Damien Hirst - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, March 2, 2023 | Phillips
  • “Beautiful and horrific at the same time, you can’t help but be drawn into it, seduced by it, but you want to run away from it.”
    —Damien Hirst

    Immersive in its scale and brilliantly shifting, kaleidoscopic qualities, Briareus is a mesmerising example of Damien Hirst’s Entomology Paintings. Refracting outwards from a central line of symmetry, vivid, jewelled hues of lapis lazuli, chartreuse, and jade shimmer and refract across its complex surface, its effects ‘at once delicate and epic […] the relays of mirrored and repeating elements’ overwhelming in its totality.i Appearing at first glance like highly polished precious stones, the dazzling visual effects created here have quite a different source. In an evolution of the iconic butterfly paintings first explored in his Kaleidoscope series, the artist started to explore the possibilities of expanding his repertoire to incorporate other, perhaps less straightforwardly ‘beautiful’ species. Composed of hundreds of different varieties of insect, beetle, and butterfly species affixed with Hammerite gloss paint, Briareus exemplifies the delicate balance that Hirst strikes in his work between beauty and horror, desire and disgust, and the very human preoccupation with life and death that continues to absorb the artist. Included in Hirst’s 2013 exhibition with White Cube in Hong Kong alongside examples of his Entomology Cabinets and Scalpel Blade Paintings, Briareus highlights the close stylistic and conceptual connections between these bodies of work.


    In the Gallery: Damien Hirst on Entomology Cabinets and Paintings | White Cube


    Although Hirst first formalised the Entomology Paintings series in 2009, his fascination with bugs and insects can be traced to the very earliest stages of his career. Following the legendary 1988 Freeze exhibition that Hirst curated while still a student at Goldsmiths in the short years before the phrase ‘Young British Artists’ was first coined by collector Charles Saatchi, the artist made controversial and sensational use of flies in his 1990 installation A Thousand Years. First exhibited as part of the pivotal YBA exhibition Gambler, the provocative work featured a severed cow’s head set in one section of a large, subdivided glass enclosure, an ominous electrocution device hung above its head. In the second section Hirst placed a minimal white box filled with maggots which metamorphosed into flies over the duration of the exhibition, passing through small holes to reach the cow’s head on the other side upon which they would feed, lay their eggs, and – inevitably - die. Visceral and brutally confrontational, in staging the entire life cycle of a fly A Thousand Years brilliantly crystallised the horror of our own mortality, and the brevity of existence.

    “There has only ever been one idea, and it’s the fear of death; art is about the fear of death.”
    —Damien Hirst
    As Hirst continued to develop these themes, he turned increasingly to butterflies as a way of drawing tighter conceptual connections between death and beauty – identifying the ways in which we put faith in the discourses of science, religion, and art as a means of trying to evade the ephemerality of both. Elegiac meditations on mortality and the fragility of life and beauty, his Kaleidoscope series emphasised the symbolic meanings that we attribute to these creatures and the extent to which the ‘symbol exists apart from the real thing.’ii


    Hirst’s interest in the intersections of art and science are well documented and long-standing, the artist having always ‘claimed the same privilege for art that science has taken for granted since the 17th century – to pin the natural world to a table, to dissect and examine it.’iii Lending itself naturally to the serial approach practiced by the artist and drawing conceptual connections with both Hirst’s Natural History series and his cabinet works, Victorian lepidoptery and entomology would become an important touchstone for Hirst. Combining a pseudo-scientific interest in order, rationality, and modes of classification with an emphasis on visual display, these fascinating objects imposed human order onto nature’s patterns, invoking a sense of divine order as much as the rationalising power of science.


