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. Within Hirst’s deliberate artistic lexicon, the butterfly has come to signify the soul itself, evoking both the ephemerality and the abiding joy of life. As he himself has declared, “'I think I've got an obsession with death, but I think it’s like a celebration of life rather than something morbid. You can’t have one without the other” (Damien Hirst in: Gordon Burn and Damien Hirst, On the Way to Work, London 2011, p. 21).
Butterflies were an early source of inspiration for Hirst and have appeared frequently throughout his oeuvre to date. Inspired by Victorian lepidopterists, who bred and organised butterflies by category for scientific understanding, he began to arrange the insects by colour and created astonishing and complex geometric compositions like Compassion that appear to transform kaleidoscopically from various perspectives. From afar, these individual wings resemble jewel-like tesserae in a mosaic; brimming with hues of amethyst, garnet, amber and sapphire, their iridescent surfaces reflect and refract light so that the entire canvas scintillates and transforms. Up close, the individual specimens become visible and a panoply of species is suddenly and poignantly revealed, as each wing among thousands serves as a reminder of death. This conflict between the destruction of life and the creation of art has become the most central theme of Hirst’s career, forming the basis for works like Compassion, and offering a potent if paradoxical celebration of life.
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