The Rise and Decline of Young British Artists

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5 Dec


The Physical Impossibility of Death - Damien Hirst

It is now almost 25 years since we first heard about the “Young British Artists”, a phrase popularly abbreviated to YBAs. Of course, the graduates from London’s Goldsmiths College who began their commercial careers by exhibiting in dilapidated warehouses and empty factories – most notably Damien Hirst in the 1988 Docklands exhibition Freeze – were not initially known by this term.

The term “Young British Artists” dates back to the six exhibitions, Young British Artists I to Young British Artists VI that were held from 1992 – 1996 at the Saatchi Gallery in London. Other popular terms in use for these talented young people were Britartists and for what they produced, Britart.


In the early days what linked these young artists was an aesthetic of using shock tactics, of a disregard for the use of traditional and conventional materials to create art and their vigorous multi-media work.

Leading YBAs, who became associated with clever manipulation of the media to promote their work and an ability to sell their work for unprecedented amounts of money, included Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Gavin Turk and Daniel Chadwick.

Britart was boosted, in the early days, by the patronage of Charles Saatchi, the famous co-founder of the London advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi. Charles Saatchi was already a noted art collector but had mostly focused on American and German contemporary art up to that point. His sponsorship of the YBAs became most famous with the exhibition of Damien Hirst’s now iconic The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a large tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a glass case.

The Physical Impossibility of Death - Damien Hirst

The Physical Impossibility of Death - Damien Hirst

YBA work has now become dated in the mind of some critics, with the anti-establishment pose adopted by many of its leading proponents being perceived as subverted by their wealth and their palatial residences, such as Damien Hirst’s Toddington Manor.

Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst (born 1965) is probably the most famous of the YBAs. He appeared in the 2010 Sunday Times rich list with an estimated fortune of £215mn. His most famous works are chemically preserved and sometimes dissected animals, including a shark, a sheep and a cow, as well as spin and spot paintings. Common Hirst themes are death, time and revolution.

Hirst first rose to prominence with Freeze, an independent Goldsmiths students’ exhibition that he organised. Freeze took place in a rundown space in the Docklands, and was visited by leading London art figures such as Charles Saatchi, Sir Nicholas Serota and Norman Rosenthal.

In 2009, Damien Hirst’s attempt to sell oil paintings – a highly traditional art – in his exhibition No Love Lost, led to frequent criticism that Britart had expired.

Gavin Turk

Gavin Turk (born 1967) is mostly associated with Britart sculpture. Some of his well-known works include Nomad (Red), Box and God Save Che Guevara, a silken flag showing Turk’s face transposed on the iconic figure of the Argentinean revolutionary. The latter is an example of a leitmotif in Turk’s work: the transposition of himself, often disguised, on the image of well-known personalities.

Turk’s early works were collected and exhibited by Charles Saatchi. Recent ventures have included The House of Fairytales, a community art education project undertaken with Deborah Curtis.

Author: Pierrick Senelaer

Founder of the Art-Pie site. I design and code websites and apps Monday to Friday from 9 to 5 and enjoy drawing, painting and visits to museums and galleries at night and weekends.

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