Over the years, Damien Hirst has faced more than one accusation of copying someone else’s work, with artists claiming to have created his diamond skull, medicine cabinets and spin-paintings before him. The special one enfant terrible of the British art world has always denied plagiarism, although he has gone so far as to say in a 2018 interview that “all my ideas are stolen anyway”.
He now faces new allegations. His cherry blossom paintings in his latest exhibition, which has just ended in Paris, have sparked outrage from English artist and writer Joe Machine, who says they resemble 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 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 powdery blue sky, and the patches of pink flowers” are too similar to be a coincidence.
After three years of work, Hirst completed his Cherry Blossom series in November 2020 and the paintings will be exhibited in Japan starting next month. Hirst said the exhibit’s subject matter was partly inspired by the memory of his mother painting a cherry blossom tree when he was three or four years old.
But Charles Thomson, the artist and co-founder of the Stuckists, an international group campaigning for traditional art, did a double take when he first saw Hirst’s paintings: “I thought they were from Joe, then I realized they were from Hirst. If people see Joe’s work, they’ll think he copied Hirst.
He added: “Joe has been making and exhibiting cherry blossom paintings since 2006. Hirst’s, in a similar style, was launched in 2017. The overall look is similar – a structure of brown branches, bright pink flowers on a clear blue sky.Both of their paintings are not intended to be botanical studies, but use “splatters” of paint to give the impression of a flower.
Thomson has done extensive research on Hirst, who won the Turner Prize in 1995 and made a name for himself with designs 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”, after he published a list of 15 allegations of plagiarism by other artists in jackdaw artistic journal. They included one by Lori Precious, who arranged butterfly wings into mandala patterns before Hirst. His butterflies had sold for £6,000 against Hirst’s version for £4.7m.
In 2000, Hirst paid an undisclosed sum to avoid a copyright infringement lawsuit by the designer and makers of a £14.99 anatomical toy, which resembled his 20ft bronze sculpture , Hymn.
Machine’s paintings have been exhibited at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, among other places, and he wonders if Hirst has seen his flower paintings at the now closed Tramshed, Shoreditch, where Hirst’s pickled animals in a huge display case, Cock and Bull, were a centerpiece.
Referring to Hirst’s admission of “stealing” other people’s ideas, Machine said, “It’s not a joke to me. He might be flippant about it, but I don’t steal other people’s work. I am furious.
Machine began painting cherry blossoms in response to his “criminal past”. “They are a way to bring beauty into my life.”
He has spoken openly of a violent upbringing in which he was exposed to stabbings and fights in pubs from an early age.
He gave up a life of crime years ago after becoming a father, he said. “No one ever taught me to paint. It was my way of dealing with my own past. My involvement in art has certainly saved my life. Otherwise, I would have ended up in prison or I would have died.
Hirst’s cherry blossom paintings are said to have sold for up to around £2.5 million. The machine sells for up to £10,000.
David Lee, editor of jackdaw, said, “When it comes to plagiarism, Hirst has a very long track record. He even admitted it, so it’s hard to give him the benefit of the doubt on any further occasion. Hirst’s versions sound like he may have seen the photos of Machine and the idea lodged in his suggestive head.
Representatives for Hirst were approached but declined to comment.