We’re all a bit blasé about the ‘Young British Aritsts’ these days, even a little bit dismissive. So it’s easy to forget just what a stir the exhibition ‘Sensation’ caused when it opened at the Royal Academy in autumn 1997.
Curated by Norman Rosenthal and featuring 110 artworks from the collection of Charles Saatchi, the show crystalised a key moment in the Brit Art movement. Its significance was not so much the art itself, with many of the works already well-known to the public, including Damien Hirst’s seminal ‘shark sculpture’ (full title: The Physical Impossibility of Death In The Mind of The Living), which was created back in ’91.
But it was the bringing together of so many key works from the YBAs (including pieces by Tracey Emin, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Sarah Lucas, Rachel Whiteread – the list really is a roll call of the key artists working in Britain at that time) in one show that made it important. That, and the fact that it was held at the Royal Academy, which gave both Saatchi and these artists, many of whom were seen as deeply controversial, the stamp of the establishment.
From the start there were protests from the public, particularly about the inclusion of Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley, which was later vandalised, and resignations from members of the Royal Academy at the decision to stage the exhibition at all. To former ad man Saatchi, all the raging likely seemed brilliant fun, and of course led to the show being a must-see.
Twenty years on, we’re able to see that many of the individual artworks shown in ‘Sensation’ have survived the test of time, despite predictions to the contrary, even if the longer-term careers of some of the artists featured, and perhaps Saatchi’s credibility as a collector, haven’t fared so well.
Of the most significant works, it’s impossible to ignore the power of Damien Hirst’s sculptures of animals suspended in formaldehyde, which for many remain his most significant works. A number of these were shown at ‘Sensation’ and it’s fascinating to see these backstage shots by Johnnie Shand Kydd of them being installed in the space.
And if you’ve ever wondered just what the works might have smelt like when being put together, the gas masks say it all.
All images courtesy of Artimage, artimage.org.uk