Written by Susanne Roald
The painting “I Feel Love” is part of Damien Hirst’s series Butterfly Colour Paintings, where real butterflies are fixed to monochrome, gloss-painted canvases of various colours. He began working on this series in 1989, after he had observed that flies became stuck to his freshly painted canvases. With this observation as his point of departure, and with the desire to create something beautiful, Hirst began to breed butterflies in his own studio flat in Brixton, and started producing his butterfly paintings in earnest. With regard to the use of butterflies as part of his artistic expression, Hirst has said: “I think rather than be personal you have to find universal triggers: everyone’s frightened of glass, everyone’s frightened of sharks, everyone loves butterflies.”[i]
The monochrome butterfly paintings are the earliest example of Hirst’s use of insects as an integrated element in an artwork, which would later become a characteristic feature of his work. The first time Hirst showed his butterfly paintings to the public was as part of his first solo exhibition, In and Out of Love, in 1991. The exhibition consisted of two installations. One, “In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies)”, 1991, featured a number of pupae that were attached to white-painted canvases and butterflies that flew freely about in the room and rested on the canvases. In the other, “In and Out of Love (Coloured Paintings and Ashtrays)”, a table in the middle of the room held four full ashtrays, one in each corner. On the walls around the table hung variations of the butterfly paintings, similar to “I Feel Love”, displaying dead butterflies that were attached to the canvases.
In the work “I Feel Love” we encounter a painting where 35 butterflies are placed randomly on the canvas. There is something beautiful about the motif, a kind of suggestion of peace and freedom that is additionally emphasized by the natural play of colour in the wings of the butterflies and the turquoise background. The painting also bears witness to love, as is emphasised by the title, “I Feel Love”. Upon closer inspection, however, this cheerful impression dissipates, especially when the observer notes that some of the butterfly wings are covered with a thin layer of paint. This gives the impression that the butterflies have flown towards the canvas only to be caught in the wet paint, almost as though they have struggled in vain to free themselves. The viewer is a witness to the result of an event that took place long before the picture was placed in the exhibition hall. The transitory quality of the butterflies becomes a symbol of the ephemeral nature of life, but at the same time they become immortalised through the painting.
Hirst often fascinates viewers with his reflections on death, whether he accomplishes this through the use of ashtrays, dead animals or chemical substances, in an attempt to compel them to assess their own attitudes towards death and those of society at large. As a whole the painting illustrates major themes in Hirst’s work where ambiguity plays a vital role, in this case where the painting expresses love, life and death, the beautiful and the grotesque, at one and the same time.
[i] Damien Hirst, cited in Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now (Booth-Clibborn Editions, Reduced edition, 2005), 132.