Written by Susanne Roald
The painting “Eulogy” is one of Hirst’s Kaleidoscope Paintings, a series of canvases covered with butterfly wings arranged in a variety of patterns. Hirst launched the series in 2001 with the work “It’s a Wonderful World”, and showed works from the series to the public for the first time in 2003 at the exhibition Romance in the Age of Uncertainty at the White Cube in London. As early as 1989 Hirst had begun using butterflies as an element of his artistic expression in the series Butterfly Colour Paintings, where whole butterflies flew about in the gallery space and attached themselves randomly to the wet paint on the canvases.
The butterfly wings on a Victorian tea tray served as Hirst’s original inspiration for creating the Kaleidoscope Paintings series. His motifs are constructed on the basis of concentric circles in which real butterfly wings, with their wide range of shapes, colours and patterns, are placed on monochrome canvases. The colours are exceptionally intense and compelling because they have been drawn directly from nature and have not been subjected to any chemical treatments. The result is hypnotic motifs that induce the viewer to study the intricate surface in order to discover constantly new aspects of the work.
The work “Eulogy” is executed in a lovely and symmetrical manner, and with its circular shape and iridescence it is reminiscent of the type of stained glass that is seen in the windows of majestic cathedrals. The use of dead butterflies in the work demonstrates something simultaneously beautiful and hideous, attractive and repulsive, fascinating and disgusting. By observing the motif at close hand the viewer can study butterfly wings as almost macabre details of something that was once alive, while at the same time we can examine beauty: nature’s enchanting handiwork in the colours, shapes and patterns of butterfly wings. The pattern of the artwork is easier to see from a distance, with a straight line separating the perfect circle into two parts featuring the same symmetrical pattern. Not a wing is out of place, and each side is a perfect reflection of the other. In a subtle way this shows the artist’s hand at work, and gives the viewer an idea of the underlying planning, preparation and execution efforts, and the great precision, that were necessary to create the final result: the magnificent work “Eulogy”.
Hirst created the works in the Kaleidoscope Paintings series from a variety of starting points. Some of the pieces are designed to evoke the splendour of the motif, and with titles such as “The Most Beautiful Thing in the World” (2003) Hirst is emphasising the idealised beauty of the butterfly. On other occasions he refers to Christian iconography, as in the 150 works from 2008 which he named after entries in the Book of Psalms (known as the Psalm Paintings series). Furthermore, some motifs have been copied directly from stained glass windows in cathedrals, such as “South Rose Window, Lincoln Cathedral” (2007).
The use of butterflies in the Kaleidoscope Paintings implies references to spiritual content and symbolism. In a historical perspective, Greek, Celtic, early Christian and Chinese mythology all regarded the butterfly as a symbol of the soul. In Greek mythology we find “psyche”, which means soul, as a personification of the human soul, and in the visual arts this figure is presented as a small woman with wings – like a butterfly. This forms the basis of the idea that human souls become butterflies in the period when they are seeking to be reincarnated. In Christian symbolism the butterfly is regarded as a symbol of hope and of the beauty and fragility of life: the larva symbolises our ordinary earthly existence, the cocoon symbolises the grave, and the butterfly itself symbolises resurrection.
Such underlying mythological, religious or spiritual references can also be perceived and identified in the work “Eulogy”. In the title’s reference to a laudatory speech, too, Hirst is invoking both life and death in the sense that such a speech can be used to memorialise and pay tribute to both living and deceased persons. This duality between life and death is a recurrent theme in Hirst’s artistic practice, for example in the works “I Feel Love” (1994-1995) and “Leukaemia” (2003). In the words of Hirst himself, reflecting on death as a component of his artistic expression: “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.”[i]
[i] Damien Hirst, cited in Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work (Faber and Faber, 2001), 21.