Damien Hirst vs. the Wallace Collection - Turner vs. the Great Masters

Just back from London. Saw two fantastic exhibitions: one was Damien Hirst at the Wallace Collection, the other was Turner at Tate Britain. Both reminded me that an artist's ego is as BIG as a house - nay, a palace, a mountain...

Damien Hirst is like you haven't seen him in recent years: back to oil painting. The stuff is neon blue on a black background, and the subject is familiar, skulls, geometric lines and the like. What courage! He's pitching himself against the whole of the Wallace Collection. As soon as you leave the two rooms dedicated to him, you are into the famous Great Gallery, overwhelmed by the Great Masters from the past. Did he think he was better than them? I kept wondering, and watching whether the crowds of tourists passing through would stop to look at his work. In principle, these are people keen to see the Wallace Collection treasures. Are they able to understand what Damien Hirst is up to? Those I saw gallopped through his rooms without looking...Did Damien Hirst really think he could step out of his contemporary artworld with impunity and show everyone how good he was? That he could convince someone who likes Caravaggio or Rubens?

Turner was equally surprising - and in the same way. In this very clever exhibition, you saw him like you've never seen him before. Gone is the Great Artist whose Art has broken all the rules, the Precursor of not only Impressionism but also Abstract Art, the Genius that heralds Modern 20th Century Art. Here he's shown fighting all the great artists from the past - Claude le Lorrain, Poussin, Rembrandt, Ruysdael, Watteau, Canaletto, Rubens - plus a handful of contemporary artists that he felt threatened by, like Bonington or Constable. So he pitches his work at them. He's out to not just emulate but PROVE he's better than them. And nothing stops him: he'll paint graceful young girls like Watteau or the Venice Grand Canal like Canaletto, or the raging sea like Ruysdael, or a lonely windmill like Rembrandt. He's out to show the whole world that he's better than everybody, whether past or present. God, what an ego trip!

But it doesn't work - not every time. His young girls have none of the Watteau grace, the seawater is nothing like Ruysdael's, his windmills do not fight the elements like Rembrandt's. But he's as good as Claude le Lorrain in his handling of exquisite golden sunlight - he's even better. And he's breaking new ground when he paints Venice. He achieves greatness when he stops worrying about being better than the others: when he is tearing at reality, deconstructing it, focussing on light, and doing it for the pleasure of doing it. His love of light comes through here and there, and those are his greatest moments, his real contribution to art history. In the whole exhibition, there are only two or three such paintings, but they are the proof of Turner's greatness.

The conclusion of all this? Ok, an artist's ego is a huge, monstrous thing. It often derails him, makes him do things he probably would not be proud of (if he were given the time to ponder over it). But is it bad per se? This fantastic ego prods him; it pushes him forward, it makes him try things he probably would never try if he were left on his own. So a big ego is an integral part of a great artist - and not so great artists too...Only time will tell how far Damien Hirst can go...
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