Delivering an elaborate mosaic of red, emerald, amber and turquoise, the present work is a mesmerising example of Damien Hirst’s kaleidoscopic Butterfly Grid Paintings. Executed in 2008 and part of a series that began in 2001, this painting is rife with religiosity; indeed, the title of the present work – Soulful – evokes an act of spiritual meditation. As a larger whole the Butterfly Grid Paintings serve as rumination on the most important concern for Hirst – death as channeled through the two dominating belief structures of contemporary existence: religion and science. Hirst has unerringly questioned modern-day attitudes to mortality and the role of art in relation to these belief structures. In a recent interview he discussed the redemptive powers of art and his belief that it should be - like religion or science - 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” (Damien Hirst in conversation with Nicholas Serota, in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Damien Hirst, 2012, p. 97).
Aside from a cosmetic connection to stained-glass windows and the overtly pious titles bestowed upon these works, there is a strong spiritual dimension to the series owing to their use of butterflies. The association of butterflies with religion and spirituality is a venerable one: the Ancient Greek word for ‘butterfly’ is the same as their word for ‘soul’, whilst in the Christian tradition the rebirth of a butterfly from its cocoon symbolises the miracle of Christ’s resurrection. Indeed, for an artist obsessed with mortality and the comforting structure of religion – a lasting hangover from his Catholic upbringing – butterflies represent the perfect synthesis of life and death.
In 1991 In and Out of Love, an early solo exhibition held in a former travel agent’s office in London, marked the very first appearance of butterflies in Hirst’s oeuvre. The show took the form of an elaborate and ambitious installation in which one floor featured a multi-coloured display of high-gloss canvases with dead butterflies attached as though accidentally caught in the sticky gloss paint, while the upper floor was kitted out to function as a butterfly nursery. In this 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. Furthermore, that butterflies retain their beauty even in death was another source of aesthetic and symbolic appeal for the artist: “Then you get the beauty of the butterfly… The death of an insect that still has this really optimistic beauty is a wonderful thing” (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. 83). In & Out of Love was to become the very first occasion that Hirst would exploit natural beauty for an expression of ruthless violence. As stated by the artist in 1997: "You have to find universal triggers, everyone's frightened of glass, everyone's frightened of sharks, everyone loves butterflies" (Damien Hirst, I Want To Spend The Rest Of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One To One, Always, Forever, Now, London 1997, p. 132). Taking his cue from Jean Dubuffet who used butterfly wings in his 1950s assemblages based on the rural landscape of Vence, Hirst encourages the viewer to focus on the extraordinary – yet fragile – beauty of the natural world.
Representing the very apotheosis of this formative concern, the painstakingly created Butterfly Grid Paintings, although ostensibly morbid, nonetheless broadcast a potent celebration of life. Encapsulating the awe-inspiring brilliance of a Gothic stained-glass window articulated in the soothing pharmaceutical palette of calming blues and greens, Soulful strikes a delicate balance between tragic poignancy and exultant splendour.