Sharks, skulls and merchandise: Hirst's first retrospective

AFP Relax News

British artist Damien Hirst this week opens his first major retrospective in typically brash style, with expensive merchandise sitting alongside key works like his dead sharks and diamond skull.

From Wednesday for five months the Tate Modern gallery in London will showcase the work of the enfant terrible-turned-multi-millionaire as part of a festival of arts which has its finale at the 2012 Olympics.

The exhibition, which opens on Wednesday and will run until September 9, features 70 works including classics like "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living", a shark suspended in formaldehyde.

Another major draw will be "For the Love of God", a life-sized platinum cast of an 18th-century skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds, which will be on display under tight security in the Tate's massive turbine hall.

But as well as seeing Hirst's artworks on show, visitors can go to the gift shop and spend £36,800 ($58,915 44,160 euros) on a plastic skull decorated in the style of one of Hirst's so-called spin paintings.

For £700 they can get a limited edition roll of wallpaper with prints from his butterfly series of paintings, a butterfly-print deckchair for £310 and a spot painting skateboard with signature for £480.

The 47-year-old, who shot to fame in the 1990s as one of the so-called "Young British Artists" rejected criticisms that he had become more of a self-promoter interested in making money.

"You get the Mona Lisa and then you get the postcards, the T-shirts, the mouse-pad, the earrings and the mugs," Hirst told reporters on Monday.

"One thing is the artwork and the other is getting it out there and I've always been torn between the two."

The retrospective has drawn mixed reactions from Britain's art critics, whom Hirst has long divided.

Julian Spalding, a critic and former curator who has written a book called "Con Art -- Why You Ought To Sell Your Damien Hirst While You Can", said the artist's work would soon become "worthless financially".

"The bubble that is Con Art blew up, like the sub-prime mortgage business, in the smoke and mirrors world of financial markets, where fortunes have been make on nothing," he wrote in the Independent newspaper.

In September 2008, just as the bank Lehman Brothers was going bust, Hirst made headlines when he sold his own work direct through Sotheby's auction house and raised an astonishing £111 million pounds.

But Ann Gallagher, the curator of the Hirst retrospective, rejected the criticism and said Hirst's work had long been interested in the relationship between art and commerce.

"I think visitors that are just walking in this exhibition and if they haven't seen any pictures of his work, they may be startled by some of the exhibits," she said.

She said Hirst's work focuses on traditional themes such as life and death, but is also "very interested in belief in value systems.... that includes science, it includes religion, it includes art, and also wealth."

Hirst, born in 1965, was brought up by his mother in the northern English city of Leeds.

He burst onto the scene with his early works including the pickled shark but his reputation in Britain has dipped in recent years, with criticism that much of his output is produced in workshops.

The retrospective includes not only the sharks but other animals suspended in formaldehyde in glass cases; a cow and a calf ("Mother and Child Divided"), sheep and fish.

Also on show will be "A Thousand Years", featuring a cow's head, flies and an insect-killing light element.

Works fashioned from medical instruments will be on display, along with rooms full of the famous spot paintings, in which Hirst demands of the painters in his workshop that no colour be repeated next to itself.