Known for its relatively short life span and metamorphosis from a caterpillar into something splendid and beautiful, the butterfly is an embodiment of reincarnation, resurrection, life and death. There are many myths and legends in various cultures that employ the delicate creature as their central motif. The Greek mythological beauty Psyche is often represented in paintings and sculptures with the wings of a butterfly, as her later ascension from the mortal realm to joining the ranks of Olympian gods and goddesses finds metaphorical mirroring in the insect’s life cycle. As a young mortal woman of exceptional charm, her tale with Cupid appeals to audiences for its obvious themes of youth, beauty and love. The visual representations of their romance are often unsurprisingly accompanied by the butterfly’s symbolic presence. In Christian art, the butterfly is used to signify the Resurrection of Christ. From time to time, the young Christ is depicted holding a butterfly in paintings of the Virgin and the Child, emblematic of his future sacrifice as well as his miraculous destiny.
A perfect example of life, death and physical transformation from an unattractive cocoon to a graceful entity, the butterfly contributes towards Hirst’s artistic vocabulary - a theme of endless fascination for the artist associated with his Catholic upbringing. Furthermore, the fact that butterflies retain their beauty even in death was another source of aesthetic and symbolic appeal for the artist to maneuver this natural beauty into his art. As stated by Hirst: “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).
Delivering a vast expanse of shimmering red with a number of butterfly specimens firmly affixed as though accidentally caught in the sticky gloss paint, the present lot is rife with explosive energy. Set against the astoundingly rich red, the multi-coloured butterflies scattered elegantly on the surface of the canvas, as if they were flying freely in the mesmerizing red sky at sunrise. The forceful contrast of the riveting red and the colourful specimens heightens the compositional drama of the work, as viewers’ eyes follow the wings of the flittering butterflies devotedly reaching higher and higher towards the end of the sky, echoing the title of the work - Sky Love.
The distinction between the real world and that of the imaginary seems to have collapsed as the viewer’s gaze indulges and drowns in Hirst’s surreal painterly space. It recalls one of the best known anecdotes in philosophical literature by the great Daoist thinker Zhuangzi recollecting himself falling asleep one day and dreamed of himself as a butterfly. The philosopher woke up with the uncertainty of whether he was a man who dreamed that he was a butterfly or whether he was a butterfly now dreaming he was a man. While evoking Hirst’s endless fascination with the cycle of life and death, the butterflies also provoke the viewers to reflect on their ontological presence as they admire the bodies of the creatures in flight, immortalised through taxidermy which retain the essence of their splendid short lives even in their perennial death. By juxtaposing the industrial materiality of household gloss paint with the iridescent butterflies from the natural world, the artist propagated new life and beauty through brutality and mortality of his subject. The delicate insects dramatically outlined by the red paint exude an unparalleled beauty as well as announcing a celebration of life. One of Hirst’s most defining artistic innovations, Sky Love embodies the quintessential spirit of the artist’s truly revolutionary and philosophically rich aesthetic practice.
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