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Sad Steps - Life Fulfilled
£600,000 - 800,000 ‡ ♠
sold for £729,000
Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles
Phillips de Pury & Company, London, 10 October 2012, lot 19
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Los Angeles, Gagosian Gallery, Damien Hirst: Superstition, 22 February - 5 April 2007, pp. 100-101 (illustrated)
Monumental and glowing in its tonal transparency, Damien Hirst’s Sad Steps – Life Fulfilled envelops the viewer with a grand veil of butterfly wings. Exuding an endlessly seductive atmosphere of ephemeral beauty, Hirst continuously raises questions about the nature of existence. The relationship between life and death has been a central theme throughout Hirst’s controversial and varied artistic career, recurring in provocative works such as The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991. Echoing the design and form of stained glass windows found in religious architecture, Sad Steps – Life Fulfilled the viewer with a secular comparison, one that deftly intertwines religion and mortality.
Aesthetically mirroring stained glass windows, the present work, with its intensity of colour, subverts the window’s traditional function. Instead of allowing one to look through it, the work encourages reflection, acting as a visual metaphor for our own lives. Art becomes the means through which the viewers’ eyes may act as windows to the soul. The medium of stained glass is deeply rooted within the tradition of art history, from Gothic cathedrals, through the Bauhaus stained glass workshops to contemporary renderings, such as Gerhard Richter’s Cologne cathedral window and the more dissident work of Wim Delvoye. The present work exquisitely redefines the relationship between art and religion. Commenting on this relationship, the artist asserts, ‘There’s a hole there in people. In everybody. In me. A hole that needs filling, and religion fills it for some people. And art for others. I don’t think religion is the answer, but it helps. I use art in a similar way to fill that hole. It’s just ways of looking at the world optimistically rather than just as a brutal swamp’ (Damien Hirst, quoted in Damien Hirst: New Religion, London, 2006, p. 12).
Hirst’s macabre incorporation of butterfly wings is not wholly melancholic: ‘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, On the Way to Work, London, 2001, p. 21). The artist's exploration of mortality through the use of butterflies can be traced back to his 1991 exhibition, 'In and Out of Love'. The exhibition contained both live butterflies emerging from canvas-attached pupae, and monochrome gloss paintings in which dead butterflies had been fixed. Obsessively returning to questions of existence and mortality, Hirst provides a complex vision of death. In choosing to incorporate only the beautiful wings, Hirst evokes beauty through mortality. Sad Steps – Life Fulfilled focuses upon an idealised beauty separating our concept of the butterfly from the real thing. Hirst’s dead butterflies are a reminder that life necessitates physical change; the butterfly wings can only remain beautiful when detached from the mortal body of the insect.
Sad Steps – Life Fulfilled belongs to Hirst’s Butterfly Grid series. Titled after Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Sad Steps’ from his collection ‘High Windows’, the work shares Larkin’s poetical interlacing of the beautiful with the ugly. Just as the spectator is confronted by the exquisitely kaleidoscopic arrangement of so many butterflies, the underlying reality of the artwork's medium also becomes apparent. Exploring ephemerality, the lyrical arrangement of Hirst’s butterflies adopts a poetry of its own through this carefully constructed artistic vocabulary. The butterfly is foregrounded due to its loaded symbolic connotations. Symbolising the soul, the butterfly is representative of the Ancient Greek goddess Psyche, as well as representing resurrection in Christianity, Hirst’s choice of butterfly wings as an artistic medium emphasizes religious notions of transformation and mortality. The artist's preservation of the butterfly wings prevents their natural decay, enabling them to appear in an eternal state of crucifixion in a world in which the artist plays God.
Included in the exhibition Superstition at Gagosian Gallery in Beverley Hills 2007, Sad Steps – Life Fulfilled skilfully coalesces science and theology. The warm colour palette combined with the symmetrical arrangement of the butterflies instils the work with vibrancy. Such energy is only furthered by the work's playful use of scale; suggesting associations with both the immense windows of Gothic cathedrals, as well as the delicate beauty of an insect's wing. Hirst explores ‘the way the real butterfly can destroy the ideal (birthday-card) kind of love; the symbol exists apart from the real thing.’ (Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London, 2005, p. 118). The beauty and cruelty of the natural world is rendered manifest in Sad Steps – Life Fulfilled. Simultaneously grand and fragile, man-made and natural, stimulating and macabre, Sad Steps – Life Fulfilled exemplifies many of the tensions integral to Hirst's work.
British • 1965
There is no other contemporary artist as maverick to the art market as Damien Hirst. Foremost among the Young British Artists (YBAs), a group of provocative artists who graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London in the late 1980s, Hirst ascended to stardom by making objects that shocked and appalled, and that possessed conceptual depth in both profound and prankish ways.
Regarded as Britain's most notorious living artist, Hirst has studded human skulls in diamonds and submerged sharks, sheep and other dead animals in custom vitrines of formaldehyde. In tandem with Cheyenne Westphal, now Chairman of Phillips, Hirst controversially staged an entire exhibition directly for auction with 2008's "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever," which collectively totalled £111 million ($198 million).
Hirst remains genre-defying and creates everything from sculpture, prints, works on paper and paintings to installation and objects. Another of his most celebrated series, the 'Pill Cabinets' present rows of intricate pills, cast individually in metal, plaster and resin, in sterilized glass and steel containers; Phillips New York showed the largest of these pieces ever exhibited in the United States, The Void, 2000, in May 2017.
Sad Steps - Life Fulfilled
£600,000 - 800,000 ‡ ♠
sold for £729,000
London Auction 6 October 2017