“The Vanitas concept stands for vanity of humankind and the brevity of life which is expressed in Vanitas painting by juxtaposing a symbol of life with one for death… The image of life seems ever more precious when it is shown to be fleeting.”
Like artists and poets before him, British artist Damien Hirst would explore themes fundamental to the human condition in his art. His works are among the most beautiful vanitas – dialogues about life and death, portrayals of beauty and decay side by side, sublime and gruesome. This is Hirst’s signature and preoccupation. Ahead of Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Auction (27 April, Hong Kong) we look at two works that capture that fleeting beauty and fragility of life, both confronting the dichotomies of life and death, science and religion.
One of the most thought-provoking meditations on mortality, Hirst’s 1996 work YYes, but how do you really feel features six skeletons hanging from metal hooks, encased in stainless steel-framed vitrines. Each of the skeletons level their empty-socketed gaze at passers-by, greetings them with what T. S. Eliot describes as the “lipless grin” of a skull. It says something of the artist’s macabre sense of humour. Yes, but how do you really feel is a predecessor of Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skulls. In this earlier work, he chooses not try to embellish or transform the skeletons to make the reminder of death more bearable or palatable. Hirst sets them against mirrored panels, so the viewer may see their own reflection alongside the momento mori. Although they are positioned side by side, the skeletons are separated and isolated each in their own glass coffin, giving weight to the wisdom of author Kilroy J. Oldster: “Death is the great equalizer of human beings.”
“Everyone dies in the same way: alone”
Hirst’s early work, along with the work of the Young British Artists (YBA) with whom he was associated, was characterised by the use of found objects, or what Marcel Duchamp called “readymades”. In Yes, but how do you really feel, Hirst not only continues in the footsteps Duchamp, but also follows in the lineage of Pop masters such as Andy Warhol and his serial works. Art historian Petra Lange-Berndt posits that the seriality of the skeletons not only functions “as an artistic strategy to counteract the model of uniqueness and notions of artistic subjectivity”, but here, the repetition of the skeletons is also a reminder of the universality of death.
Yes, but how do you really feel calls to mind Hirst’s famous sculptural vitrines such as The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Somebody Living from 1991, the tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde. Here, instead of the preserved body of an animal once living, the subject suggests the remnants of human forms hanging fleshless in an empty case. Yet the both the works have in common the distinctive sense of antiseptic coldness. The six plastic skeletons in stainless steel-framed glass boxes are presented as they were to studied in a laboratory or a museum, to be examined but not touched. The glass serves as a barrier between the living and the remnants of death.
“Hirst has long made eloquent in his art—brought to life, in forensic detail—the narrative and drama of our empathetic relationship between mortality and consciousness,” writes critic Michael Bracewell in the introduction for the 2008 landmark auction Beautiful Inside My Head Forever. Perhaps Britain’s most famous living artist, Hirst provocative works explorate the complex relationships between art, life, death, beauty, religion and science in his diverse oeuvre. Perhaps these concepts are best encapsulated in his iconic motif: butterflies. His butterfly art established the artist as a household name, and has been featured in major notable institutions such as the Tate.
Hirst first began sticking the bodies of dead butterflies into thick layers of household gloss on canvas in the late 1980s, but it was not until 2001 that Hirst began his archetypal Kaleidoscope paintings in which the artist carefully sticks the wings of butterflies into symmetrical, visually pleasing compositions. Omniscience is a monumental Kaleidoscope painting executed in 2007, the year before he started his smaller-scale Psalm paintings in 2008. Here, Hirst presents us with a kaleidoscopic vision of hundreds of meticulously placed butterfly wings, set against a sizzling backdrop of vivid red gloss paint. Omniscience is a highly kinetic work in which the butterfly wings appear to rotate and shift before the viewer’s eyes.
“As a dominant element in the visual language of Hirst’s art, the butterfly seems to constantly assert its own weightlessness, where its life and light works as a conceptual and aesthetic counterbalance to the darker, ‘heavy’. Dense motids and materials that the artist has made iconic: dying and dead flies, skulls, cigarette ends, anatomical models, drugs and their cabinets.”
Symbols of life’s transcience, butterflies appeared in Hirst’s practice shortly after his graduation from Goldsmiths in 1989. He follows in a long line of artists – from Renaissance master to the famous Surrealist Salvador Dalí – all inspired by the butterfly as an ethereal symbol of life, death and metamorphosis. Appreciated for their beauty and mystery, butterflies present the possibility of transfiguration, or a transmigration of the soul. The flutter of iridescent wings, so delicate and otherworldly, reminds us of its fleeting nature.
In the early 2000s, a decade after his seminal In and Out of Love show in 1991, Hirst found inspiration for his Kaleidoscope paintings in a Victorian tea tray that was decorated with a detailed pattern of butterfly wings. The Victorian period famously had preoccupation with nature and science, when butterfly collecting had been a popular pastime in which captured species were displayed in cabinets or drawers, pinned in rows in a manner not dissimilar to Hirst’s butterfly art.
“This is ‘Omniscience’,” Hirst writes in a 29 May 2018 post on Instagram. “A lot of my butterfly kaleidoscope paintings are named after religious ideas because they always look and feel religious to me. There’s also something spiritual about repetition.” The precision in which the butterflies have been placed into the household gloss paint and the almost exact symmetry within the image appears almost machine manufactured, opposing the biological, natural essence of the painting—the wings of dead butterflies. Nevertheless, there is a distinct religious quality embedded in the work, perhaps due to its repetition as commented upon by Hirst, or perhaps due to each butterfly's representation of a soul.
The name “Omniscience” suggests the presence of an all-knowing power. The vivid chromaticity and luminosity of the work also recalls the brilliance of stained-glass windows particularly in Gothic churches. By appropriating the visual language of stained-glass windows, themselves indelibly associated with great cathedrals, Christianity, and religious iconography, Hirst has aligned his work with the symbolic and metaphysical concerns that characterise those belief systems. The fear of mortality and the aspiration to eternal life are central to religion; Hirst’s meditation on this desire is suggested by his use of butterfly wings rather than glass, as their presence necessarily implies their demise, yet their lasting beauty in his canvas offers another form of life. Omniscience is an outstanding example of Hirst’s butterfly work in its powerful exploration of the relationship between art, life, beauty and death – key themes that define Hirst’s artistic practice.