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Flower power – is Damien Hirst blooming again at Frieze?

13 October 2023

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

To say that Damien Hirst’s paintings don’t exactly rival the Old Masters is, perhaps, a predictable platitude. Nevertheless, Rakewell found himself somewhat surprised while visiting Frieze London this week, not only by Gagosian’s solo booth devoted to Hirst’s soupy flower pictures – surely better suited to the mumsier sort of greeting card than to the home of any discerning collector – but by the fact that the whole lot had sold almost before anyone had looked at them. This new series, The Secret Gardens Paintings (2023), is a nadir for the once-exciting artist: straightforward pictures of straightforward flowers zhuzhed up, almost as an afterthought, by a final layer of Action painting-ish splatters.

Installation view of The Secret Gardens Paintings (2023), Damien Hirst, at Gagosian’s stand at Frieze London 2023. Photo: Prudence Cumming Associates Ltd.; courtesy Gagosian; © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2023.

One could almost wish that the onslaught of 1,000 lifelike snails by Patrick Goddard over at Seventeen Gallery might slime their way over, if only to disrupt the complacency of the whole affair. As Frieze celebrates its 20th birthday, the comparison between the increasingly staid Frieze London (so, which was your favourite VIP lounge?) and the equally staid artist so associated, like Frieze, with the giddy art world of the early 2000s, is almost too obvious to make.

Bouquet of Flowers in a Porcelain Vase (c. 1620s), Jan Brueghel the Younger. De Jonckheere Gallery

To restore one’s faith in flower painting, Rakewell suggests a tour around Frieze Masters. Horticultural highlights include Jan Brueghel the Younger’s Bouquet of Flowers in a Porcelain Vase (c. 1620s) at De Jonckheere Gallery, a wonderfully poised posy on which a pair of blue mayflies have momentarily alighted; joyous mid-20th-century pictures – also of bouquets in vases – by Zenzaburo Kojima at Nonaka-Hill; and the Ditchley Park Cabinet, a delightful confection of pietra dura flowers and parrots from 17th-century Florence at James Graham-Stewart Ltd. And let us not forget the real thing – the trip between the tents, where one can enjoy the admirable planting of Regent’s Park’s Avenue Gardens, comes as a welcome relief.

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.