pleasurableness, A Dance to the Music of Time – which gave its name to Anthony Powell’s momentous 12-volume rumination on the fateful interlocking of lives – can actually be seen through the open door. To make your debut as a solo painter in these daunting circumstances, while concomitantly tackling death as your lead subject, is to go against every grain there is. But that is Hirst for you.

    I have written in the past, and feel moved here to repeat, that when he, too, is dead and buried, there is a decent chance he will be remembered best not as the artist who put sharks in formaldehyde, or as the mass-producer of decorative spot paintings, but as the man who tore up the art world’s rule book. Which is surely the best way to comprehend this slightly demented but highly effective appearance at the Wallace Collection.

    If you pass a magnet under a heap of iron filings, the filings will, as you know, follow the magnet’s direction. Art, too, sometimes behaves that way. And seemed to be doing so last week. Three big shows opened. All three are about death or darkness or doom.