    Weavil Specimens, Natural History Museum, London. Image: © Natural History Museum, London / Bridgeman Images
    Weavil Specimens, Natural History Museum, London. Image: © Natural History Museum, London / Bridgeman Images


    While Hirst’s cabinets are clinical, ordered and precise, the Kaleidoscope and Entomology works ‘suspend the capacities of visual-sensory resolution’, their repeating patterns and fractured symmetry drawing viewers instead into the territory of the Sublime.iv In the same way, while the butterfly works seem to speak more straightforwardly to ideas about beauty and fragility, the Entomology Paintings are more challenging with their incorporation of more abject material. Tapping into our primal fears, spiders, beetles, and insects provoke visceral reactions in us, a sensation that Hirst exploits to push us to confront the paradoxical nature of our existence and the fact the death is always embedded in life.


    If, as Hirst suggests, ‘science offers us immortality and religion offers us the afterlife’, art opens up a space in between the two. Tellingly, the titles of the Entomology Paintings are taken from phases and characters in Dante Alighieri’s apocalyptic vision of the afterlife, La Commedia, Briareus referring to one of the hundred handed, fifty-headed Hekantonkheires or ‘storm giants’ who sit outside the Circle of Treachery as described in the Inferno. Filled with all manner of insects, worms, and wasps, La Commedia takes us down into the darkest depths of the afterlife in order to reframe questions about faith, sin, and the foibles of human nature, much like the sprawling, monstrous scenes animating The Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch.


    Painstakingly beautiful, while Briareus descends through the abject underworlds of Bosch and Dante, it also returns unharmed, the insect carapaces maintaining their startling iridescence and form even in death. If, as Hirst has suggested, ‘science offers us immortality and religion offers us the afterlife’, Briareus shows us a middle path; even as we confront our mortality, we can still see the irreducible, 'optimistic beauty' of life.


    Hieronymus Bosch, The Last Judgement, Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna, Austria. Image: Bridgeman Images
    Hieronymus Bosch, The Last Judgement, Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna, Austria. Image: Bridgeman Images

    Collector’s Digest


    • Coming to prominence in the late 1980s as part of the group identified by collector and gallerist Charles Saatchi as a generation of ‘Young British Artists’, Damien Hirst is best known for his boundary-pushing sculptures of animals submerged in formaldehyde, and his sustained investigation of seriality, repetition, death and belief.

    • Works from the Entomology series were first shown in Hirst’s Entomology Cabinets and Paintings, Scalpel Blade Paintings and Colour Charts show at White Cube, Hong Kong, in 2013. Briareus, which was also included in this exhibition, measures over 3.5 metres tall.

    • One of the most prolific artists of the generation, his works can be found across the globe in public collections such as Tate Gallery, London; San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa; among various others.


    i Michael Bracewell, ‘A Glimpse of the Intimate’, Entomology Cabinets and Entomology Paintings, Scalpel Blade Paintings, Pie Charts and Colour Charts (exh. cat.), Hong Kong, 2013, p. 5. 
    ii Damien Hirst, quoted in Damien Hirst, I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, with Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now, London, 2005, p. 118. 
    iii Jonathan Jones, ‘Damien Hirst flutters around the cosmos on butterfly wings’, The Guardian, 19 September 2019, online.

    iv Michael Bracewell, ‘A Glimpse of the Intimate’, in Entomology Cabinets and Entomology Paintings, Scalpel Blade Paintings, Pie Charts and Colour Charts (exh. cat.), Hong Kong, 2013, p. 5.

    • Provenance

      Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner in 2012

    • Literature

      Entomology Cabinets and Paintings, Scalpel Blade Paintings and Colour Charts, exh cat., White Cube, Hong Kong, 2013, pp. 7, 36, 142, (illustrated, p. 37; detail illustrated, pp. 6, 34-35)

    • Artist Biography

      Damien Hirst

      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.

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signed, stamped with the artist’s stamp, titled and dated ''Briareus' 'BRIAREUS' Damien Hirst 2012' on the backing board; signed and stamped with the artist’s stamp ‘D. Hirst’ on the stretcher
entomological specimens and Hammerite paint on canvas
365.8 x 243.8 cm (144 x 95 7/8 in.)
Executed in 2012.

Full Cataloguing

£400,000 - 600,000 ‡♠

Sold for £457,200

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 2 March 2023