Executed in 2001 Damien Hirst’s It’s a Wonderful World comprises a magnificently stunning and pioneering example of one of the very first works in the corpus of Kaleidoscopic butterfly paintings initiated by the artist this very same year. Without doubt, these works represent the most beautiful and spellbinding of Hirst’s controversial yet iconic canon. Radiating with the celestial beauty of a stained glass window, the present work comprises thousands of individual and delicately patterned butterfly wings laid on a monochromatic surface. For each exquisite work in this corpus, Hirst uses the shape, colour and differing sizes of each wing to inform a captivating and intricate geometry. In the present work, the mesmerising symmetry of lapis-lazuli blue and gem-like yellow, orange and red tessellation confers an irresistible beauty that belies the shocking nature of the works’ construction – innumerable dead butterflies whose wings have been plucked and dismembered from their bodies and trapped within sticky gloss paint. With a degree of seductive power unsurpassed in the artist’s oeuvre, these works masterfully combine the Hirstian holy trinity of religion, science and death at the very core of a ground-breaking artistic dialogue with the sacred and profane.
Butterflies, both living and dead, have long occupied a position of the utmost centrality in Hirst's production ever since the early 1990s. Describing his formative interest in these creatures, Hirst explains: "I had them in my bedroom...I got wooden frames and nylon mesh and I made a huge box... I found out where you could buy the pupae and all that kind of stuff and I got them all. I got them all in my bedroom and I bred them in my bedroom. I remember it because it was so cramped. There was only room for me bed and the box" (the artist in: Exhibition Catalogue, Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Damien Hirst, 2004-2005, p. 78). For Hirst and his morbid fascination with death and decay, these delicate and effervescent insects bestow an unrivalled expression of the beauty and fragility of life. In 1991, a microcosm of this premise was transmuted into an installation for Hirst's very first solo show at the Woodstock Street Gallery– the seminal In & Out of Love. This exhibition was divided into two sections across two floors: on the upper level Hirst filled the space with hundreds of tropical butterflies and installed large white monochrome canvases from which some of the insects were hatched; whilst on the lower level, Hirst exhibited monochrome candy-coloured canvases upon which dead butterflies had been trapped in wet paint. The artist discussed this exhibition in interview during 2004: "I had white paintings with shelves on and the paintings had live pupae for butterflies glued on them. The pupae hatched from the paintings and flew around, so it was like an environment for butterflies. It was the white paintings upstairs. Then downstairs I had another table which had ashtrays on it and canvases with dead butterflies stuck in the paint... Then you get the beauty of the butterfly, but it is actually something horrible. It is like a butterfly has flown around and died horribly in the paint. The death of an insect that still had this really optimistic beauty of a wonderful thing" (the artist in: Ibid., pp. 74-83). 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 afraid 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).
Representing the very apotheosis of this early concern, the painstakingly created kaleidoscopic works, though ostensibly morbid, nonetheless broadcast a potent celebration of life. Encapsulating the awe-inspiring brilliance of a Gothic stained glass window, It’s a Wonderful World strikes delicate a balance between tragic poignancy and exultant splendour.
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