Written by Therese Möllenhoff
Damien Hirst’s series The Last Supper comprises 13 silkscreen prints that resemble enlarged fronts of different medicine packages. The series was first shown at the exhibition Art in Sacred Spaces in 2000 – a series of exhibitions where a variety of religious spaces in London were used to show art. As part of this exhibition The Last Supper was shown at St Stephen’s Church in Islington. The series can be viewed in connection with Hirst’s use of medicine packages in the medicine cabinets he began to create as an art student at Goldsmiths College in the late 1980s. These medicine cabinets were filled with different empty packages that were organised formally, inspired by the principles of collage, minimalism and readymades. With these cabinets Hirst took the step from his student works to the artistic expression that would become characteristic of his practice: the use of existing objects that are juxtaposed in specific ways to illuminate themes associated with overarching subjects such as science and religion – as does the series The Last Supper.
In addition to the references of the formal design to pharmaceutical aesthetics and the scientific domain, the silkscreen prints in The Last Supper also allude to a religious theme. Both the title and the number of individual works in the series suggest a connection with Christianity. The title The Last Supper refers to the final meal, described in the Bible, that Jesus and the 12 disciples shared the evening before the crucifixion. The 13 participants of the Last Supper are symbolically represented by Hirst in the 13 works of the series. As in Hirst’s later Apostle cabinets – among them “The Martyrdom of Saint Peter” (2002-2003) which is in the collection of the Astrup Fearnley Museet – these works represent those who attended the Last Supper. In Hirst’s visual presentation of fictional medicine packaging he has replaced the names of the medicines with those of different foods: “Beans and Chips”, “Dumpling”, “Salad”, “Chicken”, “Sausages”, “Meatballs”, “Cornish Pasty Peas Chips”, “Sandwich”, “Liver Bacon Onions”, “Omelette”, “Steak and Kidney”, “Mushroom” and “Cornedbeef”. The Last Supper is thus illustrated through a list of the most traditional dishes of British cafeteria culture. This can be interpreted as a reference to the simple backgrounds of Jesus and his disciples, and of Hirst himself, and to how food can serve as a signal of class distinctions. The combination of medicines and food also evokes associations with visions of a future when foodstuffs and nourishment might be ingested in pill form, as well as with a modern medication culture where the consumption of drugs has been normalised almost as though they were food.
On the prints Hirst has used his own name as a signature in a number of variants, such as “Damien & Hirst”, “HirstDamien”, “Hirst” and “Hirst Products Limited”, all of which are an amusing play on the naming structures of pharmaceutical companies. The use of the artist’s name as a logo in these prints can thus be interpreted as a commentary on the artist as producer and the ongoing interplay between art and the culture of commodities that pop art introduced into modern art history. The visual design and aesthetics of the medicine packaging in The Last Supper are also reminiscent of the style of pop art, which was, admittedly, transferred directly from popular culture and the commercial community, such as Andy Warhol’s (1928-1987) use of Brillo boxes, Campbell’s Soup cans, or Coca Cola bottles. The technique used, silkscreening, is also reminiscent of pop art and Warhol’s use of silkscreening in his artistic production. There are many references here to pop and Warhol; just as Warhol organised his artistic production in a huge studio filled with assistants, referred to as the Factory, Hirst’s studio Science has drawn attention due to its grandiose production possibilities. In addition, both have operated as artists in a field where the commodification of popular culture and the status of artworks as market commodities are constantly escalating.
Hirst’s version of The Last Supper makes use of the long history of portrayals of this final meal. But in his version the disciples are replaced by medicines, supplying an image of what we “believe” in today. The last supper is a central motif in art history and Christian iconography. Perhaps the most famous depiction is Leonardo da Vinci’s mural in Santa Maria delle Grazie from the late 1400s. This iconic work needs no further description, as it is one of the most well-known artworks in the world with which nearly everyone is familiar. This highlights a key concept in Hirst’s art: the power of art to play an immortalising role and thus function as something people can believe in and derive hope from just as they can from religion and science.