<M132/769 Skin cancer, light_micrograph_SPL.jpg>, 2006

Written by Susanne Roald

The painting “belongs to Damien Hirst’s series Biopsy Paintings. The abstract motifs in the series are based on digital photographs of thirteen different types of cancer and other fatal illnesses that Hirst found in the Science Photo Library. He has used the photographs as background motifs in the paintings, and the works have subsequently been built up as a mixture of painting and collage consisting of painted, blood-like surfaces, broken glass, scalpel blades, diamond dust, needles, fish hooks, teeth and knick-knacks. Treating the medical photographs with paint and textures results in works with an elegant combination of abstract and figurative qualities. The long titles of the paintings derive from the digital file names of the jpeg photos.

The point of departure for the work “” is a biopsy photograph of skin cancer. The photo was enlarged and printed on a linen canvas before paint in shades of red and pink was applied, and a rich texture was built up of broken glass and human hair. The final result is somewhat reminiscent of coral, minerals, the surface of a planet, or the internal organs of the body. But behind the visually appealing image lies a bleak premise that sparks a sense of wonder and reflection. Hirst balances the painting between something that attracts and something that repels at the same time, and describes the motifs in the Biopsy Paintings series as “completely delicious, desirable images of completely unacceptable and undesirable things.”[i]


Hirst continues to explore the visual form of expression in the works of the Biopsy Paintings series, along with fundamental themes of human existence such as life, death, uncertainty and love. The paintings depict fascinating surfaces, while simultaneously focusing on a potentially tragic and immutable reality. “” represents a painful subject in which Hirst confronts the viewer with one of society’s most persistent and emotionally fraught fears: illness. Hirst appeals to our emotions, and in this case the painting serves as a reminder of uncertainty, life and death: a memento mori reminding us that each day might be our last.

Although “” is a reminder of our mortality, it also indicates that hope and life remain possible. In its use of the detailed medical photograph of this form of cancer, the painting also demonstrates how science and medicine are in a constant process of development and improvement, giving us the hope of life and of being rescued from our (admittedly inevitable) death. The tension between opposites, in this case the duality of life and death, is a recurrent theme in Damien Hirst’s work, and can be recognised in many of his works, such as in the bisected cows of “Mother and Child (Divided)” (2003) or the two separated people in “Adam and Eve Exposed” (2004).

The visual execution and the content of the motifs in the Biopsy Paintings series demonstrate both a scientific element, through the use of medical photographs, and a clear reference to art history. The memento moriis a recurrent theme in art history, and has been used by artists for centuries. Skulls, skeletons, hourglasses, extinguished candles, flowers, insects and rotten fruit are often used as symbols of the transitory nature of life, and are subtly placed in otherwise painstakingly constructed works as a reminder of our mortality. This sombre message is often tempered by visually appealing elements, as we can see in Hirst’s works, including “”.

[i] Damien Hirst, cited in Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now (Booth-Clibborn Editions, Reduced edition, 2005), 21.

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