For the love of Damien Hirst: Tate Modern hosts first UK retrospective

Diamond-studded skull to take Turbine Hall pride of place as economic crisis puts Hirst's career in new light

Damien Hirst's famous – indeed notorious – platinum and diamond skull will go on show in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall next year, in the first survey show devoted to the artist in the UK.

The work, For the Love of God, has recently drawn huge crowds at museums in Florence and Amsterdam – but has not been seen in London since 2007 when, at the height of Britain's pre-crash prosperity, it was sold (for £50m, Hirst claimed) to a consortium that included the artist himself.

Hirst, 46, occupies a unique place in British culture: the prime mover among a brash and brilliant generation of artists who emerged in the early 1990s, determined to be famous, unabashed by controversy. And, although he has had retrospective exhibitions in Naples and Monaco, he has never been the focus of a solo show in a British museum that would allow visitors to set aside the hype and judge the works on their own terms.

Over 70 pieces, a number of them room-size installations, will come to Tate Modern from April to September next year. But, significantly, the show will not include recent works such as the critically panned skull paintings he showed at the Wallace Collection in London in 2009 – described by the Guardian's art critic, Adrian Searle, as "a memento mori for a reputation".

Instead, the exhibition, curated by the Tate's Ann Gallagher, will mainly follow ideas he began to explore when young. "We did have to make decisions," she said. "We are concentrating on series established early in his career, not the series that began later." There will, she said, be at least one new piece – but it will follow the route of early series, rather than developing his recent experiments with figurative painting.

There will be plenty of familiar signature pieces, such as the pickled shark – The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) – and the picked cow and calf, Mother and Child Divided, in the version made for the Tate's Turner prize retrospective in 2007. Hirst's vitrines and pharmaceutical cabinets will be explored from their earliest incarnation: Sinner, a medicine cabinet he made in 1988 while still a student at Goldsmiths College. Also featured is A Thousand Years (1990), consisting of a glass box containing flies, maggots, a cow's head and an Insect-O-Cutor. It was one of his earliest works to explore mortality via living creatures as the flies fed, reproduced and were killed.

With a great deal of the work in the exhibition made familiar by media exposure, the organisers claim the show will give visitors a fresh perspective. "They are very well-known as images," said Gallagher, "but they have not been brought together ever before, and we want to show the unravelling and unrolling of an entire career."

Chris Dercon, Tate Modern's director, said: "We all think we know this work through the media. But if you are actually with the work, and can experience it, smell it, and I shouldn't say this, but touch it – it will be very different. There is a claustrophobic, congested feeling from experiencing these works … these are rooms, environments, which invite the spectator to interact. There is a kinaesthetic aspect when you are in the room with these works, seeing your own reflection in the vitrines. It is as if you are stepping into his laboratory of ideas."

One of the high points of the show will be the chance to see a two-part installation shown together for the first time since it was installed in a disused London shop in 1991. In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies) consists of a room lined with white-painted canvases with pupae attached to them. Butterflies hatch and feed, then eventually die. The second part is called In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays), a room in which dead butterflies are stuck to canvases, with a table nearby, on which sits an ashtray and cigarette ends – an early example of Hirst's use of cigarettes as a metaphor for pleasure and death. Visitors will be able to walk through the room with butterflies fluttering through it.

One of the fascinations of the exhibition will be the chance to reassess Hirst – who, perhaps more than any other living artist, is associated with the vagaries of the art market – in the light of what appears to be a new economic era. A recent world tour for the diamond skull was cancelled because of fears it would look "inappropriate" in the current financial climate, said Jude Tyrrell, the director of Hirst's company, Science. It will surely look very different in the uncertain London of 2012 compared with its sensational appearance in buoyant 2007.

The exhibition will also have a room devoted to Hirst's auction at Sotheby's, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, which raised £111m on 15 and 16 September 2008, the day before Lehman Brothers collapsed. It will provide a chance for visitors to reflect on an event in which art and commerce were intermingled in an unprecedented way – with Hirst "curating" the event as if it were an artwork in itself, and bypassing his gallery, White Cube, to sell direct to the public.

The Damien Hirst exhibition, part of the Cultural Olympiad's London 2012 festival, runs at Tate Modern from 4 April to 9 September. For the Love of God will be free to view in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall for the first 12 weeks


Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer

The GuardianTramp

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