An elegantly constructed vortex of vivid colour and pattern, Tranquillity is an exquisite example of Damien Hirst’s Kaleidoscope paintings. Recalling the intricate forms and hues of traditional stained glass windows in their delicate placement of myriad butterfly wings, the first Kaleidoscope work was created in 2001, inspired by the decoration on a Victorian tea tray. Within Tranquillity, a vast array of brilliantly coloured butterfly wings have been placed against a base of household paint, forming a variegated mosaic in which the extraordinary beauty of the species is accentuated by Hirst’s highly accomplished decorative arrangement. Towards the outer edge of the composition, delicate tones of celestial blue prevail, contrasting with the vibrant yellows and blues of the inner circles creating successive auroras of shimmering iridescence.
Butterflies were one of the earliest sources of inspiration for Hirst, and have appeared frequently within his work throughout his career to date. In an interview with Mirta D’Argenzio, he recalled breeding them in his shared bedroom: “I divided half of my bedroom up… I made a huge box in my bedroom. It took up half the bedroom… I found out where you could find the pupae and all that kind of stuff and I got them all… I remember it because it was so cramped” (Damien Hirst in conversation with Mirta D’Argenzio in: Exh. Cat., Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Damien Hirst, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Selected Works from 1989-2004, 2004, p. 78). One of his earliest exhibitions, In & Out of Love, held in a former travel agent’s office in 1991, featured a combination of ‘traditional’ butterfly paintings (adult specimens on canvas) contrasted with pupae stuck on white canvas; bowls of sugar water placed near the ‘pupae’ canvases allowed the butterflies to feed and mate. The subsequent hatching and metamorphosis effectively served as a miniature illustration of the complete cycle of life and death: a theme of endless fascination for Hirst. The remarkable ability of a butterfly to still appear beautiful, even in death, was another source of artistic appeal: “Then you get the beauty of the butterfly… The death of an insect that still has this really optimistic beauty of a wonderful thing. I remember thinking about that”(Damien Hirst quoted in: ibid. p. 83).
Aside from the cosmetic connection to church windows, there is a strong spiritual dimension inherent within Tranquillity and other works within the ‘Kaleidoscope’ series due to the presence of butterflies, which, in Hirst’s highly developed artistic lexicon, have come to signify the soul itself. Despite Hirst’s appropriation of the motif, the association of the butterfly with religion and spirituality is a venerable one: the Ancient Greeks employed an identical word for ‘butterfly’ and ‘soul,’ whilst in Christian tradition the rebirth of a butterfly from its cocoon symbolises the miracle of the resurrection. The message is further reinforced within the present work through the circular mandala shape formed by the layers of butterflies, which appear to radiate outwards from the central loci of a luminous blue butterfly at the heart of the composition.
Despite the complexity of the work, Tranquillity is imbued with a strong sensation of calm and repose: the title appears particularly apposite when the idea of spiritual journey is taken into account, offering the comforting possibility of ultimate resolution and safety. The result is a work that invites mediation and contemplation, encouraging the viewer to focus on the extraordinary - yet fragile - beauty of the natural world. In a recent interview Hirst discussed the redemptive powers of art and his belief that art should be an affirmative force: “Art’s got to be positive, even if it’s about negative things… I think you can always apply art to life in a positive way” (ibid., p. 97). Ultimately, Tranquillity perfectly encapsulates these aspirational principles through its visually stunning utilisation of iridescent butterfly wings, eloquently capturing and celebrating a fleeting moment of beauty for eternity.
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