Over the years, Damien Hirst has faced more than one accusation of copying someone else’s work, with artists variously claiming to have created his diamond skull, his medicine-cabinets and his spin-paintings before he did. The one-time enfant terrible of the British art world has always denied plagiarism, although he did go as far as saying in an interview in 2018 that “all my ideas are stolen anyway”.
Now he is facing fresh allegations. His cherry blossom paintings in his latest exhibition, which has just closed in Paris, have prompted outrage from the English artist and writer Joe Machine, who says they look just like his own cherry blossom paintings.
“I saw Hirst’s cherry blossom paintings and, for a moment, I thought I was looking at my own paintings,” Machine told the Observer. “His [work] is so very similar to mine. But I was doing my cherry blossom paintings years before his.” While acknowledging that Hirst’s paintings are not direct copies, he argued that “the very dark branches, the powder-blue skies and the blotches of pink blossom” are too similar to be a coincidence.
After three years’ work, Hirst finished his Cherry Blossom series in November 2020 and the paintings will be exhibited in Japan from next month. Hirst has said that the exhibition’s subject matter was inspired partly by a memory of his mother painting a cherry tree in blossom when he was three or four.
But Charles Thomson, the artist and co-founder of the Stuckists, an international group campaigning for traditional artistry, did a double-take when he first saw Hirst’s paintings: “I thought they were Joe’s – and then I realised they were Hirst’s. If people see Joe’s work, they’re going to think he’s copied Hirst.”
He added: “Joe has made and displayed cherry blossom paintings since 2006. Hirst’s, in a similar style, were started in 2017. The overall appearance is similar – a structure of brown branches, vivid pink blossoms against clear blue sky. Both their paintings are not intended to be botanical studies, but use ‘splodges’ of paint to give an impression of blossom.”
Thomson has conducted extensive research into Hirst, who won the Turner prize in 1995 and made his name with creations featuring dead sharks and cows. In 2010, Thomson described him as “a plagiarist in a way that would be totally unacceptable in science or literature”, having published a list of 15 plagiarism claims by fellow artists in The Jackdaw art magazine. They included one from Lori Precious, who arranged butterfly wings into mandala patterns before Hirst. Her butterflies had sold for £6,000 against Hirst’s version for £4.7m.
In 2000, Hirst paid an undisclosed sum to head off legal action for breach of copyright by the designer and makers of a £14.99 anatomical toy, which bore a resemblance to his 20ft bronze sculpture, Hymn.
Machine’s paintings have been shown in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, among other venues, and he wonders whether Hirst saw his blossom paintings at the now-closed Tramshed, Shoreditch, where Hirst’s pickled animals in a massive vitrine, Cock and Bull, was a centrepiece.
Referring to Hirst’s admission to “stealing” other people’s ideas, Machine said: “It’s not a joke to me. He might be able to be flippant about it, but I don’t steal other people’s work. I’m incensed.”
Machine began painting cherry blossom as a response to his “criminal past”. “They’re a way of bringing beauty into my life.”
He spoke openly of a violent upbringing in which he was exposed to stabbings and pub fights from an early age.
He abandoned a life of crime years ago after becoming a father, he said. “No one ever taught me how to paint. It was my way of dealing with my own past. My involvement with art certainly saved my life. I would have ended up in prison or dead otherwise.”
Hirst’s cherry blossom paintings have reportedly sold for up to about £2.5m. Machine’s sell for up to £10,000.
David Lee, editor of The Jackdaw, said: “Where plagiarism is concerned, Hirst has a very long rap sheet. He’s even admitted to it, so it’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt on any new occasion. Hirst’s versions look as though he may well have seen Machine’s pictures and the idea lodged in his suggestible head.”
Hirst’s representatives were approached but declined to comment.