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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

Damien Hirst’s ‘The Secret Gardens’ and NGV Triennial playfully bump still life and flowers to the forefront of contemporary art

To say Damien Hirst’s paintings do not exactly compare to the Old Masters is a predictable understatement.  However, scathing critics (of which they are many) suggesting Hirst’s latest large-scale paintings exhibited in London in 2023 were ‘surely better suited to the mumsier sort of greeting card than to the home of any discerning collector’ or similar, cannot fail to acknowledge the commercial success these works enjoyed, with all the paintings selling almost before they were dry.


This series, The Secret Gardens Paintings 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”, says the London-based art critic, Jasper Tordoff.


And while Hirst’s flower paintings may not rival the vibrant hues and delicate glazes of Jan van Huysum, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gough and Georgia O‘Keefe, they do arguably restore the often maligned art of the still life of flowers and fruits to the forefront of contemporary art practice, from its place as a lowly subcategory of genre painting.

Damien Hirst, 'The Secret Gardens' (2023) Photo: Muse Magazine


In a time when domesticity and what’s inside the home makes up the majority of what most people encounter in their daily lives, it is no surprise the still life - a medium that elevates the ephemera of everyday life, vintage vases, kitsch household ornaments and favoured table ware - is making a comeback.


In a sense this celebration of the ordinary runs counter to the still life genre, more often linked to mortality and death.


But such a comparison fails in my view to explain the recent surge of interest in still life and interior paintings, an interest that takes the genre far beyond the mere realistic depiction of bowls of fruit or crowded rooms.


Damien Hirst, Garden of Hope (2023)

Cézanne, the revered post-impressionist, once proclaimed, “With an apple, I shall astonish Paris.”  And while there can be no doubt of the 19th century artist’s innovative impact on cubism and beyond, his work was more often focussed on the more traditional formats. 


“Cézanne’s masterly career stretched from early self-portraiture to the quasi-baroque and Romantic stylings of The Eternal Feminine (1877), from nude bathers to effusive renderings of seas, forests and his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire, also  included the painting of over and over, gluttonously apples”, says arts writer Hannah Parkinson.

Paul Cézanne, The Eternal Feminine (1877)

Parkinson, at first dismissing this obsession, apologetically (or rather tongue-in-cheek) goes on to say,


“In fairness, Cézanne is probably the greatest of all apple-depicters: the surface light he captures; the colour transitions as the fruit ripens then rots; the masterly suggestion one is about to roll off the table.  He influenced and worked alongside other accomplished apple-botherers, such as Renoir and Monet and Manet (who called still life the ‘touchstone' of painting’).


Still life is foundational to art courses today, long after coming into its own throughout Europe during the Renaissance.  The emergence of a wealthier middle class, and with it a focus on materialism, as well as a growth in secular subjects over the religious, contributed to its rise. The parallels today are obvious.


The 16th century Dutch artist Jacopo de' Barbari is often cited as the artist who launched the explosion of still life with his ‘Still-Life with Partridge and Gauntlets’.

Jacopo de' Barbari,  ‘Still-Life with Partridge and Gauntlets’ (1504)

However, there is perhaps no better painter of flowers than Maria van Oosterwijck, the Dutch Golden Age artist whose use of chiaroscuro and vibrant colours produced stunning floral displays, as featured in the momentous exhibition, ‘Botanical Insights’ at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2022.


For these artists like so many others, the joy of painting still life was found in the exploration of form, colour and perspective.  


But for others such a proposition is erroneous.


So does still life lack an emotional or intellectual energy and intensity that is the essence of other forms of art, for example portraiture art?


If still life is to be considered a reflection of how we live, then why does most contemporary still life say nothing of how we live now?  Can still life hold a relevance when it omits references to our shifting consumer culture, volatile unsustainable existence or dehumanising infatuation with the digital world?


Does depicting the everyday simply remind us of a banal existence.

Maria van Oosterwijck, Still life with flowers and butterflies (1668). Photo: NGV


I suggest a fresh stroll through the National Gallery of Victoria Triennial will restore one's faith in still life and perhaps, more.


This year’s NGV Triennial features new works by some of the world’s most exciting contemporary artists whose art here sits alongside the gallery’s impressive collection of still life and flower paintings, from the 17th century Flemish painters to France's premier modernist Pierre Bonnard to the American surrealist Man Ray, providing the visitor with more than some relief.  


Foremost among the NGV’s still life collection is the painting by Jan Davidsz de Heem, widely considered the most important and influential still-life painter in the Netherlands, ‘Still life with fruit' (c1640-1650) - ‘belonging to an iconographic type invented by him: the pronkstilleven, or sumptuous still life’.

According to the NGV exhibition notes, “This popular type of painting enlivened the rooms of many Netherlandish homes.  De Heem’s technical brilliance gives the work a seductive realism. With the exception of the cherries, all the luscious fruits are from the autumn harvest, richly celebrated in this superb painting”.

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Still life with fruit (c1640-1650) Photo: NGV


The Flemish artist Jean François van Dael started out painting portraits, decorative and religious subjects, but his career changed direction when he met the flower painter Gerard van Spaendonck in Paris, and became his best pupil. Van Dael’s glowing and minutely finished nature studies were greatly admired by Napoleon’s consorts, Joséphine and Marie Louise.

In 1810 the Louvre director Vivant-Denon wrote to the emperor of Fleming’s peerless talent: ‘As for the art of painting animals flower and fruit … Redouté and van Dael have matched the ancient Flemish painters Berghem, van der Does and van Huysum and surpassed all the others’. 

 Jean-Francois van DAEL, Flowerpiece (1811) on display at NGV Triennial

This wonderous exhibition succeeds in no small part for its skilled juxtaposition of art from bygone eras with contemporary works at first glance of apparent jarring contradiction. 

Big, bold, lit installations feature prominently alongside the darkened tonal masterworks of past centuries.


Surrounded by still life and flower paintings, Flora Yukhnovich’s (b1990)Taste of a Poison Paradise’ on level 2 of the NGV takes its name from the 2003 Britney Spears’s song Toxic and draws inspiration from Dutch still life paintings.

Artist Flora Yukhnovich (b1990, London)

Installation view of Flora Yukhnovich’s A Taste of Poison Paradise on display in NGV Triennial

Acording to the exhibition notes “The painting’s explosion of petals is built up with layers of loose, nearly transparent brushstrokes applied over a period of several months. The effect is something between abstraction and figuration; a flower captured not in its perfect blooming, but in flux, suspended in the airless moment between two breaths.

Yukhnovich’s choice of flower painting as a subject matter and pop culture as a filter is deliberate. Both have historically been coded ‘feminine’ and, it follows, regarded as frivolous and low brow.

critical exploration of these subjects is a radical attempt to treat seriously culture previously deemed inconsequential.”

Azuma Makoto's Drop time in NGV Triennial Photos: NGV


Whether you're a fan of Hirst’s approach to art production or not, the artist's paintings must be applauded not only for their commercially savvy edge but - crucially - the way they make us think about the art.

Hirst has always had his ear closely pressed to the culture of the times, captivating the art world.

This latest body of work is part of a larger puzzle being pieced together, shaping our present-day understandings of the language of art history, the nature of the art market, and ultimately the cultural zeitgeist of our time. 

The renewed appreciation of still life and flower painting is long overdue. Or perhaps, it's ascendency could not be better timed.


Damien Hirst with a drop of 8 prints from The Secrets Gardens Paintings (2023) Photo: Muse Magazine

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia


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