- Damien Hirst
- Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder
- butterflies and gloss household paint on canvas
- Diameter: 84 in. 213.4 cm.
- Executed in 1998.
Estate of Jay Chiat, New York (acquired from the above)
Sotheby's, New York, November 12, 2002, lot 58
Damien Hirst's focus on the cycles of creation and destruction, whether biological or aesthetic, takes numerous, yet inter-related forms. Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder from 1998 is a masterful example of Hirst's series of propositions that seduce the viewer into considering the larger issue of existence without becoming consumed by sentiment. While the concepts behind Hirst's work are complex, the object he presents is always fresh, flamboyant and magnificent - a contradiction to the intellectual agenda. This central contradiction in Hirst's work is nowhere better exemplified than in his celebrated series of Butterfly Paintings. In this series Hirst provokes debate on issues of contemporary existence and the viewer is able to make subtle links between the fragility and transience of life and the imminence of death.
The present work can trace its origins to a 1991 installation of Hirst's work entitled In and out of Love. One of his most important installations, In and out of Love comprised two separate floors filled with different colored monochrome paintings installed in the simulated environment of a tropical rainforest in which pupae hatched and their life-span from birth to death was spent within the confines of the space. The butterflies flew around the room, eventually alighting on various canvases. Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder is a sensational beacon of pure chromatic attraction. The perfectly round composition is peppered with an array of butterflies of varied shapes, colors, and sizes in a pool of bright yellow paint. The radiant colors of the real butterflies burst from the artificial background with a vibrancy that speaks of life and joy, as the butterflies become a hopelessly romantic emblem. However, the viewer cannot avoid the fact that these creatures are dead and lifeless. The butterflies cling to their existence on the surface of the painting; their fragility and tactility both blissfully celebratory and poignantly sad. Poised in the stillness of death the paint reinvigorates their existence so that they are somehow alive.
Hirst discusses his butterfly paintings in terms of love and beauty. The titles are less a comment on profound love and more a lighthearted expression of a greeting card message. The titles are at odds with the beauty of the butterflies, trapped in the paint and domesticated forever - perhaps a comment on man's need to capture beauty and keep it. The butterfly is a creature of legendary beauty and a traditional symbol of resurrection in Renaissance painting, as seen in Dosso Dossi's canvas of Jupiter painting a picture of butterflies. The insect's metamorphosis from cocoon to delicate creature destined to fly away is full of symbolic potential. Its inherent fragility and ephemerality makes their survival in the world miraculous. When asked to comment on why he talks about love, Hirst responds, "Because it seems so difficult to sustain. Love is realistic; desire is unrealistic. It's easier to blindfold yourself, change your girlfriend every six months and not look in the mirror than to live with someone forever and see change. Although I'm tired of the word Love, it's like 'God'. Instead of saying 'I love you,' I want to say, 'I'm delighted you're alive.' (Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Damien Hirst: No Sense of Absolute Corruption, 1996, p.116-17)
Hirst's butterfly paintings can also be compared to work of poets such as T.S. Eliot and Joseph Conrad, as well as contemporary photographers such as Cindy Sherman. Both Hirst and Sherman strive to show the beauty of horror and the horror of beauty. The caterpillar dies in the chrysalis, and is reborn as a butterfly. Yet, for all of this, the fixing of the butterflies onto a monochrome surface transforms the painting into a beautiful object. The dead butterflies are attached to a canvas of pure color, breathing life once more into the genre of Monochrome painting. Long seen as the essence of purity in art and the location for art as a form of minimized ritual with the power to heal pain, Hirst re-adapts it as a comment on contemporary existence. Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder sensationally recalls the ever revolving cycle of life and death with an image of heavenly beauty.