Embodying Damien Hirst’s ongoing dialogue with the theme of mortality, Sinful is a mesmerising example of the artist’s Butterfly Grid Paintings. In tones of turquoise, ultramarine, and yellow, the present work is comprised of hundreds of individual butterfly wings, each with a distinct pattern and hue. Arranged here in an intricate mosaic on the surface of gloss paint, the butterfly wings coalesce into a kaleidoscopic composition which appears to shift and revolve before the viewer’s eyes. The Butterfly Grid Paintings serve as a meditation on the intersection between life and death, exploring how contemporary society’s two dominant belief structures – religion and science – might negotiate this crucial juncture. While the butterflies on the surface of Sinful remain dead and utterly inert, their wings retain their intrinsic aesthetic allure, remaining intact for eternity.

Damien Hirst, In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays), 1991
Image/ Artworks: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/ARTIMAGE 2021.
Photo: Stephen White & co.

Hirst began the Butterfly Grid Paintings in 2001, their collaged compositions initially inspired by a Victorian tea tray the artist found earlier that year. The paintings investigate the Victorian fascination with the natural world and their reverence for the spectacle of nature and the unpredictability of scientific specimen. Inspired by Victorian naturalists who bred and organised butterflies by category for scientific understanding, Hirst began to arrange the insects by colour into a vivid mosaic-like surface. Some of Hirst’s most iconic paintings, sculptures and installations have employed the live or decaying bodies of butterflies, using the symbolism of the insect to magnificent effect. In and Out of Love, an early, seminal work from 1991, consisted of an entire room of live butterflies floating freely amongst pots of flowers and sugar. The elegance of the live butterflies was juxtaposed against the dormant bodies of dead butterflies, which were affixed to monochrome canvases as though accidentally caught in the sticky surface of the gloss paint. In the same room, Hirst applied a number of unhatched pupae to monochrome white canvases and over time butterflies emerged from the chrysalises. 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. In and Out of Love was to become the first occasion on which Hirst exploited the natural beauty of the butterfly in his ruminations on mortality, and the Butterfly Grid Paintings build upon the artist’s earlier existential introspection. Hirst himself maintains,

“I’ve got an obsession with death… But I think it’s like a celebration of life rather than something morbid.”
(D. Hirst cited in: G. Burn and D. Hirst, Eds., On the Way to Work, London 2011, p. 21).

Compelling viewers to confront the immediacy of death, Sinful is imbued with conflicting sentiments of anguish and celebration, tragedy and splendor.

While Hirst’s Butterfly Grid Paintings recall a Victorian obsession with nature and science, they also evoke religious iconography, imagery undoubtedly derived from Hirst’s own Catholic upbringing. The symmetrical quality of Sinful is reminiscent of the intricate stained glass in Europe’s great cathedrals, whilst the birth of a butterfly from its cocoon presents a lasting symbol of Christ’s resurrection. As an emblem of religion, death and rebirth, the butterfly has become one of Hirst’s most enduring motifs, one that encourages his viewers to consider the extraordinary – yet fragile – beauty of the natural world. As art critic and writer Michael Bracewell vividly summarises, “The viewer is confronted in each work by the physical representation, or its meticulously honed depiction, of those beliefs, ideas, conditions and institutions which shape the common basis of human experience. Morality, faith, medicine, religion, wealth and aesthetics comprise the principal themes and subject matter of Hirst’s paintings, sculptures and installations. The ceaseless interplay of these fundamental concerns, and their intrinsic relationship to the individual and society, are brought to life in works of the exquisite aphoristic refinement as well as graphic violence and sheer spectacle” (M. Bracewell cited in: D. Hirst, Requiem I, 2009, accessed online).