Combining an intense, stylish theatricality with art historical cues and contemporary materials and procedures, Hirst has achieved a unique synthesis of iconographical representations and scientific specimens. Suspending the art object between narrative and analysis, therefore, Hirst’s paintings and sculptures bear their closeness to life, encased as they are in art. “It’s a recurring image in art history, the butterfly as the soul […] Fragility. Mortality. The fragile beauty of life” (Damien Hirst in conversation with Sean O’Hagan in: Exh. Cat., London, Paul Stolper Gallery, Damien Hirst: New Religion, 2005, p. 10). Wings spread, as if mid-flight, there is a delicate majesty to the creatures of It's a Love Thing (for Anne F) that are painted into the monochrome surface of the canvas, delivering a tranquil reminder of the ephemeral nature of being and existence. Hirst has long since explored this frozen-in-time cycle of life, most notably in his exhibition In and Out of Love and in his 1990 work A Thousand Years, in which fly larvae, born inside a vitrine and nourished by the decapitated head of a cow, were systematically killed by an ‘Insect-O-Cutor’ inside the installation; a microcosm of the passage from birth to death. In the present work, this relentless rhythm is affixed at its end, the painting acting as a magnificent tomb for the fleeting insects.
Whereas Hirst’s sharks and cattle monumentalise the drama of death by their sheer scale, the butterfly paintings embrace a subtler effect, calling to mind the historical-spiritual intimations of butterflies that appear in the still life paintings of the Dutch Golden Age by the likes of Ambrosius Bosschaert, often as symbols of passing beauty and the resurrection of Christ. As Aeneas Bastian notes, butterflies are “a symbol of the human soul, they represent the resurrection, the path of the departed to God – they die so as not to perish” (Aeneas Bastian cited in: Exh. Cat., Berlin, Gallery Céline und Heiner Bastian, Damien Hirst: Void, 2007-08, p. 16). In It’s a Love Thing, Hirst preserves the delicate frames of the butterflies’ wings, casting their perpetual flight from life to death and beyond in a painterly reflection on existence. Bringing into play art, religion and science, Hirst’s Butterfly Paintings represent a sympathetic and elegant contemplation on existentialist themes, and the present work – with specimens of turquoise and orange composed over a rich umber ground – is an exemplary work from one of the most longstanding and iconic series by the artist.
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