As private views go, the one for Damien Hirst's Tate retrospective this morning was just about the most thronged we've ever attended. At times the galleries in Tate Modern resembled the Sunday afternoon rush of an about-to-close, must-see-show rather than a limited access press viewing. Indeed, such was the sheer weight of numbers that a tour with curator Ann Gallagher was cancelled in favour of a few words spoken to the assembled gathered around Hirst's shark. Outside, on the walk up to the Tate Modern, an arts collective called Magma were protesting against um, "flagrant self promotion", which gave the approach at least a sense of theatre or of something about to happen. The absence of a lively question and answer session with Hirst however, (even Gerhard Richter turned up for the opening of his show - and agreed to be interviewed - as did Tacita Dean at her recent Turbine Hall installation) gave the event the slight air of anticlimax even if there was no arguing with the sheer quantity, impact and presence of the work itself. Three years in the planning it's impossible to fault the timing of this show. In Olympic year this will be the one art exhibition EVERY tourist visits. The gift shop is geared up for them with Damien Hirst skateboards among the many unusual items for sale. There are butterfly umbrellas for £195 and signed, colour spin print bass guitars for a staggering £10,000 a time. The Damien Hirst economy looks likely to make George Osborne a happy man this summer.
By lunchtime the quality nationals had weighed in with their reviews - most of those present admiring the quantity of work on offer while seemingly underwhelmed by its quality. Adrian Serle in the Guardian wrote that "the exhibition charts a great descent in Hirst's art, one that mirrors the ascent of his bankability and the creation of ever more decadent and overblown artefacts." "I have enjoyed some things – if enjoy is the right word for paintings covered in a crust of dead flies (one of which is here), but the returns have diminished with almost every show," he wrote. "Hirst may well think he is giving us what we deserve: an art of spectacle and the tokens of spectacular wealth. The show's last rooms are full of such things, among them a Carrara marble angel, whose exposed guts and skull are sculpted as tenderly as the feathers on her wings; a white-on-white spot painting whose edges are anointed with gold leaf; a pure white dove caught in flight in a limpid tank of formaldehyde. The cloying ostentation of these rooms is surely deliberate, but does not make one want to linger. Down in the darkened Turbine Hall, his diamond-encrusted platinum skull is displayed in a specially constructed black-box room. The theatricality of this is nauseating – or would be, if it weren't so silly and contrived. My problem with Hirst is not the money (Picasso made lots, and nobody cares), nor the vulgarity he has opted for, but his capitulation as an artist. He could have been so much better. It is an enormous disappointment." Sam Parker at The Huffington Post called the skull "an enjoyable moment of self-parody (one would hope) from an artist more synonymous with ostentatiousness than anything else," but countered this by saying it "does little to compensate for what goes before. Seeing the so-called iconic works is like spotting celebrities on Oxford Street. There is a momentary thrill of recognition, before that collapsing moment when you realise they’re just people," adding "Hirst takes one half-interesting idea and does it to death." Meanwhile on the Daily Telegraph's website Richard Dorment was a little more forgiving: "For reasons that I don’t understand, Hirst insists on presenting himself as a fraud who is somehow pulling the wool over the eyes of the public. And that’s a pity, because in Tate Modern’s full-scale retrospective he comes across as a serious - if wildly uneven - artist." The show opens at Tate Modern on Wednesday and runs until September 9. Check out our gallery of images from this morning's opening.