Damien Hirst's work explores the boundaries and interactions between art, beauty, religion, technology, science, life and death. The artist seeks to provoke and succeeds in doing so through certain processes that question the very nature of art. His most recognisable works employ elements that are already his own and that we associate with the name of Damien Hirst with just a glance. His intricate works with butterflies, his spotted works, his formaldehydes, his spins or his works with medicines and pills are already an emblem of contemporary art and, of course, a standard-bearer of modern British art.
Shortly after graduating, Damien Hirst began working in his Brixton studio on a series of works inspired by the flies that got stuck to his freshly varnished canvases. With the idea of creating something beautiful, Hirst swapped the flies for butterflies, the latter being fixed to brightly coloured monochrome panels with a glossy finish. This was to be the key idea behind In and Out of Love, his first solo exhibition at London's Woodstock Street Gallery. It was 1991 and Damien Hirst was on the verge of a meteoric career.
This exhibition was divided into two parts corresponding to each of the gallery's two floors. The entrance floor, In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), was particularly damp, with blank canvases hung on the walls on which were attached several butterfly cocoons about to hatch. In the centre of the room, the visitor could find a table with four bowls containing sugar water. Once the butterflies were born, they flew and fed free in the room until, attracted by plants strategically placed under the canvases, they were trapped by the primer and died stuck to the same place where they were born. In the basement, In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays), the exhibition featured eight monochromatic, brightly coloured canvases with dead butterflies stuck to a glossy surface.
In an interview, Damien Hirst explained what his exhibition consisted of and spoke of both spaces: "One has a romantic side to it while the other refers to harsh reality. What I'm not sure is which is which".
Although this was the first time the public was able to see the butterfly figure as the centrepiece of Damien Hirst's work, it certainly wouldn't be the last. According to Hirst, everything revolves around love, dreams, ideals, symbolism, realism, life and death. In Hirst's works, the butterfly has its own discourse, full of contradictions and uncertainty.
The butterfly raises many questions for Damien Hirst. For example, the real image of a butterfly is quite different from the idealised image we have of it from our childhood, so its symbol in isolation exists as if it was not directly related to the insect it represents. On the other hand, the beauty of the butterflies, which remains immaculate even once they are dead, creates its own discourse that questions our way of seeing life and death. In addition, the artist plays with the idea of a unique nature, as no two butterflies have the same pattern, just as no two people are exactly alike.
All these characteristics form part of the central axis of his work. The most important and the one that comprises others is the "Kaleidoscope" series, which the artist began in 2001 and of which he is still producing work. The different series of works that make up "Kaleidoscope" have this symbolism, which is reinforced by the arrangement of the butterfly wings, the colour pattern used and the title of the work in question.
In 2008, Damien Hirst created 150 works in a series he entitled "Psalms", in which each painting takes the title of one of the Old Testament psalms. The works, made with butterfly wings and household paint, allude to Christian spirituality and iconography through patterns similar to those found in church windows, an idea he had already worked on a year earlier in his famous series of limited edition silkscreen prints "Cathedrals".
Again in 2015, the artist turned to the figure of the butterfly to produce a series of works that have nothing to do with the symmetry and intricate kaleidoscopic patterns of his previous series. It was "The Wonder of You", a series consisting of six limited edition prints whose titles allude to those sensations that are transformed into the memories that remain when the person is no longer there. "Your Feel", "Your Smell" and "Your Touch" are some of the suggestive titles. In this series Hirst takes up his initial idea and shows hyper-realistic butterflies on colourful monochrome backgrounds.
"Mandalas" (2018-1019) would be the next great series whose star motif is the butterfly. This is a series of large-scale works in which Damien Hirst creates intricate concentric patterns made up of hundreds of butterfly wings. In contrast to his previous kaleidoscopic series, Mandalas refer to Eastern cultures and focus on concepts prevalent in Hindu, Buddhist, Jain or Shinto traditions.
Hirst's latest series, "Elements" and "Empresses", continue to use the butterfly to emphasise and dramatise the work. In the case of Elements, the artist plays with colour to represent Air, Fire, Earth and Water, and through the butterflies, evokes the ancient spirituality of the elements, referring to order and chaos and the way they balance the scales, creating a harmony that has been the cornerstone of philosophy, science and medicine for hundreds of years.
To date, the "Empresses" is the last series the artist has created, once again drawing on his beloved butterflies. Through the five works that make up the series, the artist pays tribute to five great women in history. All of them have only two colours: black and red, colours that appeal to death but also to love, royalty, elegance, power, passion and femininity. In this context, the butterfly has a special meaning if we pay attention to terms such as beauty, suffering, fragility or permanence. You can find all the works in the series available in our gallery here.