HE may not associate himself with his home city much these days, but when Damien Hirst heard Leeds art gallery was looking to stage an exhibition of his art he was more than keen to help.
To that end curators there have been working closely with his studio in putting together a collection which is arguably one of the most exciting ever staged in Leeds.
And just to whip all art lovers into a complete frenzy, the artistic megastar is allegedly going to visit, even if it isn’t for next week’s launch event.
Leeds Art Gallery will host not only pieces of his artwork, but also items which could previously be found in Hirst’s London restaurant, Pharmacy.
It’s been a labour of love for staff at the gallery who’ve spent over a year bringing together an array of paintings, installations and objects from various sources.
“The excitement is beginning to really build now,” says Adam Ogilvie, the city council’s executive member overseeing culture in Leeds.
“The exhibition was always going to be a huge attraction but the team at the art gallery has worked tirelessly to secure further items of Hirst’s work.
“Now there’s the addition of the Pharmacy elements which have never been on display like this for the public to see for free. It’s just an amazing coup for Leeds.”
Now 46, Hirst was born in Bristol, but spent the bulk of his formative years in Leeds, attending Allerton Grange High school in north Leeds, before getting into Leeds College of Art and Design on his second attempt.
From there he attended Goldsmiths and went on to garner the support of art-mogul Charles Saatchi, leading the pack of new British artists emerging in the 1990s.
The breakthrough works – reflecting his artistic obsession with death, anatomy and biology – were unquestionably his selection of animals preserved in formaldehyde.
Probably his most internationally symbolic piece was The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, (aka - the pickled shark) which, remarkably, is now 20 years old.
Nigel Walsh is curator of contemporary art at the Leeds gallery. He’s been heading up the team bringing the works together.
“What we’re really keen to do is offer a really in depth view of Hirst’s work,” he says. “A view which is separate from his public image, because that’s what so many people think of when they think of Damien.
“He is almost as famous as his works and the two images get blurred. But if you look at his work in isolation then you often get a greater understanding of his thought processes and ideas, rather than getting them tainted by the notion of celebrity.
“It’s rather similar to the Henry Moore exhibition we recently staged – he was another mega famous artist who became as well known as his works, and many of those works were pictured in front of various glamorous and important locations around the world. But Moore was about more than that, and so too is Damien Hirst.”
The most recognisable installation to feature in this exhibition will be a sheep suspended in a glass case of formaldehyde, entitled Away From the Flock, which he created in 1994.
But there will be other hallmarks, namely spot paintings and dissected figures along with more random, abstract works.
The centrepiece of the exhibition will be five key pieces brought to Leeds by the organisation Artist Rooms. This is a joint venture between Tate, and the British and Scottish governments, bringing together and touring collections of important modern artworks.
Assembled by collector and curator Anthony d’Offay over a 30 year period, it comprises over 700 pieces, and takes the form of 50 rooms by 25 artists, of which Hirst is just one.
The idea behind the collection is to show individual artists’ work in depth, in one or more ‘rooms’ of their work, and to display them across the UK to as wide an audience as possible.
“And those five pieces really do give you a slice of Hirst’s progression through the years,” says Walsh. “They represent his evolution as an artist and represented there are all his central themes.”
Other works on show include a large cabinet piece Trinity – Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology (2000), Monument to the Living and the Dead (2006), large ‘butterfly’ painting and a spot painting from 1994.
But the gallery has worked tirelessly to boost the central pieces by borrowing items on from other collections, including Hirst’s own studio. Now they have more than a dozen artworks.
One of the most striking is Anatomy of an Angel carved from carrara marble, and He Tried to Internalise Everything from the Arts Council Collection.
Although many of the works date back almost two decades, Hirst’s recent work is also included as the display will contain A Poison Painting diptych from Hirst’s Poison series from 2010.
But what really makes this exhibition stand out is a
display featuring objects which could originally be found in his Pharmacy restaurant.
Walsh says: “When the restaurant closed everything inside was dispersed with most of it being auctioned off at Sotheby’s.
“But what was remarkable about much of it was that it was actually designed by Hirst himself, and even though he didn’t necessarily consider the pieces to be art in themselves they do have his hallmark look and themes.
“So we’ve tried to recreate the look and feel of the restaurant with quite a few objects brought together in one place, we’ve set out tables as they would have been and used the original wallpaper from Pharmacy as a backdrop.”
Putting an interesting slant on the works was part of the reason for the city gallery getting the centrepiece works in the first place. Curators had to bid to Artist Rooms and make their case, though Walsh admits it was “a bit of a no brainer”, given that Hirst’s work had never been shown in his home city before.
Nevertheless the added extra came in the form of a separate display by students at Leeds College of Art and Design where, aptly, Hirst studied. They have used works from the current collection of Leeds art gallery to reflect the themes and ideas of Hirst and his work.
But the big question everyone wants answered is this: will Hirst really be willing to duck out of his jet-setting lifestyle to take a trip back to Leeds? Or are rumours of a visit to the exhibition just promotional hype?
“Oh no, he has clearly stated to us at the gallery he might be coming up,” says Walsh. “Though indications are he won’t be attending the opening.
“And he hasn’t been reluctant to be associated with the show at all. Damien’s been quite clear he is 100 per cent happy for us to state he and his studio have been involved in a lot of the organisation.”
* Friday to October 30, Leeds Art Gallery, The Headrow, Leeds, free entry, Mon and Tues 10am to 5pm, Wed noon to 5pm, Thu to Saturday 10am to 5pm, Sun 1pm to 5pm. Tel. 0113 247 8256. www.leeds.gov.uk/artgallery